By Ben White
Bristol Motor Speedway has been known for intense fender to fender racing action since it opened in June of 1961. Thus far, 121 Cup Series events have been completed with a Who’s Who of NASCAR legends compiling the win column over the past 60 years.
One car number that’s risen to the top of the chart beginning with a victory in 1965 by two-time NASCAR Grand National champion Ned Jarrett. At the conclusion of the Volunteer 500 on July 25th of that year, Jarrett wheeled the No. 11 Ford fielded by team owner Bondy Long to victory after leading 141 of 500 laps.
The No. 11 has been to victory lane 21 times by a relatively short list of drivers through August of 2019.
Cale Yarborough returned the No. 11 to victory lane for team owner Junior Johnson after a seven-year absence on March 25, 1973, and remarkably, led all 500 laps in the race. Yarborough returned to win both races at BMS in 1974, 1976, 1977 and one race each year in 1977, ’78, ’79 and ’80, all in the No. 11 Chevrolets fielded by Johnson.
When Yarborough left Johnson’s team in 1981, Darrell Waltrip continued the winning tradition for Johnson in both races at Bristol in 1981, 1982, 1983 and one race in 1984 and 1986 using the No. 11. All told, Waltrip has 12 victories at BMS using the No. 11, No. 88 and No. 17.
There was a rather large absence for the number in the win column from 1986 until Denny Hamlin returned it to victory lane for Joe Gibbs Racing on Aug. 25, 2012. His latest win for Gibbs came on Aug. 19, 2019 after leading 79 of 500 laps two years ago. That night, Hamlin had to overcome falling two laps down to get the win over what was developing into a Cinderella story for a popular young driver looking for his first-career victory.
With 11 laps remaining, Hamlin drove to the inside of second-place Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, and took the lead, erasing what was to be the feel-good story of the year. Hamlin had a job to do and felt bad about being the spoiler.
“I just want to say sorry to Matt DiBenedetto and (his crew chief) Mike Wheeler,” said Hamlin, who won for the fourth time in 2019, the second time at Bristol and the 35th time in his career. “I hate it. I know a win would mean a lot to that team, but I’ve got to give 110 percent to my whole team. Just sorry.”
The regret was deep and painful. The previous Tuesday, DiBenedetto learned he would not be returning to the LFR team for 2013 and would be replaced by Christopher Bell.
Hamlin was having a good season and eventually finished sixth in points. He collected wins at Atlanta, GA., and Loudon, N.H. before the 2019 season ended. Hamlin has also added 23 additional victories to his overall win list.
“It was great to be able to come back obviously from two laps down, obviously you have multiple wins at every short track,” Hamlin said in post-race interviews. “Used to be, I would say early in my career, it was like I just can’t wait to get to the short tracks. Now I just can’t wait to get to a racetrack in general. Doesn’t matter if it’s a road course or short track or superspeedway, anywhere. We can win every single week. Really for the last two months it’s just been incredible that the adjustments we’ve made as the season has gone on, just keep getting better.