BRISTOL, Tenn. — Recap by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images North America photo —
After more than nine hours, three red flags, fog, rain and everything in between — Matt Kenseth ended his bout inside “Racing’s Last Great Coliseum” exactly where he started it.
Position number one.
Kenseth survived a marathon afternoon (and night) after winning the pole for the Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up to Cancer, converting it into his first victory since September of 2013 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and breaking a 51-race winless drought on a green-white-checkered finish.
The win was Kenseth’s 32nd career Sprint Cup victory and fourth at Bristol — but first in the spring event, after winning the Bristol night race in late August three times prior (in 2005, 2006 and 2013).
“It means a lot,” Kenseth said of getting back to Victory Lane. “I’ve got a great team — last year [going winless] was tough, and not winning again so far this year has been tough too — but we’ve been putting ourselves in position. Really need to thank Jason [Ratcliff, crew chief] and all my guys, our pit stops have been great and I haven’t been doing as good a job, but these guys have been [on it.]”
“[I’m standing up] for Steve [Byrnes], too, because I am Steve’s favorite driver,” Kenseth joked, paying a nod to the veteran FOX broadcaster who continues to battle cancer and was honored in the race’s title. “He doesn’t tell a lot of people that, but it’s true!”
Kenseth took the lead for the final time at lap 478 when Stewart Haas Racing’s Kurt Busch made his way to pit road for four tires on a strategy call he thought would win the race.
Instead, it was Busch who ended up snake-bitten — despite having fresher tires in the final laps.
Busch had fought his way back up to fifth on lap 495 of the scheduled 500 lap distance when Carl Edwards got loose in the outside lane battling with Jeff Gordon on a late-race restart, losing a massive amount of momentum. Busch, with a head of steam from behind, had nowhere to go — plowing into the back of Edwards’ No. 19 Toyota and sustaining heavy damage.
The contact drew the 11th and final caution of the night and ultimately relegated Busch to 15th in the final rundown, while Edwards came home 24th.
Under the yellow, Kenseth, Gordon and Austin Dillon — the three drivers at the front of the field who all made their final pit stops prior to lap 400 and were on much older tires than the hounds behind them — were left sweating bullets as the caution laps racked up and raindrops began to fall.
The spatters of moisture forced the third red flag of the night after two prior stoppages for rain at laps 22 and 274, and with the race at lap 505 when the red was called, visions of last year’s spring race (when Carl Edwards won under caution due to a nighttime deluge) began to appear in the minds of many.
However, NASCAR and track officials would not deny the loyal fans who had stayed a green-flag finish, and a green-white-checkered attempt came with 509 laps in the record books and a hungry Gordon to the inside of Kenseth.
The Dollar General Toyota would not be denied, though — as Jimmie Johnson fought to second ahead of his teammate, Kensth drove away into the Tennessee night, leaving Johnson to settle for second.
“It was a wild night,” Johnson admitted following the race. “I have to thank my crew for all the hard work [getting the car repaired], they burned the midnight oil on Friday [and again during the race] but they never gave up.”
“We rallied back to second, maybe not a [realistic] shot at the win, but just thrilled to get such a great finish at probably one of my tougher tracks as a driver. I’m stoked to be here, and we’ll go onto the next one.”
The final result for the six-time champion came after his involvement in a multi-car crash at lap 311 that started when Johnson tapped Jeb Burton into a spin and eliminated David Ragan and Kevin Harvick, who led the most laps (184) on the night, in the aftermath.
“When you race back there with the squirrels, sometimes you find the nut,” a frustrated Ragan said earlier in the night after being released from the infield care center. “As soon as my spotter said ‘They’re wrecking,’ I was into the No. 48.”
Gordon’s third-place effort came with a comeback story as well — the No. 24 was on pit road at lap 206 for a loose wheel and had to battle from being two laps down over the second half of the race, finally getting the free pass back onto the lead lap at lap 321.
“It certainly wasn’t easy, and [our race tonight]was filled full of ups and downs and emotions,” Gordon said. “The whole weekend really was. We were very disappointed in the way we qualified. I didn’t get the best out of the car, but we were just lacking some speed, as well. In the race though, I thought we were really, really good.”
“[We had] the loose wheel though, which was a bummer, and lost two laps. But the car was really fast after that, and we were able to get back on the lead lap, and then all the chaos broke out with restarts and rain and crashes and everything else. Found ourselves somehow in second, and I thought we were going to run out of fuel for sure, but luckily we didn’t. I knew Jimmie on the outside was going to be really, really hard to hold off, and I thought a third would be a great finish. So I’m very happy with it.”
Ricky Stenhouse and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.
Tony Stewart had his best performance of the season in sixth after late-race contact with Kasey Kahne, and Kyle Larson rallied for seventh after leading 90 laps late in the going, despite nose damage sustained when he turned Landon Cassill head-first into the outside wall at lap 367.
Surprise names Justin Allgaier (with a career-best eighth), Danica Patrick and Austin Dillon capped off the top 10.
WIth such a chaotic night, several other top contenders in addition to Harvick met their fates in wild fashion — both of the Team Penske cars (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano) finished outside the top 30 after crashing at lap 19 on the frontstretch while racing for third, and Denny Hamlin stepped out of his No. 11 FedEx Toyota during the first red flag period at lap 22 due to severe neck spasms.
JGR development driver Erik Jones (who won last week’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Texas) was flown into Bristol to relieve Hamlin and soldiered home in 26th, six laps but completing his first laps at the Cup level in the process.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to action on Saturday night, April 25 for the Toyota Owners 400 from Richmond International Raceway.