Denny Hamlin has displayed a knack for winning NASCAR Crown Jewel races during his distinguished career in the Cup Series. On Saturday night at iconic Bristol Motor Speedway, where so much NASCAR history has been made since it arrived on the Cup Series schedule in 1961, Hamlin scored his latest major victory by claiming a third Bass Pro Shops Night Race trophy.
For those who are keeping count, of Hamlin’s 51 career Cup victories nine have been Crown Jewel races, including three Daytona 500s, three Bristol Night Races, two Southern 500s and one Coca-Cola 600.
When veteran NASCAR official Mike Forde introduced Hamlin’s winning crew chief Chris Gabehart to the media in the post-race news conference, he asked him to give an opening statement, “from your view atop the pit box, winning one of NASCAR’s Crown Jewels, the Bristol Night Race.”
Gabehart, like so many other drivers, crew chiefs and team owners who have an affinity for the unique short track that races like a superspeedway, gave a familiar answer: “Yeah, it’s not a secret, it’s my favorite race. I’ll go ahead and say it. What a fantastic atmosphere, just electric. It represents everything that is quintessential about stock car racing – short track, high banks, action everywhere. I say it all the time, what I love so much about this track is it shows you just how hard it is to drive these race cars. It’s amazing to watch these guys do what they do. My favorite track. Won another Bristol Night Race. Super pumped and proud of this team, no doubt.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs echoed those comments: “I think for our whole sport, if you ask NASCAR fans across the country, they’re going to rate this place as one of the absolute favorites, the place where they like to come. I remember all the way back to Dale Jarrett, I asked him what racetrack he liked the best. He said Bristol. The sense of speed. I think it’s really hard. It’s hard on machine and driver. For Denny to be as good as he is here, I think it says a lot for the talent of a driver to be able to come to Bristol and have success. We just think it’s a special place. Really appreciate something like tonight where we do run good.”
Hamlin, who received plenty of boos from the thousands of fans in the stands immediately after the race, said their passion is what fuels him.
“At some point I’ve got to realize that I’m probably not going to win the most popular driver award…They think (the boos) bother me, but clearly it’s having an opposite effect,” said Hamlin, who punched his ticket to the Round of 12 Playoffs with the victory and feels like his team is peaking at the right moment and this could be the year that they finally win a Cup Series championship.
“That’s why I love this track, it doesn’t matter if it’s cheers or boos, you’ve earned the right to be on that stage for that given moment, for that interview, or whatever it might be,” Hamlin continued. “It’s gratifying. I’m a person that feeds off that energy because I know my hard work has paid off… to just have the electricity, that’s fun. This is really a fun moment in sports. It’s really fun in NASCAR to have that many passionate fans one way or another. It’s good for the sport.”
DALE JR. RIDES AGAIN: Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was more nervous before last Friday’s Food City 300 than he had been at any time in his career as a race car driver.
First, he wondered if he still had what it takes to master Bristol’s all-concrete high banks. Then he had some anxiety about the number of Xfinity Series cars trying to qualify for the race. He said he had never posted a DNQ and didn’t want to start now.
His questions were quickly answered though, as he qualified 15th in his sleek looking blue and yellow No. 88 Hellmann’s Mayonnaise Chevy. Then he gave fans quite a show in the race, as the NASCAR Hall of Famer turned back the clock by leading and running in the top five for most of the night before an electrical fire with 29 laps to go forced him to park his car early. His 30th place finish didn’t tell the whole story.
“I just know one thing — I didn’t cause no problems tonight for nobody,” Earnhardt Jr. said with a smile. “That was a big deal for me. I didn’t wanna come in here and screw up somebody’s championship. Everybody would be like, ‘That damn Junior don’t need to be out there.'”
He didn’t have much time to be dejected about his final finish position because after a quick trip to the care center to examine his right heel and lower leg, he had to put his team owner hat on and was quickly whisked away on the winning car of Justin Allgaier to celebrate with his JRM teammates in Bristol’s unique elevated Victory Lane. He literally climbed aboard Allgaier’s red No. 7 JRM Chevy and rode up the ramp while hanging on to the window and roof of the car.
“I’m real happy for Justin,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Winning at Bristol is such an amazing accomplishment for any driver. This kind of ranks up there with Darlington in terms of being a driver’s race track. You’ve got to be tough and move around and defense and be on the offense and gotta (have your) head on a swivel out there. All the good drivers seem to do well and figure this place out. It’s not a place where you get any flukes. Proud for him.”
The final stats will show that Earnhardt Jr. led 47 laps of the race and was in the top three for most of the race, sending whispers all through the facility: “Could Dale Jr. actually win this race tonight?” The entire Colosseum was buzzing about an Earnhardt victory. But alas, it wasn’t to be.
“We had a positive wire short up in the top of the dash, and the casing on the wire melted down onto the leg brace and caught the foam in the leg brace and the cloth cover of the leg brace on fire, so it burnt the leg off my uniform,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was like another lap, and I was probably gonna be blistered up. But, no burns on my leg. Just barely escaped. I was disappointed to have to get out. We were gonna run fourth or better.”
NIGHT RACE NATIONAL ANTHEM TRADITION IS SO SPECIAL: One of the special traditions of the Bass Pro Shops Night Race is the annual National Anthem performance by the Motor Racing Outreach children’s choir. The group of children have sang the anthem to kick off the Night Race since 2002 and a host of drivers’ children have been members of the group. Some of those children who have participated over the years are all grown up and are racers now themselves, including Jeb Burton, Harrison Burton, Chase Elliott, John Hunter Nemechek and Todd Gilliland, to name a few. Drivers whose children are currently in the choir and performed on Saturday are Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell and Joey Logano, among others.
BMS NEIGHBORHOOD HEROES HAS BIG ORANGE FLAVOR: BMS honored eight Neighborhood Heroes on Saturday during pre-race ceremonies and of the five who were present to walk across the stage and wave to fans included Sullivan County Sherriff’s Officers Rick Rumley and Jacob Hulse and three University of Tennessee Volunteer athletes who attended high schools in communities around Bristol Motor Speedway, including Lady Vol Softball player Camryn Sarvis and Volunteer Baseball players Kirby Connell and Colby Backus. Three of the honorees were from the football realm and were not able to attend the race festivities due to prior gridiron commitments, including Tennessee State University head football coach Eddie George and Vol linemen Dayne Davis and Austin Lewis.
Each year during America's Night Race the BMS Neighborhood Heroes program recognizes first responders, military members, educators, athletes and others in our regional communities who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in their professions to make significant impacts in the lives of others.
DALE JR. SCHOLARSHIP WINNERS GET TO MEET THE LEGEND: There were more than 170 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Scholarship applicants this year and the committee was able to narrow the list down to six finalists where ultimately two winners were selected. The winners, Caleb Kent of nearby Happy Valley High School in Watauga, Tenn., and Jamie Sullivan of the University of Northwestern Ohio, were the winners and were recognized and presented plaques on Friday during pre-race ceremonies for the Food City 300, which Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a participant. Following the presentation, the two winners were able to meet Dale Jr. and get a quick photo with the NASCAR Hall of Famer for which the scholarship is named.
Kent, who has his own motorsports podcast and is a part of the announcing team for both football and basketball at Elizabethton High School, plans to pursue a career in broadcasting. He was able to meet and spend some time with NASCAR journalists Jeff Gluck and Bob Pockrass in the BMS Media Center prior to receiving his award.
Sullivan, a Florida native who lives in the Charlotte area, is also wanting to pursue a career in marketing and communications in professional motorsports. She is already a Monster Truck driver and has worked on a pit crew for an ARCA team.