March 17, 2014

Nothing goes as expected at Bristol, including Carl Edwards winning

A softer tire makes for an interesting Bristol race, and the weather plus an unplanned caution at the end of the race make for one interesting Sunday.

Somebody flipped the switch and the lights came on at Bristol Motor Speedway – twice in one night.

Neither was expected – much like Carl Edwards’ victory in Sunday night’s Food City 500.

The half-mile track’s annual Sprint Cup Series race in the spring is held during the day, but two weather delays totaling nearly five hours pushed the majority of Sunday’s race into the night and under the lights.

The 500-lap race was nearing its scheduled completed distance – considered wishful thinking earlier in the day – when lights again flashed at the track with two laps remaining.

This time, it was several of the track’s caution lights. That’s not necessarily unexpected, except no one seemed to know why. NASCAR blamed the miscue on one of the flagmen accidently hitting a manual override switch in the flagstand.

The race slowed to a halt with Edwards in the lead and as NASCAR prepared to send the race to a two-lap overtime finish, the clouds opened once more, drenching the track.

NASCAR had seen enough and called the race. Edwards earned his first win of the season and is now all-but ensured a chance to compete for the series championship this season.

The caution and rain also brought a halt to what was easily one of the most entertaining Bristol races in quite some time – thanks in part to a new softer compound tire.

“I guess I’m part of a group of guys that can go have some fun and focus on the final 10 races to get to this championship. I’ve been a little bit jealous of those guys who have wins this early in the season,” said Edwards, who claimed the 22nd series victory of his career.

“I was thinking, ‘I can’t imagine what it must be like to be able to come to the race track like this and have all that pressure off of you, so now we’ll get to go have some fun.”

Edwards now joins Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski as drivers who have won the season’s first four races and appear locked into the championship Chase, thanks to NASCAR’s new title format.

It’s a particularly good sign for Edwards, who has been among the Ford and Roush Fenway Racing teams that have struggled to start the year and had a disappointing performance last weekend at Las Vegas.

In fact, Edwards and his teammates Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle had even struggled in Friday’s knockout qualifying session, so Sunday’s rebound was a welcome change.

“I just can’t believe we turned this thing around,” Edwards said. “We were terrible on Saturday (in practice). Jimmy (Fennig, crew chief) is the man.”

Stenhouse finished a career-best second, Aric Almirola finished a career-best third and Marcos Ambrose was fifth, giving Ford four of the top-five finishing positions. Tony Stewart, in a Chevrolet, finished a season’s best fourth.

The back-to-back wins by Ford – Keselowski won in a Ford at Las Vegas – marks the first time the manufacturer has accomplished that feat since 2012 when Ambrose and Biffle won at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Michigan, respectively.

Edwards took the lead for the first and only time with 78 laps remaining when he and three others elected not to pit during a caution while others took on either two or four new tires.

Edwards had a comfortable advantage at the end but Stenhouses said he was hoping for an opportunity to get to Edwards’ bumper, either on the last lap under green or during an overtime if the race had resumed.

“I was thinking I would use the bumper if the opportunity was there,” Stenhouse said. “I saw Aric (Almirola) was really strong on the restart before and I thought him and I were really pretty good on the bottom and Carl seemed to be a little too loose as soon as we went back green.

“I would have ran it in there pretty hard. He knows I would have.”

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