Brad Keselowski finished on top in the Food City 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, his second consecutive win at the half-mile concrete oval which is fast becoming his favourite place to race: "What can I say? I love Bristol and Bristol loves me.
"I don't know how anyone can say Bristol racing ain't as good as it was," he beamed in victory lane. "I think they might be right, because it's better than it's ever been: this is one of the best races I've ever been a part of and ever seen from behind the seat!"
It was a race marked by long spells of trouble-free running, an early 45-lap lead for Keselowski's Penske team mate AJ Allmendinger soon eclipsed by Brian Vickers's mighty 125-laps in front midrace that was then itself topped by Keselowski's total of 232 laps in the lead, which included an uninterrupted run of 110 laps to the chequered flag.
Polesitter Greg Biffle had quickly pulled away from fellow front row man Allmendinger at the start of the afternoon's race, which had managed to start only minutes later than originally scheduled despite rain overnight and into the morning that had threatened to delay proceedings. But before the race could even manage to reach the scheduled competition caution organised by NASCAR for lap 50 arranged so that teams could check tyre wear on the now 'green' track washed clean by the rain, there was a multi-car wreck that sucked in a number of the leading contenders.
It started with Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith battling for position on lap 24; Kahne thought he was clear ahead of the #78 and moved up the track accordingly, but it wasn't the case. Smith tried to check up, promptly got tagged from behind by Keselowski, which sent him back into Kahne and after that there was just a chain reaction of collisions. Kahne's #5 was badly damaged, as was Kyle Busch's #18, Marcos Ambrose's #9 and Carl Edwards' #99. Kevin Harvick's #29 also sustained some damage, while Keselowski escaped with only minor scrapes.
"We were going forward, just taking our time," explained Kahne. "Regan Smith was pretty slow. I was under him for a couple of laps. When my spotter cleared me in the centre, I just took off, and he was there on exit. It is disappointing to have that good of a car and be out this early ... I listened too much to my spotter I guess," he added pointedly, referring to his cousin Kole.
“I think Regan was battling with that same thing we all battle with here which is should you let the guy go or keep racing him," said Carl Edwards while waiting for his car to be patched up again. "Kasey probably thought he was clear and that ended up in a wreck. It is hard to put 43 cars on a half-mile going this fast and not wreck. It is too bad it happened this early. We have a really great race car and I was excited to race today. I wanted to drive more."
Edwards did finally get back out, but he would end up 255 laps off the lead. Likewise Kahne was 134 laps down and Ambrose 111 laps down by the time they rejoined; Busch's repairs had been the quickest but even he was 77 laps off the lead and just doing some damage limitation in the points standings in what's proved to have been a bad start to the 2012 season for the Joe Gibbs driver.
“We picked up seven points by getting back out there and finishing the race the way we did,” Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers said. “As you know, every point is important. It's just a shame we were out before the track even got a chance to get rubbered up ... What happened today was really nobody's fault."
Smith himself avoided hitting the wall but still suffered hefty front-end damage. “I am not sure why the incident with Kasey happened, but it was way too early in the race for anything like that to occur,” said Smith. “He came up on me and I didn't have any place to go. He might have thought he cleared me, but he didn't. It was costly for us as it was for many other teams.
"After the incident we just didn't have the same race car that we practised and qualified with," he added. "We were handicapped, which was unfortunate, because I felt we could have produced a pretty good finish today.”
Racing finally resumed on lap 47, meaning that almost half the race to that point had been spent behind the safety car. The leaders at the restart were those that had opted not to pit - AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Burton and Brendan Gaughan, with eighth-placed Greg Biffle the highest-placed of those who had decided to come in.
In what would prove to be a lengthy spell of green flag running, Allmendinger held the lead for almost 50 laps but all the time it was Vickers working his way up that caught the eye and on lap 95 he slid underneath the #22 which was bottled up behind backmarker Bobby Labonte to take the lead.
In his short-notice return to Cup racing with Michael Waltrip Racing in the #55 for the first time since Red Bull Racing folded at the end of 2011, Vickers stayed in front from this point for a whopping 122 laps - more than he's led in the last two years of full time competition in the series. Finally his car faded enough to allow Keselowski to climb to the front on lap 217, just before a round of pit stops under green ensured. Keselowski now found himself dogged with a new threat, as Matt Kenseth took up second chair of the race and set his sights on stealing the front as soon as he was able.
But before he could do so, and after a massive 218 trouble-free laps that had left only 14 cars left on the lead lap, a third caution of the day finally came out on lap 340 when David Stremme hit the wall in turn 4. It came 160 laps from the chequered flag, which meant that - with some astute fuel management and a favourable wind - the cars pitting under yellow should be make it to the end of the race.
Keselowski and Kenseth once again battled at the front ahead of Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon, with Kenseth quickly taking the lead albeit via what looked to be an early pass before the restart line. But this time the racing lasted only 13 laps before the caution was out again on lap 359, and this time it was Jeff Gordon who triggered it with a spin in turn 3 - with a little help from his own Hendrick Motorsports team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Man, I'm sorry about that! We barely bumped," Earnhardt said over the radio - and it was true, the two cars had hardly touched each other. Unfortunately, the #88's exhaust had just cut the #24's left rear tyre and that was all it had needed to send Gordon out of the race after the car refused to restart.
"I know we didn't hit that hard," agreed an understandably disappointed Gordon. "I think we bumped more than we should have is the way it looks like. We definitely didn't hit in the right location, because I think the tailpipe or something just cut the left rear immediately ... so around we went. I knew it immediately, and I let off trying to keep it out of the wall, but there was no chance.
"I know that it wasn't intentional, but it certainly ruined our day," he added. "There were times we had the best car out there and I think we could have got back to that before this thing was over."
For Earnhardt, it was the second week in a row that he'd ended up sending a friend into an accident. Last week he'd punted former Hendrick team mate Mark Martin into the wall in a momentary burst of pique for an earlier perceived discourtesy and had to apologise the next day.
"Well, I don't have to hear about me and Mark Martin anymore," said Earnhardt ruefully. He added that he "hates that it happened" and that he "will try to take better care of a teammate" in future but that he wasn't going to beat himself up over a racing incident, either.
That left Kenseth and Keselowski once again battling for the lead at the restart on lap 371; Kenseth was initially able to ward off the #2's advances, but finally on lap 385 he succumbed and Keselowski was back in charge. Kenseth stayed right with him, clamped to the rear fender of the blue deuce, but Keselowski was making no mistakes now and giving Kenseth no chance to get back in front this close to the end.
There were still some tense moments left - everyone was very marginal on fuel, and then a late sixth caution on lap 478 for a spin by Tony Stewart following contact from Brendan Gaughan put the rear of the #14 into the wall and offered up a final chance to Kenseth to attack Keselowski at the restart.
"Brendan came down and told me and all of my guys sorry, which we really appreciated,” said Stewart of the accident. “He went down into [three] and the brake pedal went to the floor. It's kind of good that I was there to somewhat slow him down a little bit, but at the same time we had a top ten run going there."
When it came to the restart on lap 484, Brad still wasn't budging. He took the outside line and quickly pulled away from Kenseth in the final minutes to make it to the chequered flag with a relatively comfortable margin of victory of 0.714s at the end of 500 laps.
"He was just better than me," admitted Kenseth after finishing in second place. "He could keep his tyres on the car a little better and got off the corner that much better than me to where I couldn't get by him. That was the difference."
"The last few races have been really good, and I knew we had a shot at winning one if we closed the deal," said Keselowski. "Matt didn't make it easy!"
Winning for the first time in 2012 was just whetting Keselowski's appetite for more. "I'm just thrilled to death to be here in victory lane at Bristol again, one of my favourite places for sure," he said. "If this team keeps performing like they are, we'll get more.
"We need to keep winning races to lock ourselves in the Chase, but heck, I'd rather just go into the Chase in the top spot," he added. "If we run like we have the last few weeks we've got as good a shot as anybody else!"
For the time being, Keselowski remains 44pts off the top spot still held by Greg Biffle, but he's up eight spots in the standings in a single week. Other drivers on the move in the right direction after Bristol include Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt-Ganassi duo Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray after their top ten finishes this weekend. Taking big hits this week were Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Marcos Ambrose.
Giving Keselowski a run for his money in terms of the broadest smile in the paddock was Brian Vickers, who finished an impressive fifth in his return to Cup racing, the first of six planned outings for 2012 with MWR
subbing for Mark Martin in the #55.
“It feels awesome,” he said. “I'm going to enjoy it tonight and then we've got to go back to work tomorrow and think about Martinsville,” he added, already looking ahead to next weekend. “As fast as it can go this way, it can go the other way just as quick."
Full race results and championship standings