Denny Hamlin won NASCAR’s playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway while two former champions were eliminated from title contention Saturday night.
Joey Logano became the first reigning champion eliminated in the first round when he crashed early in the third stage and finished 34th. He was watching as a spectator as former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin celebrated his 51st career win.
Kevin Harvick, who is retiring at the end of the season, also was eliminated after finishing five laps down in 29th. Harvick was the first driver in 2014 to win the championship in this elimination format.
“We’ve been like that all year, hit or miss, and tonight we just missed by a mile," Harvick said. “I’ve had some good days, some bad days, but that’s definitely the worst day with fenders. I didn’t really have many expectations, as up and down as the year has been. It is what it is, that’s probably what we deserved.”
Also eliminated were Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell, despite finishing sixth.
Hamlin was booed after stopping his No. 11 Toyota at the finish line. He collected the checkered flag then verbally sparred with the angry spectators.
“Everyone like a winner, right?” he at first said of the jeers.
He confidently boasted “this is our year” for a championship, then addressed the crowd directly.
“I beat your favorite driver,” he taunted.
“Who?” asked the announcer.
“All of them,” Hamlin said as he headed off to celebrate, likely with the 23XI Racing team he founded, after Bubba Wallace drove his way into the second round with a 14th-place finish.
Hamlin's jawing with crowds has gone on all season, spilled onto social media, and began at Bristol even before he collected the checkered flag. At Bristol the drivers introduce themselves, and as he was booed making his entrance, he didn't bother giving his name.
“You know,” he smiled and walked off the stage.
Wallace gave Hamlin both of Hamlin's 23XI Racing cars spots in the next round by running a clean race. He joined Tyler Reddick, winner last week at Kansas, as 23XI drivers to join their team owner in the next round.
Wallace also was booed and quoted recent U.S. Women's Open winner Coco Gauff for motivating him despite the discouragement.
“God, I love that (stuff)," Wallace said of the boos. “Counted us out. Like Coco Gauff said, ‘All they are doing is adding fuel to the fire.’ I love it.”
He celebrated with team co-owner Michael Jordan, who watched from Wallace's pit stand. Wallace, who is last in the now 12-driver field, said he was “mentally exhausted” after advancing in the playoffs. He slumped to the side of his Toyota for a breather.
Logano was eliminated just after the halfway point when he drove the No. 22 Ford to the garage with broken parts that were likely catastrophic to his season. The two-time champion was 12th and on the bubble of elimination when he was collected in the crash.
“It will take a miracle at this point. Maybe something will happen and we can squeak in at some point,” Logano said after climbing from his car. “I'll just sit and watch anxiously. It's a bummer. I'll watch the race like everyone else now.”
Logano's car was damaged after he ran into Corey LaJoie, who was running 12th when LaJoie spun into Logano's path. Logano took his car to pit road, but once it was determined his damage needed to be addressed in the garage, Logano's night was over.
“We just we're fast enough. You can't go down a lap down, you're at the back at Bristol on a restart and they wreck in front of you, and you get caught up,” Logano said. “It's our own fault. We didn't go fast enough in our Mustang.”
NASCAR's first playoff elimination race was paused by rain for nearly 15 minutes at the start of the second stage.
SMITH TO SPIRE
Two new Cup drivers were announced at Bristol this weekend, with Kaulig Racing first promoting Daniel Hemric into one of its two seats next year. Trackhouse Racing then said it has signed Truck Series champion Zane Smith to a multi-year contract and will loan him to Spire Motorsports in 2024.
Trackhouse eventually plans to run three full-time cars, but isn't ready to do so next season; Spire will put Smith in a third car and bought the charter needed to do so from Live Fast Motorsports.
Smith is trying to win a second consecutive Truck Series title before his move to NASCAR's top series. He'll be teammates at Spire with Corey LaJoie, who this summer signed an extension with Spire, but the rest of the lineup and Smith's number is still to be determined. Spire fields two cars right now with LaJoie and Ty Dillon.
NASCAR opens the second round of the playoffs next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, which has only one Cup race this year for the first time since 2004. Tyler Reddick won the race a year ago driving for Richard Childress Racing.
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