(AP) – The best driver to never win a NASCAR championship believes he can lose that tag this year.
At least that’s what Denny Hamlin told the Bristol Motor Speedway crowd as they booed his third win of the year, 51st of his career, and third in the prestigious short track Saturday night race.
“It’s our year. I just feel we’ve got it all put together,” Hamlin said. “Nothing to stop us at this point.”
Hamlin has won three Daytona 500s and most of NASCAR’s crown jewel races, but he has never won a Cup title in 18 years with Joe Gibbs Racing. He signed an extension this month and was among the strongest cars in the first round of the playoffs.
He is third behind William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports and Gibbs teammate Martin Truex Jr. with the points reset for NASCAR’s second round.
Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick were both eliminated from title contention as both NASCAR champions failed to advance out of the first round. 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 Gibbs teammate Hamlin celebrated.
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. Three Ford teams were eliminated, and Stenhouse drives a Chevrolet.
“It wasn’t enough. We were in a must-win situation,” McDowell said. “This is a learning experience. We’ll learn from this, get ready for next year.”
For Hamlin, the booing was loud when he stopped 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 would that be?” 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.
“I’m wore out. Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That’s what you got to do,” Wallace said. “We know next week’s a reset. We just got to go out and have some fun.”
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.
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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