BRISTOL, Tenn. - The mayhem was back at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night as Denny Hamlin claimed an Irwin Tools Night Race marred by crashes, acrimony and temper tantrums.
Some expected it. Some thought the bizarre changes in the track - at Speedway
Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith's behest, the .533-mile track had its upper lanes of concrete ground and leveled - would have little effect.
What materialized was a slightly amended return to the Bristol of yore, the exception being the track's desirable lane through the turns moving from the bottom to the middle. The high lane lost its relevance, and repeated crashes occurred as a consequence of the changes.
Hamlin's victory was a bit of a surprise in that he had finished better than 19th only once in his previous five races at BMS. It was his first victory at the track and 20th of his Sprint Cup career.
"It's Bristol -- I don't know what to say, man," Hamlin said as he crossed the finish line. "I'm so damn happy."
Hamlin beat Jimmie Johnson to the finish line, followed by Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose.
Even though he finished 19th Saturday, current points leader Greg Biffle still clinched a berth in the Chase, as did Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Matt Kenseth also clinched at least a wild card berth.
The race was contested on a slightly reconfigured racing surface, as the top part of the high-banked race track was ground down two degrees by track owner Bruton Smith to bring back some of the old feel and competition of the former racing surface, which was reconfigured and repaved in 2008.
"It's just a different kind of racing," said Hamlin, who won the 20th Cup race of his career. "There's nothing (Smith is) going to do that's going to make us run the bottom, if that's not the fastest way around the track. But it was the same thing -- we were all running in a line. You're just waiting for the next guy to screw up to get around (him).
"That's what we had to do with the old Bristol, and that's exactly how we had to race today. The slide job was an option to pass, which won us the race. I don't think we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn't see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol. You just saw a bunch of cars in line, waiting for someone to get knocked out of the way or to mess up."
Gordon helped his quest to make the Chase immensely with his third-place finish. Still, he has to finish in similar fashion in the next two races and hope he's able to sneak in as a wild-card entry. If not, Gordon will miss the Chase for only the second time in what will be its nine-year existence.
"The pace was fast," said Gordon, who inched closer to a wild-card spot in the Chase but still trails Kyle Busch by 16 points for the second of two positions. "You'd fly up around the top like that with all that rubber down. . . . It was fast, and it was intense.
"The only way you could pass was to just dive on in there and slide-job the guy, and sometimes you don't complete that. And when you don't complete that, it definitely will get you frustrated and (you) lose positions, and if you hit the guy, it's going to fire him up."
By earning his third win of the season, Hamlin all but assured that he will make the upcoming 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Two qualifying races remain to make the 12-driver Chase: next Sunday at Atlanta and Saturday, Sept. 8 at Richmond.
Danica Patrick's night - she was on the lead lap, though she had been lapped twice and restored by rule - ended on lap 435 in a crash that wasn't of her making. Regan Smith's Chevy tapped hers off turn four and Patrick's fluorescent green Chevy skidded into the pit wall at a severe angle. She walked away and seemed to consider emulating her owner, Stewart, by throwing her helmet. She opted to point a finger at Smith's car instead.
Stewart, by the way, had bounced his helmet off Matt Kenseth's Ford after the two tangled earlier while battling for the lead.
Two surprises began the race. First, the unheralded pole winner, Casey Mears (who had assumed that spot based on practice speeds), led the first 10 laps under green-flag conditions, keeping first Brad Keselowski and then Joey Logano at bay. Second, a tap from the Toyota of Jason Leffler sent the Chevy of Ken Schrader spinning on the 10th lap. Neither had been expected to race so fiercely, or, for that matter, even hang around for very long.
It was actually 28 laps until Logano finally managed to slip past Mears' Ford, which then set an effective pick that enabled Logano to speed away. It took 40 laps for first Aric Almirola and then Jeff Burton to get past the tenacious Mears.
Danica Patrick's Chevy succumbed to leader Logano on lap 51, falling a lap down in 37th position. A sterner test was Patrick's teammate - and reigning Sprint Cup champion - Tony Stewart, who kept Logano occupied until the 73rd lap.
Debris - a tire chunk in turn two - produced the second yellow flag at lap 82. Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. received pit-road speeding penalties during the pit-stop sequence that followed.
Kasey Kahne took up the chase of Logano, ousting Burton from second on lap 95. He took the lead on lap 106.
A series of pseudo-crashes involving Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and David Ragan led to the third yellow flag at lap 122. The specific reason was Busch's spin after contact with Hornish, but Busch's Chevy was, by that time, barely track-worthy. He returned, however, after minor repairs.
Meanwhile, Juan Pablo Montoya moved up to third behind Kahne and Logano.
The leader then lost a lap. Another caution occurred when an apparent broken oil line caused Ragan's Ford to briefly burst into flames. Kahne's Chevy apparently hit the oil and hit the wall a glancing blow. When the action resumed on lap 158, Logano led, followed by Jeff Gordon.
A crash involving Burton and Ryan Newman brought out yet another yellow flag at lap 190. By remaining on the track while those in front of him pitted, Dale Earnhardt Jr. assumed the lead, but Denny Hamlin succeeded him on lap 219. Aric Almirola's Ford crashed in turn two on lap 224.