The Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes at Bristol Motor Speedway was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET – nine-plus hours later, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag for his first win since the 2013 season.
The race was odd from many standpoints, not the least of which were the rain delays that plagued the day. Wrecks were a big part of the day, collecting JGR driver David Ragan mid-race and Carl Edwards late in the event. Denny Hamlin suffering neck spasms during the rain delay, yielding his seat for the remainder of the race to JGR development driver Erik Jones, who made his first laps in a Sprint Cup car.
Kenseth, in the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry, started from the pole and held off Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps on his way to his fourth Bristol win and first in the spring race; the win broke a 51-race winless streak for Kenseth, who led 47 laps in the race.
“With 22 to go I was getting a little nervous – Carl (Edwards) was better than me on the long run all day and I thought in 22 laps he was going to wear me down and pass me because we were real tight at that time and then we got the quick caution and I felt better about it,” said Kenseth. “As long as we didn’t have to run more than six or seven laps then I thought maybe we could hold on.”
Edwards, in the No. 19 Comcast Business Toyota, started third and saw what could have been a battle for the win with his teammate go up in smoke in the closing laps of the race. As he battled Jeff Gordon for position, Edwards’ car got loose and drifted up to the wall; Kurt Busch couldn’t stop and rear-ended Edwards, causing significant damage. He would return to the race after repairs, but ended the day with a disappointing 24th place finish after leading 86 laps.
“The whole night went really well and we had a very fast car – the Comcast Business Toyota was really good,” said Edwards. “Congrats to Matt (Kenseth), that’s huge for him to get the win. I was racing really aggressively there at the end and the car was sticking and everything was going great and then I drove into turn one and that was the first time I lifted off throttle and I just pitched sideways. I was in deep trouble – I drove it way too deep to be this far sideways. It’s 100 percent my fault. My guys did a great job and we just have to keep digging. The cars are getting faster and faster. The outcome was not what we wanted and I made a big mistake, but it was just a fun race. There were times in the middle of that race where I was just laughing – this was so much fun racing through traffic. I had a good time.”
Hamlin started the No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota from the fifth position, but neck spasms that didn’t clear up during the rain delay put Jones into the spotlight for the first time in the Cup Series. The young driver, who finished fourth in the Xfinity Series race on Saturday, finished 26th in his debut, in spite of having to overcome problems with the steering wheel.
“I didn’t get any time to get fitted in the car properly, but fortunately me and Denny (Hamlin) are pretty much the same size,” said Jones. “Overall, we didn’t have to change too much. The steering wheel was a little too close and just a different steering wheel than what I would normally run. That made it just tough to physically turn the wheel. It wasn’t a huge deal, actually 500 laps went by pretty fast. Just a huge learning experience overall and pretty pumped that I got the opportunity.”
Ragan qualified 11th in the No. 18 Snickers Xtreme Toyota and was able to move into the top 10 before the first red flag for rain flew. Once the race restarted, he lost time on pit road in spite of a good stop from his pit crew: Ragan was caught speeding on exit and had to restart from the end of the longest line. Ragan lost two laps following the stop, but had bigger problems on Lap 311, when he was collected in a wreck with Johnson and Jeb Burton; he can back on the track, but went on to finish 41st.
“Sometimes when you race back there with the squirrels, you find a nut sometimes,” said Ragan. “That’s just Bristol. You’re racing hard and the 26 (Jeb Burton) was a little slower and I know Jimmie (Johnson) is probably a little impatient trying to get back to the front. I see he just touched him there and as soon as my spotter said they were wrecking, I’m all into the 48 (Johnson). That’s just one of those things you have at short track racing. I really hate that about the Snickers Xtreme Camry. Our guys had worked hard and we had a pit road problem – lost a couple laps, but we were still out there trying to get the best finish we could. It’s unfortunate and hopefully we can tune on it and go out and make some laps, get some points and head to Richmond.”
Johnson finished second, followed by Gordon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Newman,
JGR driver Daniel Suarez picked up the best Xfinity Series finish of his young career, finishing second in the No. 18 ARRIS Toyota Camry in the Drive to Stop Diabetes 300 at Bristol. Jones, in the No. 20 GameStop Toyota, finished fourth, while Hamlin, in the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota, finished 31st.
“I just can’t believe it,” said Suarez. “I can’t explain to you in words right now what I’m feeling in Spanish or English. I can’t thank enough my team – Joe Gibbs Racing, ARRIS, Toyota and everyone who makes this possible. This is unbelievable, this feeling. We work hard and sometimes it’s hard like last weekend in Texas – we were strong and hit the wall and finished 18th. Today we were fast all day long and we ended up in the second spot so that’s great.”
Joey Logano won the race Saturday, with Chris Buescher finishing third and Ty Dillon finishing fifth.
The Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series visit Richmond International Speedway next weekend, Friday and Saturday, April 24th and 25th. Keep up with the action at joegibbsracing.com.