Welcome to the final Cup Series off week of the season. In just 13 weeks we’ll know who the Cup Series champion is. And Thanksgiving will be creeping up on us. How’s that for a wakeup call?
1. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has the most top-five finishes of anyone in the Cup Series and is now tied with teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for the series lead in victories with four. Good enough for the top spot, don’t you think?
Hamlin’s win at Bristol on Saturday night also came after he lost a bunch of track position when he got clipped in the first crash of the night while he was leading. That lost track position ultimately led to a lap lost too, but Hamlin got it back because he was the first car one lap down when Clint Bowyer spun on lap 243.
From then he drove his way through the field and then chased down Matt DiBenedetto over the final 100 laps of the race for the win.
2. Kyle Busch
Busch got his lap back on the caution that preceded Bowyer’s spin. Though it’s fair to question if he should have been a lap down at that time anyway.
Busch started 31st and got lapped by Hamlin in the first green flag run of the race. But as Hamlin had just lapped Busch and had approached Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson, Dillon had a tire issue that led to the crash that involved Johnson and Hamlin.
NASCAR officially said no driver was eligible for the free pass at the time of the caution because Johnson and Dillon were ahead of Busch at the time of the caution and one would have been eligible for the free pass ahead of Busch. But watch this GIF closely. Busch was way ahead of both drivers when the yellow caution lights flip on.
Busch came back to finish fourth. He might have gotten a better finish had NASCAR’s scoring been optimized for 2019. There’s no excuse why NASCAR doesn’t use real-time data — or something extremely close to it — to determine scoring decisions like this.
3. Joey Logano
Logano didn’t have a fun night at Bristol. He didn’t score any stage points and was caught up in a crash on lap 363. He ultimately finished 16th.
After finishing in the top 10 in 10 of 13 races, Logano has now gone four-straight races without a top-10 finish. And, as a result, he’s lost the points lead. He’s still a title contender for sure and it’ll be incredibly surprising if he’s not one of the eight drivers still alive in the third round of the playoffs. So maybe this mini-slump is coming at the right time.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex was 13th on Saturday and led 52 laps from lap 193 to lap 244. But some late-race damage led to an unplanned pit stop and Truex ended up finishing two laps down.
Truex is now eight points ahead of Kevin Harvick in fourth in the points standings. With two races to go before the playoffs, how will the team approach Darlington and, especially, Indianapolis. Will crew chief Cole Pearn go for stage points if a win doesn’t look to be in the offing at Indy to ensure the regular season bonus points? Or will the team play for a win? It should be a fun subplot given how well Pearn plays the strategy game.
Keselowski was third on Sunday and led 91 laps. Nine drivers led over 20 laps on Saturday. It was the first time that’s happened at Bristol since the 2012 night race. And guess what? That race was won by Denny Hamlin too.
“We had a shot at winning,” Keselowski said. “We probably weren’t good enough on the long runs to just dominate, but on the short and medium runs we were. I got a hole in the nose there late and that kind of ruined our day.”
Elliott finished fifth even though he said he felt his car was just a bit off all weekend.
“All weekend we just needed a little bit,” Elliott said. “I felt like we were really close. We just never got over the hill.”
After going seven-straight races without a top-10 finish, Elliott has now reeled off three-straight top 10s.
7. Kevin Harvick
Harvick finished last because of a transmission problem. He had a top-10 car when it was fully functioning and led 28 laps. Harvick would have been a contender for a top-five finish. Alas, you need a functioning transmission to pull that off.
8. Kurt Busch
Busch was another driver who felt his team was just off all weekend despite finishing in the top 10. He was ninth.
“We just weren’t quite there all night,” Busch said. “I think we had a nice sequence to get a stage win, but just tight center out. We just didn’t have the mojo all weekend. The first few laps in practice, I was like man I have to get this rotation to help turn center out. We just didn’t get it done.”
9. Ryan Blaney
Blaney’s car was sponsored by Dent Wizard, the perfect sponsor for a Bristol race. Though do you want the Dent Wizard car getting dented? Or do you want to fix the dents on the Dent Wizard car to show how easily dents can get fixed? Why am I worrying about this so much?
Blaney finished 10th.
10. Kyle Larson
Larson was sixth after starting on the front row. He never challenged for the lead after the first stage of the race but was a consistent presence near the front of the field. Larson got back to sixth after having to start back in the field because his team needed to fix damage on his final pit stop.
“I think we could have had a good run for the win there, but we had some left front damage on the second to last stop that we made,” Larson said. “As soon as I turned into my stall, [Jones] was going to put his right front on and I clipped him. It pushed our left front fender in and then we had to come down and repair it the next pit stop. If we didn’t have to do that, we would have restarted sixth, which would have been really nice for that last big run there. I felt like my car was really good on the long runs.”
11. Erik Jones
Jones looked like he was going to be part of a three-person battle for the lead over the final 100 laps of the race but he hit the wall while racing for the lead with Matt DiBenedetto and had to pit because the damage was so bad. Jones ended up 22nd.
12. Alex Bowman
Bowman finished 15th after starting 10th and just keeps on motoring toward the playoffs. His average finish of 13.7 is 3.3 spots better than it was in 2018. And, of course, he’s got a win.
Lucky Dog: Matt DiBenedetto, of course. You can understand why Ryan Newman raced DiBenedetto so hard at the end of the race. Not only was Newman trying to stay on the lead lap, pushing DiBenedetto hard and allowing Hamlin to close up was beneficial to him as well. Newman is 15th in the points standings right now and the second-to-last driver in the playoffs via points. A DiBenedetto win would mean Newman would find himself as the last playoff driver with two races to go before the postseason.
The DNF: While Harvick finished last, it was not a great race for Front Row Motorsports. Its drivers David Ragan and Michael McDowell finished 36th and 37th respectively after crashing out.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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