One rain delay couldn't stop him, so Bristol made it two. No matter the conditions, though, nothing could deter Carl Edwards from doing his patented backflip.
Edwards earned his first win of the 2014 Sprint Cup season on Sunday, reaching the start-finish line under caution to best Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Aric Almirola to win the Food City 500. It is Edwards' third career victory at Bristol Motor Speedway.
|2||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
For much of the final few laps, it looked as if Edwards would pull away for a multi-second victory. However, a confusing caution with two and a half laps remaining seemingly gave fans who braved the elements a thrilling finish.
Until the rain again ruined proceedings. Staring at a green-white-checkered finish, the clouds again opened up to pour on the Bristol short track, leaving NASCAR little choice but to allow Edwards to win the race under caution to the dismay of fans.
Jim Utter of The Charlotte Observer broke down the odd caution flag at the end of the race:
Long after Sunday night’s race was over, NASCAR’s vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, provided a thorough, clear explanation of why caution lights inexplicably came on with two of 500 laps remaining. Unfortunately, Pemberton’s explanation wasn’t the only one offered by NASCAR after the race. Even if the original explanation – a mechanical malfunction – was honestly thought to be the correct one at the time, NASCAR should never issue statements or explanations until it is certain it has the right one. The best of intentions can easily be overshadowed by a mistaken perception of a cover-up, or even worse, incompetence.
Two rain delays totaling more than five hours turned Bristol's yearly afternoon race into a nightcap. Originally slated for a 1 p.m. ET start, the race didn't begin until almost two full hours later as rain showers drenched the speedway. The drivers were then only able to complete 118 laps before another downpour caused the red flag to come out.
Inclement weather has been a pervading storyline of this young Sprint Cup season. The Daytona 500 was nearly washed out by rain, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't cross the finish line until almost the midnight hour.
Unfortunately for the No. 88 car, the result was not nearly the same this time around. Starting 14th, Earnhardt hung around the top 10 before myriad issues ruined his hot start to the season. Having finished no worse than second through the first three races, Earnhardt spent much of his evening laps behind and merely trying to move up in the pack by capitalizing on other drivers' mistakes.
And in typical Bristol tradition, there were plenty of those. The new rules of the Chase for the Sprint Cup have drivers riding with more desperation to lead than ever, and the oncoming rain only exasperated the aggression. The final caution was the 14th of the race, as nearly as many cars finished 10 laps or more down than on the lead lap.
After coming into Sunday one point ahead of Brad Keselowski for the points lead, Earnhardt dropped to second. He is 10 points behind, with Edwards and Jeff Gordon tied for third and trailing by 11.
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||153||-10|
|10||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||122||-41|
Keselowski had adventures of his own. The 2012 Chase champion was involved in an accident with Kevin Harvick late in the race, but his crew managed to remove his hood and limit the damage in time to keep him on the lead lap. Keselowski finished 14th, the second-to-last car on the lead lap.
The victory is certainly promising for Edwards, who has had up-and-down seasons over the past couple of years. Edwards struggled mightily at Daytona, but he now has three straight top-10 finishes under his belt.
While Edwards certainly deserves credit for driving his way to victory, his crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, also deserves recognition. It was Fennig's decision to stay out for track position rather than pit under a yellow flag that put Edwards in the lead to begin with. Edwards was quick to point out his crew chief's influence in his post-race interview, as Kentucky Speedway noted:
#CarlEdwards: I just can't believe we turned this thing around. We were terrible Saturday. Glad we turned it around. Jimmy's the man.— Kentucky Speedway (@KySpeedway) March 17, 2014
Fennig's decision helped make Edwards the most fortunate of the 12 lap leaders Sunday. His 78 laps led were only the second most among leaders, with Matt Kenseth's total of 165 leading the way.
Kenseth was a dominant figure early on and looked like the car to beat before troubles ruined his day. Last-place finisher Timmy Hill hit the back of Kenseth's car in one incident, which started a string of bad luck for the No. 20 car. Over the radio, he had a creative way of describing his car, per Joe Gibbs Racing:
Kenseth "I feel like a high school kid in my first race... It's so free, I don't know what happened to it."— Boris for JGR (@JoeGibbsRacing) March 17, 2014
Other notable leaders included Kyle Busch (73 laps), Jimmie Johnson (44) and Keselowski (40). Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole has to be a bit disappointed with how the race turned out. Busch finished 29th after being involved in a late accident. Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin stayed mostly out of trouble to finish sixth, but he led only four laps. Kenseth's troubles caused him to wind up 13th.
With the drivers heading to California next week, everyone will have to move on quickly. California's larger, far speedier track is a whole different type of test compared to Bristol—arguably the most famous short track in racing.
Johnson, who finished two laps down in 19th, has won five times at the famed track and should be a force. Edwards has only one win, but after all the tumult he went through to win at Bristol, it's hard to count him out anywhere at this point.