A NASCAR short track record 54 lead changes, plenty of strategy and a good dose of wisdom and experience — as it turned out — produced one of the most talked-about NASCAR Cup Series races in recent memory at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on Sunday.

Tire management, tactics and frankly, the right positive mindset resulted in one of the most raved-about races of the young season.

In the end, it was a trio of crafty veterans leading the way. Denny Hamlin out-paced his Joe Gibbs Racing championship teammate Martin Truex Jr. and 2012 series champion, RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski across the line in a race that demanded heads-up thinking on track and atop the pit box — every lap, all afternoon on the famed half-mile high-banks.

So many important factors contributed to success and the drivers and teams had to manage several competitive elements in a way not seen to this degree every week. There had to be a certain willingness to accept — perhaps embrace — a new set of challenges.

“The whole weekend was nothing what any of us expected, the driver, the crew chiefs, the engineers, the pit crew, the team, the spotter,” Hamlin‘s winning crew chief Chris Gabehart said.

“I mean, from the minute practice was over, we suspected something was going to be different. I think a lot of us thought maybe 80 [laps], 100 in, this place would rubber in and get a little more familiar. But it did not.

“It was a blast. I’m not just saying that because we won. I’m saying that because it was fun to have to do something so unrefined. Everything about our business gets to be 16th of a round and 10th of an air pressure. If you just maneuver this three inches, you’ll be perfect.

“It was not going to be perfect this weekend ever. I think that made for a fantastic show.”

Even the race runner-ups — who fully agreed with Gabehart‘s assessment – were happy with the day.

“Man, what a job by everybody at JGR [Joe Gibbs Racing], TRD [Toyota Racing Development],” Truex said, still grinning after climbing out of this No. 19 JGR Toyota.

“Our Toyotas are working really well right now. Had a lot of fun today. Wish we could have come up one spot. Short on second. Good run for us. It’s been a great season for us.”

Added Keselowski, driver of the No. 6 RFK Racing Ford, “It was an interesting day. There was a lot of discipline required and it was a fun race, to be honest, because you just had to be so smart behind the wheel. It would bite you in a heartbeat and you had to have a good setup. I think we had a good setup and tried to run the smartest race I could.”

That kind of necessary output from the driver is exactly what Hamlin thought made Sunday‘s race such a huge success. It was less about smart engineers and more about seat of the pants driving. Strategy, effort and ability behind the wheel were the difference-makers. Tire management was absolutely key, but even in the face of that challenge, it harkened to a time these drivers could relate to coming up the ranks.

“This is the first time the driver played a huge role in a long, long time, long time,” Hamlin said. “It’s a different philosophy from what we’re used to, which is everyone is just kind of on the gas all the time running the bottom, the shortest way around.

“Technique was a huge deal today.”

The appreciation for Sunday‘s race came in on social media immediately.

Former NASCAR Cup Series driver Kasey Kahne said, “It was fun watching a NASCAR race unfold like that. Much different than usual. I enjoyed trying to think how all the drivers were managing their race. Pretty cool.”

NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. concurred on social media, “I loved everything about that race today.”

Even the younger drivers who hadn‘t experienced that kind of competitive wild card were enthusiastic about the way they had to drive.

“That was definitely the craziest race I feel like I‘ve ever been a part of in the Cup Series,” said Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Chase Briscoe, who finished 13th in his No. 14 Ford. “We normally just run every lap as a qualifying lap and you might save a little bit, but you‘re never going that slow to save tires.

“It was definitely bizarre how it all played out and green flag pit stops, and it was like you had 1000 more horsepower than the field when you were on new tires. It was nuts.”

It was also exactly the kind of race that will be talked about for months to come — the fans got everything they could ask for competitively and the drivers and teams turned in a day for the ages.

“It’s really a proud one for me,” Hamlin said. “Certainly, one of the more proud ones I’ve had in my career, no question.”

The Las Vegas winner Larson, who finished fifth, and Truex are now tied atop the championship standings — only seven points ahead of Truex‘s teammate, second-year NASCAR Cup Series driver Ty Gibbs and eight points ahead of reigning series champion, Team Penske‘s Ryan Blaney.

The series heads to Austin, Texas for a NASCAR triple-header road course weekend including Sunday‘s NASCAR Cup Series‘ EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). 23XI Racing‘s Tyler Reddick is the defending race winner.

— NASCAR Wire Service —

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