Carl Edwards overcame the field, the crazy short track at Bristol and Mother Nature's fury to win the Food City 500 on Sunday, setting up a crowded group atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings heading into the Auto Club 400 next weekend.
As pointed out by Fox Sports, it was a long day on the track for everyone involved, as the race was delayed multiple times due to heavy rain:
The wet track led to multiple accidents, and it would be a lot quicker to list the drivers who came away unscathed than it would be to list everyone who ended up getting dinged up on Sunday—or worse.
Matt Kenseth, who led the race for much of the early going, was one of the drivers who suffered a setback due to the crazy weather. He was drilled from behind by Timmy Hill after Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt set off a chain reaction on lap 156.
There were more than a few such crashes during the brutal affair at Bristol, and one of them led to Kevin Harvick's car catching fire, as noted by Stewart-Haas Racing, and his subsequent failure to finish the race:
Harvick's race goes up in smoke. Literally. Car caught fire. He's out. Fire is out.— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) March 17, 2014
In the end, Edwards managed to keep his car in one piece, navigating the dangerous track with skill to claim his first victory of the season and vault three spots in the Sprint Cup standings to No. 3 overall. The win almost guarantees he'll earn a spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, per NASCAR Stats:
Edwards is now virtually guaranteed a spot in the Chase for the #NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) March 17, 2014
He credited the win to the "gutsy" decision by his team to keep his car on the track with 75 laps to go after the caution flag went up once again.
“Aric [Almirola] and those guys were really fast. I don’t know if I could’ve gotten by them [without the call],” Edwards said to Fox Sports after the race, via Chris Estrada of MotorsportTalk.com. “That was a gutsy call.”
As usual, despite the rain, Edwards showed off for the remaining fans with his customary victory backflip, as shown by NASCAR News:
A classic Carl Edwards victory backflip! pic.twitter.com/LVEsoQLamE— NASCAR News (@SprintCupNews) March 17, 2014
Here's a look at the updated standings after the race at Bristol, followed by a list of upcoming races as the season continues to rumble along.
Updated NASCAR Sprint Cup Standings
|2||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||153||-10||1|
|10||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||122||-41|
Clearly, there's a bit of a logjam at the top of the standings, with four drivers within 11 points of one another, with Brad Keselowski hanging tight to a 10-point lead after he finished in 14th place at Bristol.
He, like many, had to overcome some difficulties to finish the race, as shown by Sunoco Racing:
After running hot for the past few races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. cooled off a bit with a 24th-place finish, but he's still clinging to second place in the standings, thanks to his top finishes at Daytona and Phoenix.
Earnhardt's recent success has resulted in an uptick in Daytona 500 merchandise sales at NASCAR.com, according to Nate Ryan of USA Today Sports.
"These are important signs, and in totality, it does tell the story," NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps said recently, as relayed by Ryan. "It's a positive to get Junior Nation out there wanting to show their colors; that's great for NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his sponsors."
Coming in right behind Dale Jr. are Edwards and Jeff Gordon, and last year's champion, Jimmie Johnson, isn't far behind.
|Race||Track||Date||Time (ET)||Distance (Miles)||2013 Winner|
|Auto Club 400||Auto Club Speedway||Sun, March 23||3 p.m.||400||Kyle Busch|
|STP 500||Martinsville Speedway||Sun, March 30||1 p.m.||263||Jimmie Johnson|
|Duck Commander 500||Texas Motor Speedway||Sun, April 6||3 p.m.||501||Kyle Busch|
|Bojangles' Southern 500||Darlington Raceway||Sat, April 12||6:30 p.m.||501.322||Matt Kenseth|
|Toyota Owners 400||Richmond International Raceway||Sat, April 26||7 p.m.||300||Kevin Harvick|
|Aaron's 499||Talladega Superspeedway||Sun, May 4||1 p.m.||500.08||David Ragan|
Up next for Edwards and the rest of NASCAR's elite is a trip to sunny California for the Auto Club 400 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.
Kyle Busch comes in as the defending champion, but nobody should count out three-time champion Matt Kenseth, who won the race before it was shortened from 500 miles to 400.
If any of the three at the top of the standings manages to win another race, then they'll have a clear-cut advantage over the field. Contrarily, if someone else wins in Fontana, then the standings will be even more bunched up at the top.
The season is still young, and there is plenty of racing yet to be done before the championship arrives in September. If the first four races of this new season are any indicator of what we can expect the rest of the way, then NASCAR fans are in for a real treat.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78