March 17, 2014 — race report by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Drew Hallowell/Getty Images photo — BRISTOL, TN — Have you ever?
Capping a wild ending to a long and harrowing day, Carl Edwards rejoiced as first the caution lights randomly began flashing with two and a half laps to go down the back straightaway, and then his windshield began filling with raindrops a few moments after.
Four laps later, the words “yellow and checkered” crackled over the NASCAR radio, and Edwards has reason to celebrate, winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, run under the lights for the first time after a delay of more than two hours before the green flag and then a second rain delay of 3 hours and 19 minutes after 124 laps in Sunday’s marathon event.
“Man, I did not want to see that caution,” Edwards said during a soggy Victory Lane celebration. “Concern was not a strong enough word. So, I’m glad the rain came. I think there were some higher powers at work there.”
“Jimmy Fennig (Edwards’ crew chief) makes some calls doesn’t he,” Edwards added with a big grin. “Jimmy told me (our crew) worked until 3 a.m. on simulation stuff. We’d been struggling lately, so for us to come out here and run so well with the number of Fords out of our shop, that was big. Aric and those guys were really fast. I don’t know if I could have gotten by them. That was a gutsy call (not to pit) with all the tire trouble.”
“Just an awesome night. We’re in the Chase and we’re going to go out and win this championship. Damn, I just can’t believe we turned this thing around. We were terrible, just terrible on Saturday.”
Edwards’ run capped a one-two-three sweep by the Blue Oval brand on Sunday night, as teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Richard Petty Motorsports driver Aric Almirola finished second and third, respectively, notching career-best Sprint Cup Series finishes.
Almirola was disappointed that the rains came at the end of the event, feeling like he missed out on a chance to capitalize.
“I saw it, right there at my fingertips on that one restart when I raced side-by-side with Carl,” Almirola said. “When you can see it and taste it and you’re that close, you wonder what could have went differently. But he had a lot better car than we did tonight.”
Tony Stewart notched a season-best fourth, and Marcos Ambrose finished fifth to give Ford four cars in the top five at the finish.
The race was originally scheduled to start at 1:01 P.M. Eastern, bumped up from 1:16 because of the impending weather, but Mother Nature had other ideas, dampening the track and forcing the race to be delayed until just after 3 P.M.
Once the green flag dropped though, the racing was fast and furious, with six drivers including polesitter Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson all taking turns at the front of the field. Johnson had a right front tire shred just after Lap 100 left him three laps down and behind the eight ball for the rest of the night. Johnson ultimately finished 19th, two laps down.
The caution flew at lap 118 for the second rain delay, with NASCAR stopping the field at lap 125, the one-quarter mark of the event. After several hours of working on the racetrack, the field resumed just after 7 P.M. Eastern time under the lights at Bristol, and the intensity ratcheted up to a whole-new level.
Matt Kenseth restarted with the race lead but yielded to Kurt Busch on lap 153 before disaster seemingly struck the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team a couple laps later. Following a crash between Danica Patrick and Timmy Hill that drew the caution on lap 156, Timmy Hill, who didn’t slow up at the caution flag, slammed into the back bumper of the Husky Tools Toyota.
The damage looked bad, but ultimately was not nearly as bad as it seemed for Kenseth. His Joe Gibbs Racing team went to work under the caution to repair his car and keep him on the lead lap. The race resumed green flag racing with Kurt Busch leading brother Kyle at the head of the pack.
The action remained fast and furious throughout the field, with cars racing three and sometimes four-wide in the corners. Eyes quickly turned to Kenseth as he began slicing his way top and bottom through the field from the back of the pack. Kenseth had charged to fourth at lap 242 and took the lead shortly after a lap 275 caution for Ryan Truex, who crashed hard in Turn Three.
Kenseth held the lead until lap 394 when Kyle Busch lost his car off of Turn Two and was clipped by his brother Kurt, necessitating a yellow flag and a set of pit stops. Kevin Harvick, who had one of the fastest cars on the race track at the time, beat Kenseth off the pit lane and assumed the lead.
Kenseth’s remarkable run came to an end on lap 408 when he moved up the race track and got into the marbles, falling back to 13th and never being able to mount a serious challenge again. After the ninth caution of the race flew for Martin Truex Jr., the race and strategy turned when Edwards, Almirola, Stenhouse and others stayed out during pit stops at lap 424.
Harvick, who was the first driver with four fresh tires on the restart, screamed through the field on the restart, getting all the way up to Stenhouse’s rear bumper for third when smoke began billowing out of his Budweiser Chevrolet. Harvick pounded the wall in Turn Two and collected front runners Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski in the aftermath. Harvick then drove to the garage with the front of his car on fire, effectively ending his night.
The race restarted on lap 462 and Edwards and Almirola pulled away from the field, with Almirola looking under Edwards for a few laps. However, Edwards was quickly able to pull away from the No. 43 Ford when his teammate Stenhouse and Almirola began battling for second, allowing the No. 99 to slip away into the night.
Edwards had a lead of nearly three seconds with just three laps left when several caution lights around the track mysteriously came on, puzzling drivers, spectators and media personnel alike.
It was later explained by NASCAR that the actual cause of the final caution flag was an error by the flag stand personnel. One of the flagmen evidently leaned on the manual override switch in the flag stand, causing the caution lights to come on.
“After review of the situation post‑race, what happened in the closing laps of the race, it appears that in the flag stand one of the flag people leaned on the switch that is the manual override for the caution lights… when the flag stand realized that the caution lights were illuminated, the flag man threw the flag, and then after that happened we froze the field from the tower,” said NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton.
While NASCAR was trying to fix the issue of the caution lights, Mother Nature returned to Bristol for the third time. With rain pouring down and the track lost, NASCAR officials opted to wave the checkered flag and declared Edwards the victor.
Despite all the confusion, it did not quell Edwards’ enthusiasm for the victory, culminating in his signature backflip on the frontstretch amidst the deluge of rain.
The series now heads to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday at 3 P.M. ET live on FOX.