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Rain played a starring role in Sunday's Food City 500, along the way transforming an afternoon event into a floodlit night race, but in between the weather delays there was plenty of exciting racing and controversial incident. The early front runners progressively fell by the wayside, until finally Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards emerged as the man to beat and who was ultimately still in front when the final rain shower called time on proceedings - albeit with a little help from a bizarre final caution.
"It's just an awesome night. We're in the Chase and we're gonna go win this championship!" said Edwards in victory lane, having claiming his 22nd victory in 341 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and his third in 20 starts at Bristol after starting from 12th place on the grid. It's a victory that likely guarantees him a Chase position under the new format for 2014.
"I've been a little bit jealous of those guys who have wins this early in the season," he said. "I was thinking today, I can't imagine what it must be like to be able to come to the racetrack like this and have all that pressure off of you, so now we'll get to go have some fun. I'm really excited about the next 22 races. That'll be a blast."
Although the forecasts heading into race day had made dire predictions regarding the likely weather at Bristol Motor Speedway, the race actually got underway after only a two hour delay for the Air Titans to dry off the half mile track following earlier rainfall. Pole winner Denny Hamlin led the field to green, but Brad Keselowski took over almost immediately and was joined at the front by his Penske team mate Joey Logano, the pair maintaining the lead between them all the way to the scheduled competition caution on lap 50. Jimmie Johnson won the race off pit road ahead of Logano and the full Joe Gibbs Racing trilogy boxset of Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch with Keselowski dropping back to fifth for the restart which saw two quick debris cautions on lap 60 and 66. The latter was seemingly the result of a battery unit on the track that had dropped out of Alex Bowman's #23 BK Racing car, contact with which sent Parker Kligerman out of control and narrowly managing to avoid a major accident.
The race resumed on lap 76 and Johnson continued to lead for the next 20 laps until Kenseth finally proved too strong to hold back, much as he had for the majority of the previous day's Nationwide race at Bristol. Shortly afterwards, Johnson's campaign came off the rails with the right-side front tyre going down sending him to pit road and dropping him two laps off the lead in 38th place, while another former leader also hit problems when Joey Logano lost his power steering.
That presaged bigger problems for the whole field, when the weather once again closed in and made its presence felt, light rain turning heavier that put the race under a red flag on lap 125, a quarter of the scheduled race distance - too early for the race to be declared official. The red flag lasted for almost three hours 20 minutes before conditions improved and the track was dry enough to refire the cars and get everyone back out, with Kenseth in the lead ahead of Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Kenseth held the lead until lap 153, but then it was Kurt Busch - looking in his best form of the year since his switch to Stewart-Haas Racing - who passed him for the top spot on the low side just before Cole Whitt spun to bring out a new caution; in the aftermath, Timmy Hill impacted the rear of the #20 car, forcing Kenseth to pit for repairs - one more blow for another former leader of the race who dropped to 30th place but was still on the lead laps thanks to some quick work from the JGR pit crew.
McMurray took over in front just before a new competition caution (because the track had been washed clean under the earlier stoppage) at the end of lap 186. Clint Bowyer stayed out to take the lead for the restart ahead of Kyle Busch and his brother Kurt, and it was Kyle who won the opening tussle to claim the lead on lap 195. With competition intensifying as the laps ticked past the halfway point - and therefore make the race official should there be another rain stoppage - Kyle retained the lead until lap 270 when a right front tyre issues forced him to dive onto pit road and off the lead lap - another former leader laid low - just before Ryan Truex brought out the seventh caution by hitting the wall in turn 3 during which the rest of the field was able to pit under yellow. That left Kasey Kahne in the lead for the green flag on lap 285, with Matt Kenseth having completed a storming recovery charge to run in second ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson, Carl Edwards and Aric Almirola. Kenseth wrested control at the restart and kept it through a caution for David Ragan hitting the wall on lap 333 after which Larson took up the role of Kenseth's main pursuer. There was no usurping the #20, however, and Kenseth was still in front when Kyle Busch spun into the wall in turn 4 on lap 394 and got clipped on the rebound by his brother Kurt to bring out the ninth caution of the day, now well into the darkness of evening under the floodlights.
Harvick and Edwards beat Kenseth and Larson off pit road to lead at the restart, but Kenseth was unhappy with his new tyres and quickly fell away from the leaders before a new caution on lap 422 for Martin Truex Jr. spinning with a left rear tyre issue. Edwards stayed out to lead at the restart which was short lived before Harvick hit the wall on lap 451 with a severed oil line, the #4 catching fire as Harvick jumped out. With Keselowski running into the back of McMurray in the aftermath that was three more top contenders now out of the running, as Edwards led Almirola, Stenhouse, Tony Stewart and Marcos Ambrose to the restart on lap 462 with just under 40 laps remaining.
Edwards pulled out more than two seconds on the others, but a sudden surprise caution on lap 497 thwarted what looked to be a clear run to victory lane for the #99. That should have set up a green-white-chequered finale instead, but renewed rain chose that exact moment to suddenly sweep over the track and NASCAR took this as a sign and decided that was enough was enough. The race was declared over, which was probably the fairest outcome given that without the phantom final caution - subsequently ascribed to a malfunction of the track lights (see separate story
) - Edwards would have almost certainly swept to victory anyway.
"We've been struggling lately, and for us to come out of here with a win and to run so well with a number of the Fords out of our shop, that was big," said Edwards in victory lane. "We were terrible on Saturday, so I'm just glad we turned it around."
Edwards gave a lot of the credit to his crew chief Jimmy Fennig, who also made the call for the #99 to stay out under the caution following Truex Jr.'s accident despite the issues other leading cars had experiences with tyre failures. "That's a gutsy call with all the tyre trouble," he said, adding: "Aric and those guys were really fast, I don't know if I could have got by them [otherwise]."
Edwards' RFR team mate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came in second followed by Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola, a career best result for both men - Stenhouse's previous best being third at Talladega last October, while Almirola's previous best career finish being fourth at Homestead in 2010 and Martinsville in 2012. Stewart Haas Racing's Tony Stewart was fourth ahead of RPM's Marcos Ambrose making it a Ford-powered 1-2-3-5, while pole man Hamlin was the top JGR finish in sixth ahead of Hendrick Motorsport duo Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.
In the points standings, Brad Keselowski goes top by ten points over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who fell off the lead lap and finished in 24th after being forced to pit under green with a handling issue mid-race.
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| Sprint Cup Championship standings