As Denny Hamlin won Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, he found himself drowned out by a shower of boos. It's not unusual to hear at a track labeled The Last Great Colosseum, a deafening sound of jealousy shouted by fans during a history of NASCAR's bad boys making a name for themselves here: Dale Earnhardt Sr., Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch.
Hamlin doesn't mind joining them on the list. In fact, he egged them on.
"Man, everybody likes a winner, right?" Hamlin said as the crowd grew rowdy, adding later, "Hey, I beat your favorite driver."
But Hamlin's wrong on one account: The three drivers listed above have a Cup championship sitting on their mantle. He's lost 17 times now searching for his first.
Is there finally light at the end of the tunnel?
"It's our year," Hamlin said after his third win of 2023. "I just feel like we've got it all put together. We've got the speed, every single type of racetrack."
The No. 11 Toyota team certainly showed it in the Round of 16. They led 382 laps across the board and could have easily swept all three races. A loose wheel under green cost him the Southern 500 at Darlington and a late caution ruined an all-but-certain win at Kansas.
Hamlin still ran second there and then saved the best for last at Bristol, leading every lap during a 131-lap, green-flag run to the finish. At a track named after Roman Gladiators, he laid down the gauntlet with a 2.4-second victory over Kyle Larson, nearly a full straightaway at this half-mile track known for close competition.
It's the second-best start to the playoffs in Hamlin's career. Back in 2021, he led 409 laps with a victory, building momentum that led all the way to the Championship 4 finale at Phoenix. He then lost to Kyle Larson, who remains Hamlin's biggest rival standing in the way of a title.
"We've raced head-to-head the last three weeks, right?" Hamlin admitted. "It's been 1-2, 1-2, 1-2."
"That team, that whole group, what a class act," added Hamlin's crew chief Chris Gabehart. "When you're two teams that consistently find yourselves up front, you race with a lot of passion and to win, like that group does, you're going to have that. That's why we all show up to watch these races, right?
"I think the world of Kyle Larson and his team and I'm glad we were able to beat him today."
For now, NASCAR's playoff reset leaves both drivers behind regular-season standouts Martin Truex Jr. and William Byron. The format guarantees at least four drivers will enter Phoenix with a shot to win it all.
But there's no doubt at this point who the favorite is. The only question is whether Hamlin can follow through.
"I don't think I've been any better," Hamlin said. "I don't think our team has been any better. At our best, I know that we're good enough."
Green: Toyota. In a playoff filled with parity (seven different organizations advanced into the Round of 12) the success of these Camrys has been the lone outlier. All five who qualified for the postseason made it through while the sixth full-time team, with rookie Ty Gibbs, led a career-best 102 laps at Bristol on route to a fifth-place finish.
Yellow: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This year's Daytona 500 winner was the largest underdog to make the playoffs, driving for a single-car team in JTG Daugherty Racing. Stenhouse made a valiant effort, fighting back from adversity the last two weeks before delivering with a lead-lap, top-10 finish at Bristol to fall seven points short of advancing. They're building for the future.
Red: Team Penske. Penske was invisible during these playoffs, failing to lead a lap with any of their drivers during the Round of 16. It culminated with Joey Logano's hard-luck Bristol, an innocent victim in a wreck that left him the first reigning champion eliminated in the first round the following year. Only Ryan Blaney remains championship eligible while second-year man Austin Cindric remains without a top-five finish all season within a trio that's failed to meet expectations.
Speeding Ticket: Kevin Harvick. In his final full-time Cup season, Harvick entered Bristol seven points above the cutline. To finish 29th, five laps off the pace, at a track he'd won at just three years ago is inexcusable. The 2014 Cup champion had finished top 15 in 12 out of his last 13 starts at this track; it would have been more than enough to advance into the next round.
"I've had some good days and bad days," Harvick said, "But that's definitely the worst one I've had with fenders on it."
Over in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, retired Cup Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. was moonlighting at Bristol in a one-race deal, and he was in position to win before a fire inside the cockpit burned off any chance he had to cash in.
"Somehow or another, the shifter tunnel column caught on fire," Earnhardt said. "I saw some smoke in the car, I smelt it and thought, well, hopefully that's not me… that last lap, I saw a big fireball down in the tunnel in the car and I felt it, obviously. My uniform's burning up and I'm like, I can't keep going, I gotta stop."
The 48-year-old Earnhardt, who failed to finish, reiterated he'll continue to race in NXS next year, doing a one-off with his JR Motorsports program.