BRISTOL, Tenn. — Denny Hamlin landed a knockout punch in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
NASCAR Cup Series regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. survived to fight another round.
Bubba Wallace rescued himself from the brink of playoff elimination and advanced to the Round of 12 by four points.
Kevin Harvick, winner of the first elimination playoff in 2014, won’t be around to fight for the title in his final season of Cup racing. He joins defending champion Joey Logano on the outside looking in for the final seven Playoff races.
Despite a strong run on Saturday night, Michael McDowell didn’t get the win he needed to advance, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. likewise fell by the wayside in a car that couldn’t compete for a top-five position.
Taking the lead off pit road on Lap 366 of 500, Hamlin beat Kyle Larson to the finish line by 2.462 seconds. Hamlin led the final 135 laps in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, 142 overall, and second only to the 187 circuits led by pole winner and third-place finisher Christopher Bell.
Led by Hamlin, all five playoff Toyota drivers advanced to the next round.
“Can’t thank this whole FedEx team enough,” said Hamlin, who won for the third time this season, the third time at Bristol and the 51st time in his career. “They’ve really kicked ass this whole first round. Really amazing how our team has been. So happy about the way we’re running. Can’t wait to keep going.
“It’s our year. I just feel like we’ve got it all put together. We’ve got the speed (at) every single type of race track. Nothing to stop us at this point.”
Chris Buescher followed Bell to the stripe as the top four finishers all will race in the Round of 12. Brad Keselowski and William Byron (eighth and ninth, respectively) also advanced, as did 23XI Racing teammates Wallace and Tyler Reddick (13th and 14th), Truex (19th), Kyle Busch (20th), Ryan Blaney (22nd) and Ross Chastain (23rd).
Wallace finished 14th, a lap down, but the eight points he gained by running third in Stage 1 proved decisive. Only 10 cars finished on the lead lap, the last of whom was Stenhouse, who ended the Round of 16 in 15th, seven points behind Wallace.
Wallace was greeted with a chorus of boos when he climbed from his car, as was Hamlin.
“Like Coco Gauff said, all they’re doing is adding fuel to the fire-I love it,” said Wallace, who drives for Hamlin and co-owner Michael Jordan at 23XI. “I love where I’m at with this team. Wish my mom, dad, sister were here to celebrate with me.”
“I’m mentally exhausted. I’m wore out. Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That’s what you got to do. We know next week’s a reset. We just got to go out and have some fun, work our asses off. Thank you to the ones that believe in me. Keep it going. Yeah, on to next week.”
A vicious wreck on the backstretch cost Joey Logano a chance to advance to the Round of 12, the first time under the elimination format that a defending championship has exited the postseason in the opening round.
Logano was a lap down, running toward the back of the pack, when Corey LaJoie went three-wide underneath the Chevrolet of Erik Jones and lost control of his No. 7 Chevrolet. LaJoie’s car swept up the track into the path of Logano, Justin Haley and Ryan Newman, all of whom were knocked out of the race in the accident.
“Yeah, I saw the smoke,” said Logano, who was credited with a 34th-place finish and missed the Round of 12 by four points. “I saw the 7 spinning. (Spotter) Coleman (Pressley) was saying, ‘He’s coming up. He’s coming up as I was on the brakes to try to pull onto the bottom.
“I think it was Newman behind me, but I think someone hit him behind him, and it was just kind of a chain reaction into it. Once I got hit, I was like, ‘Shoot, I’ve got to go up now,’ because I couldn’t make the bottom, so I committed to that, and the hole closed up.
“Obviously, it’s a real bummer. You get out of the race like that, and you’re behind the wall, and you’re in denial for a minute. You don’t want to believe that it happened, and you want to think that it’s fixable, but the car was tore up too bad.”
Harvick fought an ill-handling car from the outset and finished 29th, five laps down. Like Logano, he finished four points behind Wallace in the battle for the final spot in the Round of 12.
“We’ve been like that all year,” Harvick said. “We’ve been hit-or-miss. Tonight, we just missed by a mile. I’ve had some good days and bad days, but that’s definitely the worst one I’ve had with fenders on it.”
Ty Gibbs finished fifth after leading 102 laps. McDowell ran sixth, followed by Chase Elliott, Keselowski, Byron and Stenhouse.
The Cup Series will open the Round of 12 at Texas Motor Speedway for the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 on Sept. 24 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App).
Note: Post-race inspection in the Cup Series garage concluded without issue, confirming Hamlin as the race winner at Bristol.
Contributing: Staff reports