BRISTOL, Tenn. – Carl Edwards failed to stick the landing on his trademark backflip following Sunday’s Food City 500.
That was the only misstep for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Edwards led a total of 276 laps, the most of any race of his career, en route to earning his fourth career victory at BMS.
On a day when many drivers were handicapped by tire gremlins, pit road snafus and on-track altercations, Edwards and his pit crew were flawless. Edwards, the most physically-fit driver on the series, was passed only once during a restart the entire race.
“This win was just a real testament to our team – we have really fast race cars,” Edwards said. “Those restarts are tough, everybody is so good. Kurt [Busch] does an amazing job, I don’t know if his drag racing or something is paying off, but I have to learn what he’s doing.
“[Busch] could get so much grip down on the bottom. We just had a lot of fun and I’m really proud of my guys on pit road. This is such a special place to win and I’m really proud of my team.”
Edwards managed to be in the right place at the right time for the decisive restart with five laps left in the race. And that right place was the high line.
“The leader has an advantage there on the top, but you also go down into turns one and two and I hadn’t forgot what Kurt was able to do on that one restart – he got underneath me and made it happen,” Edwards said. “I knew I had to step it up and fortunately we had the outside lane and everything worked out. It’s so cool to win here.”
A crowd estimated at 90,000 attended the race despite near-perfect weather conditions of 72 degrees and sun.
As expected, the Bristol showdown developed into another episode of High Lane Drifter as most drivers stuck to the high line of the track to generate more speed and gain better passing chances. The only other way to pass was to attempt a power move on the inside and then execute a risky slide-job.
“There were so many different things happening out there. Different guys were fast at different times,” Edwards said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished second, followed by Kurt Busch, rookie Chase Elliott and Knoxville’s Trevor Bayne.
The comeback authored by Earnhardt was one of the most intriguing story lines of the long day. To the dismay of his army of fans, Earnhardt Jr. went two laps down when his car sputtered on the opening lap due to throttle issues.
Relying on his experience and instincts, Earnhardt navigated back through the field as his fans rose in support. Earnhardt was joined during driver introductions by football icon Peyton Manning, who was scheduled to watch several laps from Earnhardt’s pit stall.
“Manning probably left when we got two laps down. He didn’t stick around to see our comeback,” Earnhardt said. “But we just did a lot of good things today and got real lucky on a lot of restarts.
“I’m very curious as to what [Manning] thought about our sport because he’s been to the Indy 500 a couple times, but this is a real unique racetrack. When we went around the track for intros, he was pretty surprised.”
Earnhardt explained his false start in the opening lap.
“Yeah, we got the Roush system on our cars for the stuck throttle issue, and just warming the brakes up I engaged that system to kill the throttle,” Earnhardt said. “I was warming the brakes up like I always do, and apparently I applied too much pressure and it killed the motor. If your throttle is stuck and you mash the brake, you’re going to mash the [expletive] out of that brake when the throttle sticks. It will shut the motor off.”
A season of misfortune and cursed luck continued for Kenseth, who finished 36th after qualifying second. Again, tires were the problem.
“We just keep blowing right front tires, I don’t know why,” Kenseth said. “The first one was a little confusing, I knew I blew a right front, but I thought they were telling me it wasn’t flat. This second one just blew a lot earlier and the angle was a lot worse hitting the wall.
“Our car was pretty fast today. I was encouraged again even though we don’t have the result. I have a smile on my face and we’ll go to Richmond and try again.”
According to Kenseth, he wasn’t sure if the tire problems his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates experienced were due to similar setups
“I don’t know, I’m not a tire expert and I’m not a setup guy,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think we’re doing anything much different than we’ve ever done here. Same tire and pretty similar setups that we always run. No major handling problems, so I honestly don’t know.”
Edwards admitted that he felt some nerves when his JGR teammates were sideline by tire woes.
“There was some concern, but for some reason with our car we didn’t have any of those issues,” Edwards said.
Showing savvy beyond his age, the 20-year-old Elliott also rallied back after falling two laps down due to a loose wheel.
“I hated to have a loose wheel, but stuff happens,” Elliott said. “The guys did a good job having a good pit stop under green. We only ended up losing two laps and that gave us a shot to get back.
“We were one down, and then trying to get back to the lead lap. It was a long day but I’m definitely proud of the effort. We’re chipping away, just not close enough.”
The race featured 15 cautions for 102 laps, the highest for any Sprint Cup event all season.
Edwards, the pole winner, began lapping slower cars within the first 20 laps. Edwards maintained the lead until lap 37 when Joey Logano executed a crisp pass on the high side of the track.
The hottest driver in NASCAR in recent weeks, defending series champion Kyle Busch, experienced a scare on lap 53 when his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota smacked the outside wall due to a blown tire. Busch then nearly hit the wall on lap 117 when his car was hit from behind by rookie Chris Buescher.
More drama developed on lap 188 when race leader Kenseth smacked the outside wall. The inner liner on the tire helped to prevent major damage on both the Kenseth and Kyle Busch cars.
Busch then slammed the wall again on lap 260 after another blown tire. That was the end of the day for Busch, who settled for a 38th-place finish.
Several other drivers were handicapped by tire issues and troublesome pit stops.
As has been the pattern in recent BMS races, passing was at a premium Sunday and the only the brave, such as Edwards, managed to pull it off.
“We just battled through it,” said Kurt Busch, a five-time Bristol winner. “Junior had trouble at the start and I was 40th when we started the race. One car at a time. One set of tires at a time. And then we were in great position around lap 350.
“We got the lead from [Carl] Edwards for a little bit. And we just kept working on it. And there’s nothing more that I could have gotten out of the car. I’m really happy with the way that everybody worked together.”
There were 16 lead changes among seven drivers.
As for his problematic post-race backflip, Edwards offered an excuse.
“This is the oldest I’ve ever been and I was nervous about it to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s so cool to see all those fans up there cheering and the people up there supporting this No. 19 team.”