It was Bristol, baby. The half-mile track in “Thunder Valley,” exciting or not, is always eventful. Sunday was no different. Here was what was surprising and not surprising from the 56th annual Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Surprising: After a long day on Sunday, Carl Edwards decisively won the Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol.
The driver they call “Concrete Carl” won his fourth race at Bristol and his third overall victory for owner Joe Gibbs. It’s his 26th career win and first of the season, practically locking him into the Chase. It was also Edwards’ first win from the pole in six years.
“So it was a really great race for us,” Edwards said post race. “It started on Friday –well, started this winter building these cars. But the car was really fast in qualifying, got the first pit stall, and that meant a lot to the guys. They were ready to put last week immediately behind them, and they did.
“They were just flawless on pit road. The car was really fast, and [crew chief] Dave [Rogers] did a good job of managing everything. We didn’t have any trouble, and really it’s just a testament to everybody at the shop and our whole team. Really awesome to have a win so now we can really have some fun and focus on this championship.”
It wasn’t all fun for the other drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth dominated early but an accident for a blown tire left him 40 laps down in 36th at the finish. Denny Hamlin slammed into the wall late due to a blown tire but was able to nurse the car home 20th and on the lead lap.
But the worse day among the Gibbs drivers was reserved for Kyle Busch. Busch, who entered this weekend having swept the last two, had two blown tires causing accidents, a pit road speeding penalty and topped it off by bumping into a fan on his way to the garage. The fan, for the record, has said it was her fault for being in the way.
Busch blamed the 2012 reconfiguration of the track for his recent woes. Busch hasn’t won in five years at the Tennessee half-mile, after winning five times on the older configuration.
“This track has sucked for me ever since the grinding,” The driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota said. “I’m about sick and tired of coming here since it sucks to race.”
Not surprising: On the opposite end of the spectrum was Kyle’s older brother, Kurt Busch, who hasn’t won at Bristol in 10 years but still had a great day in third. Busch had to still rally back from misfortune, however.
“We just battled through it,” Busch said. “(Dale Earnhardt) Junior had trouble at the start and I was 40th when we started the race. One car at a time. One set of tires at a time. And then we were in great position around lap 350. We got the lead from (Carl) Edwards for a little bit. And we just kept working on it. And there’s nothing more that I could have gotten out of the car. I’m really happy with the way that everybody worked together. I shouldn’t be happy about finishing third, but I’ll take it.”
Surprising: So, what happened to Earnhardt at the start? An electronic problem on the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet bottled up the outside lane at the very start of the race and “Junebug” found himself two laps down at one point.
Still, Earnhardt was able to rally back and found himself second when the checkered flag fell 500 laps after it seemed his day was over before it began.
“Yeah, we got the Roush system on our cars for the stuck-throttle issue, and just warming the brakes up, I engaged that system to kill the throttle. I was warming the brakes up like I always do, and apparently I applied too much pressure and it killed the motor.
“We’ll work on that and maybe raise that threshold a little bit because I wasn’t really using the brake that much. So I just needed to cycle the ECU, reset that, came to pit road and did that. I probably could’ve done it on the track and saved ourselves a lot of trouble, but you don’t know what’s going on at that particular point, and you listen to the first thing anybody tells you when it comes to direction, and the first thing that my spotter said was that if I need to pit, I need to come on now. We got on pit road, cycled it, lost a couple laps. Greg did a good job getting the wave-arounds and knowing when to take them and stuff, and we got back on the lead lap. We had about a 10th-place car. We weren’t really that good all day. We tried a setup that we’ve never really ran here before, just trying to learn a little something going forward, and we’ll go home and science it out a little bit.
“We got real lucky the last three restarts to be on the outside line. We restarted 10th, sixth and fourth, and when you restart fourth you’re typically going to come out in second place after that. I was hoping we didn’t have any more cautions after that. So it was good. We’ll take it.”
Not Surprising: Chase Elliott continued his stellar Rookie of the Year campaign by finishing fourth. It was his second straight top five and his best overall career finish.
Elliott was fast during the latter portion of the day and found himself second on the last restart before dropping back due to restarting on the inside on the last restart.
“Guys brought a good car this weekend,” the driver of the No. 24 Kelly Blue Book Chevrolet said. “We started a little slow, didn’t qualify as well as we’d like to on Friday but I thought we hit on a couple things yesterday in final practice that fortunately carried over to today and was able to kind of work our way up through there. Hate to have a loose wheel, but guys did a good job overcoming that having a fast pit under green only losing two laps. That was big to keep us in contention there and try to get back on the lead lap. Definitely a long afternoon, but had a fast car, and that was the biggest thing that kept us alive.”
Surprising: Typically, drivers with lower budget teams struggle to even finish on the lead lap outside of Daytona and Talladega.
Sunday was an exception to the rule, as Matt DiBennedetto, driving for BK Racing, finished sixth. It’s the best finish for both the 24-year-old California driver and the Ron Devine owned team.
After DiBennedetto pulled into his pit, suddenly it got a little dusty on pit road for the No. 83 team.
“I’m sorry I’m so speechless – just I’m so thankful to everybody on this team, everybody at BK Racing, Cosmo Motors in Hickory, North Carolina – they’re local to me, he’s my best friend, sells some awesome cars, please check them out – everyone at BK Racing, Dustless Blasting.”
An obviously emotional DiBennedetto told Fox Sports after the race. “These guys, man – that’s unbelievable for a team like to us to be growing this much and for us to get a sixth-place run – I’m sorry I’m so emotional, it’s just this is like a win for us. I am so excited. I see my family back here – my wife, Taylor, my brother is in town from the military and I’m so glad he got to experience this. This is just – this is incredible. I’m so blessed to be here.”
Clint Bowyer, who is in the midst of far and away his worst statistical full-time season in Sprint Cup, also found some relief after he drove his HScott Motorsports Chevrolet to eighth on race day.
Bowyer, for his part, was a little less emotional about his good run.
“It was a good finish and I’m proud of the finish,” Bowyer said. “We had some luck which helped but proud of the result and good that the 5-hour Energy Chevrolet was able to get a top 10 today.”
Not Surprising: It seems like every week since Kevin Harvick joined Stewart-Haas Racing, he has shown up with either the fastest or one of the fastest cars.
And most weeks, things just go a little sour for the 2014 Sprint Cup champion. Sure, he finishes top 10 or even top five, but the “what might have beens” have to be a little frustrating for the 40-year-old.
Sunday continued the trend. Harvick was in the top five for most of the day and even led 13 laps but kept getting stuck on the inside line on restarts and ended up dropping to seventh at the finish.
““Yeah, (restarting on the inside) was definitely the biggest challenge for us,” Harvick said. “The guys did a great job with our Ditech Chevy. We had the speed but it seemed like every restart we were just struggling to make ground on the restart and by the time you get two or three spots back, you battle back to where you were and then the caution would come out again. But there’s nothing you can do about that. We raced hard all day and we’ll go to the next one.”
Next Sunday will be the first scheduled Sunday race at Richmond International Raceway in many years. The traditional Saturday night event has been moved to Sunday afternoon this season in order to both make the race stand out more and make the event a typical three-day weekend rather than two days at the track. Fox’s coverage of the Toyota Owners 400 starts at 1 p.m EST on Sunday.