Dustin Long: Hamlin scores third win of season as action returns to Bristol - Sports Illustrated

Hamlin scores third win of season as chaos, tempers rule at Bristol

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They were there when Tony Stewart threw his helmet at Matt Kenseth's car after they wrecked and then promised more retribution. They saw Danica Patrick, the front of her car smashed worse than a boxer's nose, standing at the edge of the track pointing her index finger at Regan Smith, admonishing him for wrecking her. They will talk about the tempers, the wrecks, and might even recall that it was Denny Hamlin who won the race.

As attendance decreased and fan anger increased over the loss of the rock'em, sock'em racing that had been Bristol's hallmark, speedway officials decided to give the track a form of plastic surgery. They had the top groove grounded in an effort to narrow where the cars could run. The hope was that the closer cars ran together, the greater the chance for the beating and banging many fans lusted.

They got it with 13 cautions with 10 for accidents. They also got much more.

1. Stewart doesn't like Kenseth. Stewart was furious after he crashed while racing Kenseth for the lead. Stewart showed his displeasure by tossing his helmet at Kenseth's car, bringing back memories of when Dale Jarrett hurled his helmet at Bobby Hillin Jr.'s car at this track in 1993 and when Ward Burton threw his heel guards at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car in the 2002 night race.

Stewart said Kenseth has more coming.

"I'm going to run over him every him every chance I've got from now 'til the end of the year, every chance I've got,'' Stewart said.

Stewart said he didn't do anything wrong in racing side-by-side with Kenseth for the lead before they hit and wrecked.

"I checked-up twice to not run over him,'' said Stewart, who finished 27th.

Kenseth saw it differently.

"If he would have just stayed around the bottom for two laps and passed me clean, I would have probably lifted and let him up in line,'' he said. "The first shot he had he just went straight like I wasn't even there and went straight to the top groove. It was either lift or wreck him and I lifted. He just chose to do the opposite on the other end.''

Kenseth, who finished 25th, said issues have been brewing with Stewart.

"On the race track for years and years and years we've had tons of respect for each other and, for whatever reason this year, he ran me off the track at [Sonoma] and said he was sorry,'' Kenseth said. "It cost me seven spots in the finishing order and at Indy he was mad because he said I blocked him and I asked for five minutes of his time to clear the air and he wouldn't give it to me and [I] pretty much just got cussed out and [he] knocked my whole side off and put us in position to get wrecked. So I just said, 'OK, that's fine. I'm just gonna race you the same way you race me.' ''

2. Chaos returned to Bristol. Track officials hoped for the type of action they saw Saturday but it wasn't exactly how they envisioned it. By grounding the top groove in the summer, track officials thought it would keep teams from running that high line and keep drivers more toward the bottom and closer together. Instead, they ran close together on the high side.

"I just found it so interesting that they ground it to keep us from going up there and it laid rubber and that was actually the fastest way around the track,'' Jeff Gordon said. "It just reminded me of old-school Bristol.''

Hamlin said Saturday night was like the racing in years past.

"It's just a different kind of racing,'' Hamlin said. "We were all running in a line and just waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around. That's what you had with the old Bristol. That's how we had to exactly race today.

"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 on someone to get knocked out of the way or mess up and that's the same thing we had today.''

3. Wild wild-card action. Kasey Kahne remains atop the standings for one of the two wild-card spots as the only driver with two wins vying for one of those berths, while Kyle Busch holds the other spot with two races left before the Chase field is set.

Busch leads Gordon, third in the standings, by 16 points. Ryan Newman fell to fourth after wrecking and finishing 36th, and is 19 points behind Busch.

"If Carl [Edwards] had won or Kyle had won, it would have gotten us way behind, so we kept ourselves in the battle for it,'' Gordon said. "We've got two more opportunities and they're good opportunities. I'm a little disappointed myself because I think we had the car and we had the track position and I got loose on new tires on that one run when we really had the guys I felt we had to beat behind us.''

4. Key run for Hamlin. His victory was his third of the season and broke a string of three consecutive finishes outside the top 10.

Hamlin said he's confident what he and crew chief Darian Grubb can do in the upcoming title Chase.

"Talking with some of the crew guys and even Darian, as long as we don't have a failure or we don't get in a wreck, we can win anywhere we go,'' Hamlin said. "And that's something that we have not had since 2010, you know, being able to win at every different track at any type of course.

"So you know it's a good feeling to know that you can go to a racetrack and win any given week and that gives you a lot of confidence. For me even though it shows three wins, I feel like we've got five or six.''

5. Another strong run for Brian Vickers. Vickers, running a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, finished fourth on Saturday for his third top-five finish in six starts. He is scheduled to run twice more in place of Mark Martin this season.

"I'm having fun,'' Vickers said. "I'm working with guys I really enjoy working with. I don't know what [this finish] means. I'd like to think it means a full-time ride next year, but man, the position the sport is in and the sponsors are in, nothing has happened yet, Is one more top-five going to do it? I don't know.''