Carl Edwards might have had plenty of reason to worry as the tires continued to go flat on the cars of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates during Sunday’s Food City 500 NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
First there was JGR’s Kyle Busch, winner of two straight races, who went out of the race after he hit the wall for a third time, thanks to a third flat tire. Then Matt Kenseth’s right front went down. Then Denny Hamlin’s.
“I have the best teammates in the business,” said Edwards, who would go on to win the race, free of those kinds of tire problems. “If they have trouble, surely I can have trouble. I was nervous about it.
“But (crew chief) Dave (Rogers) did a good job of talking to me about how hard we were pushing the tires and what we had going on there, so I felt pretty comfortable.”
Edwards’ victory was his first of the season, punctuated by his signature back flip off his No. 19 Toyota. Dale Earnhardt Jr., overcoming a power problem in his car that forced him to start the race two laps down, was second. Kurt Busch was third and rookie Chase Elliott (who also went two laps down at one point) was fourth.
The tire problems, especially to Edwards’ JGR teammates, were one of the key factors in the race.
“Everybody pushes it,” said Edwards. “The whole sport, everybody pushes everything to the edge. While we don’t know what happened – it could have been debris or could have been anything – we’ll just go back and look at it and learn from it.”
Edwards started on the pole and led a race-high 276 (of 500) laps. He was never really in the clear, however, until after a final restart with six laps to go. As he pushed ahead, Earnhardt, Busch and Elliott jockeyed for position.
Those final laps, however, were a culmination of a race that, at least to Rogers’ eyes, Edwards had under control.
“I’d read lap times and let him know that, hey, we’re a 10th (of a second) off, we’re a 10th off, we’re a 10th off,” Rogers said. “And then all of a sudden he would run a 10th-and-a-half quicker to show me that the car had it and then back it down.”
Edwards was feeling differently inside the car, however.
“At no point did I feel like I had the race under control,” Edwards said. “This place is crazy. When you’re sitting in the driver’s seat here, everything is so fast, they close in quickly.
“Even the last lap I felt pretty good, but it’s just so easy to mess up here. I guess I was on edge the entire time. For me it was a really tough race.”
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the day, however, belonged to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was also a big day for three drivers who likely won’t be there when the Chase begins in September. Trevor Bayne finished fifth, his first top-five since he won the Daytona 500 in 2011. Matt DiBenedetto finished a career-high sixth. And Clint Bowyer, mired in a slump during his one-off season driving for HScott Motorsports, was a season-high eighth.
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the day, however, belonged to Earnhardt. Warming up his brakes during the final pre-race warmup lap, he stepped too firmly on the pedal. That cut the engine’s power – a safety measure put in place in case of a stuck throttle. So, as 39 other cars accelerated to start the race, Earnhardt glided slowly along.
“I got no power,” Earnhardt said over his radio.
Earnhardt rolled his No. 88 Chevy onto pit road, where his crew had to reset the car’s computerized ECU (electronic control unit). By the time he returned – and before he had completed one circuit of the .533-mile oval – Earnhardt was two laps down to the field.
Instead of panicking, Earnhardt just drove as hard as he could. Plus, he knew it was his mistake, so there was no sense in taking it out on his crew.
“You know, as I got older, I tried harder to enjoy what I’m doing,” said Earnhardt, 41. “(I don’t) get really upset and too out of shape when things aren’t going our way. Plus I know (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and the guys are on the pit box are trying everything they can. They’re the only ones I’m going to be able to yell at, so it doesn’t do any good to be hollering at them or (get) upset or just lose your mind.
“We don’t really spend a ton of time with the over-the-wall guys, and they’re real sensitive. They’re big ol’ guys and athletes, but they’ve got big hearts, too, so you can’t be screaming and coming unglued because they don’t want to work for people like that.”