Winners and Losers of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Bristol
Forty-three cars, a half-mile short track and plenty of need for postseason posturing all but guarantees that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers and teams will leave Bristol Motor Speedway's August night race either fuming in frustration or smiling in pleasure.
Saturday night provided no shortage of either.
With a still-new method of racing around the top of the track's concrete high-banks adding to the tension, Matt Kenseth drove to the win with an impressive display to again hold Kasey Kahne back from a win. There were also 11 cautions for 74 of the 500 laps, meaning there were plenty of teams who left scowling from opportunities lost.
All told, it was another classic NASCAR night at Bristol. Click to find out who left smiling and who didn't.
Winner: Matt Kenseth
Of course Matt Kenseth was a winner at Bristol Motor Speedway. He did finish first, and he earned the right to head to Victory Lane. But Kenseth's performance Saturday night in the third-to-last race in NASCAR's regular season was remarkable beyond making his No. 20 the first to the checkered flag.
Kenseth's win was redemptive. In March, Kenseth was buried in the finishing order because of a crash in the race's final throes that wasn't his fault. That day, Kenseth was gaining on Jeff Gordon for the race's lead when Gordon blew a tire and crashed. Kenseth couldn't avoid the mess.
Now Kenseth has regained the Chase for the Sprint Cup bonus points he likely lost in March with his fifth win of 2013.
Loser: Kyle Busch's Weekend Sweep
After Kyle Busch wholly and completely dominated Friday night's Nationwide Series race at Bristol to score his second win at the track in three days, the conversation about Busch replicating the three-race weekend sweep he pulled off in 2010 reached a fever pitch. Busch was the first NASCAR driver in history to accomplish the sweep.
But thanks to a qualifying crash, Busch was starting dead last on the field for the 500-lap race. It wasn't going to be easy—in fact, winning from 43rd would have marked another first in NASCAR history.
Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Busch rallied to the top-20 after just 90 laps, but later was caught in small incident with Joey Logano that left him with a damaged car. With repairs, Busch managed a lead-lap 11th-place finish.
Winner: Bristol Racing
The drivers sure don't seem to like it, and at times the struggle of passing can be frustrating to watch. Regardless, it's obvious that the style of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway has again become must-see.
Now forced to navigate a high line for maximum speed, the Sprint Cup cars look fast and frenetic as they whip around the half-mile track. It's putting drivers in positions where they have to take risks to make passes. Even slower lapped traffic becomes a tough obstacle.
It's not the old Bristol, but the style of racing now in play at the new Bristol is incredibly more engaging than many other tracks on the current NASCAR schedule.
Loser: Juan Pablo Montoya
There would have been real irony in Juan Pablo Montoya winning at Bristol Motor Speedway just weeks after news broke that Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing was dropping him in 2014 for lack of performance. Instead, Montoya again let a mistake hamper his results.
Montoya wound up third Saturday night after rallying from a pit road speeding penalty earlier in the event. The penalty—he was too fast exiting the pits on Lap 336 after entering in second place—forced Montoya to the back. Instead of tuning his car to match the likes of Kahne and Kenseth who finished in front of him, Montoya and crew chief Chris Heroy were stuck trying to regain track position.
By the time Montoya got back to the top-5, he didn't quite have the speed to overcome the leaders.
Winner: Kasey Kahne's Track Respect
Kasey Kahne had all of the ingredients in front of him to pull off the oft-used Bristol bump-and-run and win for the third time in 2013. Instead, Kahne used none of them while trying desperately to pass Matt Kenseth in a clean manner in race's final 20 laps. He never made it.
Most of the Sprint Cup garage fully expected Kahne would nudge Kenseth from the lead in the final laps. It was just two weeks prior, after Kenseth unintentionally wrecked Kahne at Watkins Glen, that Kahne lamented how many times Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had spun him this season.
But Kahne didn't use retaliation as a racing strategy, and likely bolstered his clean-driver image among his peers. That could pay off big in situations going forward.
Loser: Chase Implications on Race
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a pretty good car on Saturday night, and likely could have contended inside the top-5 late in the race. But thanks to the extraneous pressures of qualifying for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, his team had to take a conservative route to the finish by pitting for fuel and wound up 10th. The stop was insurance to make sure Earnhardt wouldn't run out in the final laps.
"If we were past Richmond, Steve (Letarte, crew chief) said we would have gambled and went for it. I believe that," Earnhardt said. "If it was earlier in the season we would have gambled and went for it. But under the circumstances we didn’t have the freedom to do that and as much as I hate to say what could have happened maybe we could have finished in the top five or top three even."
In the era of racing for championship points, the situation from Saturday night isn't exactly new in NASCAR. Still, it's disappointing that going all out for a win isn't a top priority each week.
Quotes used firsthand from post-race transcripts.
Winner: Jeff Gordon
Not much has gone right for Jeff Gordon in the last few weeks as he's dropped outside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup qualification spots. It got worse Friday at Bristol when Gordon, despite a fast car in practice, qualified a lowly 32nd.
That meant Gordon would have to delicately pick through the field on a track where every pass required premium effort and danger of a spinning car lurked at every moment.
Somehow, though, Gordon made it through and wound up be in contention for much of the race. His seventh-place finish wasn't the best, but on a night when drivers around him in the Chase push suffered problems, it did the job. Gordon now stands just eleven points from a Chase berth.
Loser: Brad Keselowski
Without a win to his name this season, and one perhaps left on the table when he decided against roughing up Kyle Busch on the final lap at Watkins Glen, Brad Keselowski has no guarantee of making the Chase as the sport's defending champion.
Saturday night at Bristol didn't help his cause.
Keselowski was swept into an eight-car mess 53 laps from the end of the race and suffered enough damage in the crash that he had to go behind the wall. Keselowski finished 22 laps down in 30th, and now either needs to move to 10th from his 11th-place spot in the point standings or earn a win in the final two races.
Loser: Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson has already clinched his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but Saturday night at Bristol didn't leave his team brimming with confidence as they move closer to NASCAR's postseason.
Johnson couldn't avoid a spinning David Reutimann on Lap 359 and smashed in his radiator when the two collided. The No. 48 needed extensive repairs and returned to track to finish 60 laps down in 36th.
Making matters worse, Johnson's second-straight poor outing (he blew an engine at Michigan last week) also saw Matt Kenseth move ahead of him in the tally of Chase bonus points with Kenseth's fifth win of 2013 to Johnson's four.
Winner: Bristol's Driver Introductions
As if the rejuvenated racing at Bristol wasn't enough, the track has also perfected its process of announcing the starting field for the race. For at least the second or third consecutive year, the track has asked drivers to pick a song to walk out to—much like baseball players—and then announce themselves personally.
In the past, Brad Keselowski highlighted this format with a Kyle Busch insult. Saturday night, Denny Hamlin cheekily suggested he was considering payback on Joey Logano from a run-in the pair had at Bristol in March. Ultimately, nothing ever came of it.
The complete video of the introductions, recorded by Jeff Gluck of USA Today, is above and has several high points. The best music choice may be when Kevin Harvick walks out to Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" as chosen by friend and country music singer Jake Owen.