Food City 500: Winners and Losers from Bristol
Fans who stayed around for nearly nine hours witnessed a wild and unpredictable Bristol race that should finally put to rest the argument that the “old” Bristol configuration made for better racing than the current one.
Race winner Carl Edwards gave the credit for the victory to veteran crew chief Jimmy Fennig who made a gutsy call for Edwards to stay out with 45 laps to go when most of the rest of the front-runners came in for tires.
“We only had 17 laps on the tires, so it wasn’t too difficult a call,” said Fennig in the post-race presser. “Once the track got rubbered in, tires weren’t a problem.”
A caution with three laps to go, caused by a malfunction with the lights around the race track, slowed the field just minutes before another of the numerous rain showers, that plagued the race track all day, forced the field to remain under caution as the checkered flag fell.
Aside from the weather, tires ended up being a serious issue for many. No less than eight different drivers had their day changed by having a cut tire that either sent them into the wall or spinning into oncoming traffic.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished a career-high second, and Aric Almirola was third. Fords were 1-2-3 and four of the top five (Marcos Ambrose—fifth).
Tony Stewart rounded out the top five with his best finish so far this season, also putting to rest any questions about his leg injury.
Winner: Ford and Ford Racing
It was an impressive day for the Blue Oval crowd. Along with winning the race, Fords finished second, third, fifth and 12th.
It was the 620th NASCAR win for Ford and the 134th for Roush Fenway Racing.
Edwards’ third Bristol win ties him with NASCAR legend Fred Lorenzen and Kurt Busch, who each won three times at this track for Ford.
There was strong pressure for Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) to prove itself after Ford’s win last weekend at Las Vegas in a Team Penske-prepared car driven by Brad Keselowski. Team Penske gets its engines from Roush Fenway Racing affiliate Roush Yates Engines. RFR team principle Jack Roush had this to say in the post-race press conference:
It was a great night for Roush Fenway and for all the guys in the shop. They worked hard all winter and they got the result from it tonight that they deserved. It has been a very long winter for us.
With both Edwards and Keselowski in the Chase, the pressure is off RFR, at least for now. Expect this Bristol win to add to the confidence gained from last week’s Vegas victory and keep them at the head of the pack next weekend at California and beyond.
Loser: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior had his worst outing of 2014. His team was looking to score their fourth top-two finish in a row, a feat only done once before by the "The King" Richard Petty.
The No. 88 team had numerous issues that forced its Chevy SS to spend several laps on pit road under both green- and yellow-flag conditions.
Earnhardt Jr. was able to battle his way back through the field every time, and when the checkered flag flew, he was one lap down from the leaders in 24th position.
Despite telling the television viewing audience during one of the lengthy rain delays that Bristol was his favorite track and that it held so many memories from his childhood, it’s not been one of his better tracks professionally. Earnhardt Jr. has only one win in 28 attempts, with 14 top-10s.
It’s likely this team will brush a disappointing weekend like this off its respective shoulders and head west for next weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway with its momentum unscathed—for now.
Winner: Tony Stewart
Based on his finish at Bristol, NASCAR fans might see more smiles like this on veteran driver Tony Stewart’s face.
The stress of his health issues, adding a fourth team and other factors have made 2014 a difficult year so far for Smoke. If anyone in the field needed a strong finish at Bristol, it was Stewart. His Stewart-Haas Racing organization as a whole has struggled to get off the ground this season, save for one bright spot—Kevin Harvick’s win at Phoenix in the second race of the year. Stewart in a post-race television interview said:
Yeah it’s a step in the right direction for sure. This is a big one. If you come out of this place with a top-five you’ve had a good day.
Track position was big like it always is here. We were pretty strong at the end we just couldn’t run those guys down in front of us. Carl (Edwards) was obviously really strong at the end. Happy with the day that we had.
After starting 37th, Stewart navigated his Chevrolet SS through on-track turmoil, rain delays and ever-changing track conditions to earn his best finish since the 0.5-mile track was reconfigured in 2012. His finish moves Stewart up four positions in the driver standings to 23rd.
On a day that was a big momentum push for the No. 14 team, all questions about Stewart’s health were quashed, as he held his own through 500 laps at Bristol—a feat for even those whose health is 100 percent.
Loser: Kyle Busch
Unfortunately, this was the view of Kyle Busch’s race car fans saw more often than not during Sunday’s Food City 500.
Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing squad had a long day as issue after issue plagued the Skittles-sponsored Toyota Camry.
Despite leading 73 laps early, Busch finished the race 29th, four laps down from the race leaders. It was exactly the day the five-time Bristol winner had been expecting.
During the lengthy rain delays both before and during the race, Busch was relaxed and appeared on television exuding the confidence of a driver whose day would end on a positive note.
After racing resumed in the early evening, following a lengthy second rain delay, track conditions had changed so dramatically that Busch found himself with an ill-handling Toyota that even numerous stops on pit road could not fix. It was not to be win No. 6 for Busch. His poor finish dropped Busch four places in the driver standings. He is currently 14th.
Up next is Auto Club Speedway (ACS) and a cure for everything that ails this team after a long and disappointing day at Bristol. Busch is good at ACS. He has two wins, 11 top-10s and one pole on the two-mile track in southern California. What better place to erase the memories of Bristol.
Winner: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Bristol was close to being a perfect weekend for the 26-year-old Mississippi-born Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
He posted a career-best finish and his first top-10 finish in three races at Bristol Motor Speedway. His previous best finish was third, at Talladega (10/2013). This was his second top-10 in 2014.
It built on the growing confidence of this young man, whose career in NASCAR has gone through several ups and downs. Right now, it’s most definitely on an up, a place where he’d like it to stay for awhile.
“It helps our confidence for sure,” said Stenhouse Jr. “We’re having a lot of fun. We’re just slowly working and getting (it) better and better. I thought we were a lot better than our finish last week at Las Vegas, except I sped on pit road.”
Had the rains not come after the final caution and the race had been a green-white-checker finish, Stenhouse Jr. was ready to take on his teammate. When asked if he thought he had something for race winner Edwards, he replied,
I don’t know. I was thinking I would use the bumper if the opportunity was there. If you get the win, you’re in the Chase and you can let the rest take care of itself later. That’s what I was really thinking if we went back green.
Of note: During the long afternoon rain delay, Stenhouse Jr.’s girlfriend, Danica Patrick, encouraged the Fox television crew to interview her boyfriend while she was on-camera live. It made for a great television moment and clearly revealed Patrick’s affection for Stenhouse Jr.
Loser: Kevin Harvick
For the second week in a row, Kevin Harvick found himself the victim of a mechanical malfunction that ruined an otherwise strong outing.
Last week it was a left front wheel that locked up, forcing him to spend time behind the wall for repairs. This time it wasn’t an easy fix. A fire, apparently caused by a broken oil line, caused major damage to his race car.
The fire put Harvick out of the race with 50 laps remaining. He led 28 laps early in the race, but with the handling slowly going away in his race car, Harvick began falling back. It was a difficult finish for Harvick, who battled his way through the field twice.
Bristol’s long day and frustrating ending make Harvick’s win at Phoenix seem like eons ago. His miserable ending on Sunday dropped the Stewart-Haas Racing driver seven places in the points. He is now 21st.
Next stop, Auto Club Speedway is the home track for Harvick, who grew up in nearby Bakersfield. He has one win and nine top-10s on the Fontana oval, a track that suits his driving style.
Winner: NASCAR and Its Fans
Once again, NASCAR fans have proven they are the most loyal and dedicated of all sports fans.
After two lengthy delays that turned day into night, and as temperatures steadily dropped (eerily recalling some of the snow race of 2006), NASCAR fans hung in there, knowing that when the rain stopped, the track would dry, and they would be thoroughly entertained by 43 of the best drivers in the world.
Who knew that NASCAR’s latest wonder, the Air Titan, a technological marvel that quickly dries race tracks better than the costly jet dryers used for decades, would prove itself to be an invaluable tool so early in the racing season.
Perhaps it was the thought of how good the racing was after the season-opening Daytona 500 went through a lengthy rain delay that kept the fans at the track. After all, they could have just driven back to their hotels to wait out the rain or watch it on television.
But this is Bristol, baby! And these are NASCAR fans. Hale and hearty and not willing to give up their seat for a little moisture.
Those who remained (and their numbers were substantial) were rewarded for their dedication.
It was a spectacular race that featured not only two-wide racing, but three, and, at times, four-wide (yes, television recorded several unsuccessful four-wide attempts) competition at a track that for years was a single-groove race track. The only way to make a pass was to bump the car in front of you out of the way.
Those days are long gone and, hopefully after Sunday’s performance, so is the grumbling form the small cadre of fans who insist that the old single-groove Bristol offered better racing.
They are wrong. It’s time to pull their heads out and take a long look at what’s happening at the place they call “Thunder Valley.”
Loser: Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray’s race started off with great promise. The No. 1 Chip Ganassi Chevrolet SS started in 17th place and quickly moved his way up through the field. After the first 200 laps, he was running with the race leaders, leading the race for 10 laps.
Much of McMurray’s success came courtesy of new crew chief Keith Rodden. He comes from Hendrick Motorsports where he was an engineer on the No. 5 team with driver Kasey Kahne, who won this race last spring.
Eventually tire issues and then being caught in the middle of other drivers' wrecks spelled doom for McMurray, who finished 38th. An unrepairable wreck eventually put him out of the race with 47 laps remaining.
McMurray dropped five places in the driver point standings to 16th.
Fontana, where the Sprint Cup series races next weekend hasn’t been a good track for McMurray, who may have to wait until Martinsville, where he has 12 top-10s, to turn his season back in the right direction.
Winner: Kyle Larson
Rookie sensation Kyle Larson is undoubtedly living up to all of his preseason hype. He finished 10th and impressed many longtime Bristol fans with his solid run at the difficult short track.
"We had a really good run today,” Larson said after the race. “Started off the race in 20th and got to the top 10 pretty easily there in the beginning, and then pretty much stayed in the top 10 for the whole race and inched our way up to the front. I just think we didn't keep up with it enough the last two pit stops.
Toward the end of the race, Larson’s Chevy didn’t have the handling it exhibited earlier, and he was unable to keep up with the race leaders.
"It's crazy to think it's kind of a disappointing finish for the way we ran for most of the race, but all in all it was a good race. It was a lot of fun racing with Austin Dillon there at the end. We must have ran side by side or so for the last 20 laps. I definitely had to get up on the wheel and get the elbows up and try not to make any mistakes.”
Next weekend, he’ll make his Sprint Cup debut at Auto Club Speedway. He’s made it fun to watch this young rookie, and next week’s race should be no different.
Loser: Jimmie Johnson
It was a forgettable weekend for the six-time champion. While Bristol hasn’t been among his best tracks, with only one win and 13 top-10s in 24 outings, the Hendrick Motorsports team’s long day could easily be described as miserable.
After starting 11th, Johnson lost a tire early in the race, forcing him to pit. Things went downhill from there for the No. 48 team. Even Chad Knaus’ magic and all the muscle Johnson has gained from lifting weights couldn't right their ship.
Although Johnson worked his way from the back to the front of the field more than once, he finished 19th, two laps down from the race leaders.
This team will quickly put Bristol in its rearview mirror and look west to California. Auto Club Speedway has been very good to Johnson and his teammates, with five wins and 14 top-10s.
Winner: Richard Petty Racing
The turnaround story for 2014 may very well end up being Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM).
The third-place finish by Almirola and fifth place by Ambrose at Bristol is the best overall showing for this organization—ever.
Obviously, this Ford team benefits greatly from having Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske as manufacturing teammates. RFR has always been able to build good cars, and this year, Roush Yates is delivering the horsepower to power them to greatness.
One-time NASCAR Diversity driver Almirola has come of age and is racing up front with the leaders, while teammate Ambrose, who has already won on the circuit on road courses, is proving that he’s not a one-trick pony by his oval-track finishes so far this year.
Expect big things from this duo out of RFR. And while the organization might not be considered championship material at this point in time, one of these drivers could very easily get lucky on a Sunday afternoon, win a race and put him in the Chase. From there, it’s anybody’s game.
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.