BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Denny Hamlin spoiled Matt DiBenedetto’s shot at his first career victory — just days after DiBenedetto learned he’d been fired — with a late pass Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
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 of Jimmie Johnson. He later had a loose wheel, fell down a lap and seemed out of contention for his second career victory at Bristol.
At the same time, DiBenedetto was working his way toward the front and put his Toyota out front for a race-high 93 laps. Leavine Family Racing told him earlier this week he won’t be back for a second season, and a win Saturday night would have been ultimate redemption.
It would have put DiBenedetto into the playoffs and shown he’s truly a victim of the logjam of talent at Joe Gibbs Racing. Leavine is a Gibbs partner, and Gibbs needs DiBenedetto’s seat next year to promote Christopher Bell from the Xfinity Series.
Hamlin and DiBenedetto raced side by side for several laps before Hamlin completed the decisive late pass and sealed his fourth victory of the season.
DiBenedetto was a career-best second and Hamlin was immediately empathetic for the driver and crew chief Mike Wheeler, who won a Daytona 500 with Hamlin.
“I’m so sorry to Matt DiBenedetto, 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.”
DiBenedetto was near tears standing next to his car.
“I wanted it to 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. Something is going to happen.”
The crowd roared its support as DiBenedetto’s interview was broadcast on the infield big screen.
UP NEXT: The Cup Series is off next weekend and returns to competition Sept. 1 at Darlington Raceway. NBC Sports expects Dale Earnhardt Jr. back in the booth for that event after he skipped Bristol following a crash landing of his airplane Thursday near the track.