BRISTOL, Tenn. — Denny Hamlin moved toward the top seed in NASCAR's championship race by using a calculated late pass to win for the first time at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin flirted with Carl Edwards for the lead late in the race and set up the move with 39 laps remaining Saturday night. Hamlin used a slide move to get past Edwards, then held on as Edwards tried to use a cross-over move to get back in front.
It didn't work for Edwards, and Hamlin drove away to take the Irwin Tools Night Race for his third victory of the season.
"This is my biggest win," Hamlin told ABC in Victory Lane. "(Crew chief) Darian (Grubb) just came here with a different setup and it just hauled the mail right from the get-go."
There has been talk that changes to the track, including owner Bruton Smith's decision to ground down the top groove, have taken away what made Bristol unique and also kept fans away. But Hamlin needed some old-fashioned contact in making the decisive pass on Edwards.
"That's what you had to do," Hamlin said. "The only thing you could do is slide-job somebody. Bruton ground the track but … it's still one line, you still had to knock someone out of the way to make a move."
Jimmie Johnson, who started 37th, finished second and rose to second in points, good enough to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Championship with two races left in the regular season. Series leader Greg Biffle and third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. also wrapped up one of 12 positions in the 10-race Chase, which begins next month at Chicagoland.
"Glad to be locked into the Chase," Johnson said. "That's something I'm very proud of, to have made it in each year."
Johnson is the only driver to make every Chase since the format was introduced for the 2004 season.
"We got messed up in practice and had to start in the back … but we really had great strategy and a fast car, and made the most of it," he said.
In the Chase, drivers are re-seeded and those with the most wins earn the most bonus points to start the final 10 races. Hamlin earned his third victory this season and forged a four-way tie for that honor with Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski.
Stewart had his own old-school Bristol moment.
He rallied from a lap down early to put himself in position to challenge for the lead but ran out of track while running with Matt Kenseth and the two cars collided. The damage briefly knocked Stewart out of the race and sent Kenseth to pit road for repairs.
Stewart showed his displeasure with Kenseth with a two-handed toss of his helmet directly into the front grill of Kenseth's car. Stewart put all the blame squarely on Kenseth immediately, vowing to "run over him every chance I get for the rest of the year."
It briefly appeared that there would be two helmet throws during the race as Danica Patrick prepared her reaction following a wreck with Regan Smith. Patrick, who struggled mightily in Friday's two practices, had climbed to 19th on the board and was on the lead lap when her race ended.
Jeff Gordon was third — giving Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets second and third — followed by Brian Vickers in a Toyota and Marcos Ambrose in a Ford.
Edwards appeared to run out of fuel late and ended up 22nd.
Though the race wasn't a sellout, Hamlin noted, "This is the biggest crowd I've seen here in forever."