BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — The Latest on the NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway (all times local):
Kyle Larson has held off Chase Elliott to win the first stage at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The stage victory point is critical for Larson, who is trying to qualify for the playoffs.
The race began as a battle between Larson and Denny Hamlin until a caution 80 laps into the stage. Austin Dillon developed a tire problem and Jimmie Johnson could not slow down fast enough to avoid running into the back of Dillon. As those two cars wiggled, leader Hamlin bounced off of Johnson’s car.
Hamlin then had a lengthy pit stop as his crew had to fix the damage. He dropped to 12th on the restart.
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson staged a close early battle at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin started from the pole and used both lanes around Bristol to build his lead. Then Larson jumped to the front on a pass from the bottom lane.
Bristol’s two lanes are controversial because the preferred upper groove has been cleaned by track officials, while a traction compound has been used to create a stickier second lane.
The upper lane was not cleaned after Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at NASCAR’s request. But both lanes were usable as Hamlin and Larson raced each other for the lead.
The crowd loudly booed Kyle Busch during driver introductions, and he in turn chugged a substance from a red plastic cup while thanking them for attending the event.
Denny Hamlin has passed pre-race inspection and his car will start on the pole Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Daytona 500 winner gave both Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing its first pole of the season in qualifying, but the result was not official until after inspection began hours before the race.
Bristol marks a stretch of three final regular season races with seven open spots in the upcoming playoff field. Nine winners have already claimed berths in the 16-driver field.
Among those on the outside of the top 16 in standings and winless on the season is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has never missed the playoffs since they began in 2004. He qualified 30th.
Eight-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch had a rough qualifying run and starts 31st. Busch, winner at Bristol in the spring, has only started lower than 31st at this .533-mile concrete bullring three times in 28 career starts.
Drivers and Speedway Motorsports Inc., owner of the race track, are at odds over treatment to the top racing line around the short track.
Hamlin and Busch were among those who claimed the upper groove at Bristol had been “ground or polished” before the weekend. They were critical of the action and took pointed shots at SMI officials for not conferring with teams before altering the surface.
But SMI CEO Marcus Smith struck back and posted on Twitter that there was no grinding to the upper groove and “actually we just cleaned off the upper groove. No grinding. Just excellent racing surface maintenance from our team.”
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