BRISTOL, Tenn. – The winner climbed from his car and immediately apologized for denying an underdog his first career victory. The runner-up, in tears over his near miss, was raucously embraced by the crowd for his oh-so-close effort.
Bristol Motor Speedway was a bizarre mix of emotions Saturday night after Denny Hamlin overcame adversity to chase down Matt DiBenedetto to spoil a Saturday night upset. DiBenedetto learned this week that Leavine Family Racing won't bring him back for a second season.
"I'm so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto, [crew chief] Mike Wheeler. I hate it. I know what a win would mean to that team," Hamlin said as soon as he exited his car. "But I've got to give 110 percent."
Hamlin was the first Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing driver to start from the pole this season, but his race was a roller-coaster that began when his car was damaged when he bounced off Jimmie Johnson. He later had a loose wheel and fell down a lap. At the same time, DiBenedetto had worked his Toyota to the front, leading for a race-high 93 laps.
"I wanted it too bad," DiBenedetto said. "I'm sad. Congrats to Denny, raced hard and I've been a fan of his since I was a kid. To be racing door-to-door with him at Bristol in front of a great group of fans — I'm trying not to get emotional but it's been a tough week and I just want to stick around and want to keep doing this for a long time to come. I am not done yet."
Two races remain to set the 16-driver playoff field and only nine drivers have locked in spots, so a first-time winner would have grabbed a coveted spot.
The crowd roared its support as DiBenedetto's interview was broadcast on the big screen.
"I have no doubt he's going to land on his feet, something better, and if he doesn't, all you car owners are idiots," Hamlin said. "Someone with that much talent deserves to be racing for wins on a regular basis."