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 saved himself from the brink of elimination from the Playoff series and advanced to the Round of 16 with four points.
Kevin Harvick, winner of the first playoff elimination in 2014, will not be around to challenge for the title in his final season of Cup racing. He joins defending champion Joey Logano on the outside looking for the final seven playoff games.
Despite a strong run Saturday night, Michael McDowell didn’t get the win he needed to advance, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also fell by the wayside with a car that couldn’t compete for a top-five position.
Taking the lead out of the pits on lap 366 of the 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 in total, and second only to the 187 laps led by pole winner and third-place finisher Christopher Bell.
Led by Hamlin, all five Toyota drivers in the playoffs advanced to the next round.
“I can’t thank the entire FedEx team enough,” said Hamlin, who won for the third time this season, the third time in Bristol and the 51st time in his career. “They really kicked ass the whole first round. Truly incredible how our team was. I’m so happy with how we’re running. I can’t wait to move forward.
“It’s our year. I feel like we put it all together. We have the speed [at] every single type of track. Nothing can stop us at this point.”
Chris Buescher followed Bell in a big way, as the top four finishers will all compete in the round of 16. Brad Keselowski and William Byron (eighth and ninth Saturday) 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, one lap down, but the eight points he gained by finishing third in Stage 1 proved decisive. Only 10 cars finished on the lead lap, the last of which was Stenhouse, who finished the Round of 16 in 15th place, seven points behind Wallace.
Wallace was greeted with a chorus of boos when he exited the 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 am with this team. I wish my mother, father and sister were here to celebrate with me.
“I’m mentally exhausted. I’m exhausted. We gave our all there. Fought hard and executed. This is what you have to do. We know there will be a reset next week. We just need to go out and have some fun, work our asses off. Thanks to those who believe in me. Continues. Yes, see you next week.”
A ferocious wreck on the backstretch cost Joey Logano a chance to advance to the round of 16 — the first time under the elimination format that a reigning league has exited the playoffs in the opening round.
Logano was a lap down, racing toward the back of the field, when Corey LaJoie went ten feet under Erik Jones’ Chevrolet and lost control of his No. 1 Chevrolet. LaJoie’s car went up the track into the path of Logano, Justin Haley and Ryan Newman, all of whom were eliminated from the race in the crash.
“Yes, I saw the smoke,” said Logano, who was credited with a 34th-place finish and missed the round of 16 by four points. “I saw the number 7 spinning. (Spotter) Coleman (Pressley) was saying, “He’s coming.” He’s going up while I’m braking to try to reach the bottom.
“I think it was Newman behind me, but I think someone hit him from behind, and it was kind of a chain reaction. Once I got hit, I thought, “Shoot, I have to go up now,” because I couldn’t reach the bottom, so I committed and the hole closed.
“Obviously it’s a real shame. You go out of the race like that and you find yourself behind the wall and you’re in denial for a minute. You don’t want to believe it happened and you want to think it’s fixable, but the car was really wrecked.
Harvick battled a poorly behaving car from the start 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 16.
“We’ve been like this all year,” Harvick said. “We’ve been inconsistent. Tonight we missed each other by a mile. I’ve had good days and bad days, but this is definitely the worst I’ve had with fenders.
Ty Gibbs finished fifth after leading 102 laps. McDowell finished sixth, followed by Chase Elliott, Keselowski, Byron and Stenhouse.
The story originally appeared on Racer