Published 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2014
BRISTOL, Tenn. — After two rain delays lasting more than five hours, a slick race track wasn’t going to stop Carl Edwards from celebrating his first win of the season.
He pulled his car to the start/finish line at Bristol Motor Speedway, climbed out to his window ledge and prepared for his celebratory backflip.
Then, Edwards had a brief moment of clarity.
“Oh, man, I thought, ‘This is stupid. I shouldn’t do this … It’s awfully glossy. It might be slick,’ “ he said. “I didn’t want to stick it perfectly and have my feet go that way and break my arm on the concrete. That would have been terrible. I was actually really nervous about that.”
But on this rain-soaked Sunday night, Edwards was going for the big finish to another long day for NASCAR.
The start was delayed by almost two hours, racing began and the field got to Lap 124 before the sky opened again, and the race was stropped for another 3 hours, 18 minutes.
Much like the season-opening Daytona 500, which was stopped by rain for almost six hours, the threat of more bad weather bringing a sudden halt to the race forced the drivers to go hard every single lap.
So when a caution with 77 laps remaining sent most of the field to pit road, Edwards’ crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, made the call to leave his driver on the track. The move gave Edwards the lead on the restart with 70 laps remaining.
“I thought when Jimmy said we’re going to stay out, I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good idea,’ “ Edwards said. “And then nobody stayed out around us, and I thought, ‘Oh boy, that might not be the greatest thing.’ It turned out to be perfect.”
He had no trouble pulling out to an easy lead and had victory in sight when the yellow caution lights came out right before the scheduled white flag lap. No one was sure what the caution was for and Fennig even wondered if water damage might have inadvertently caused the lights to turn on.
Then the sky suddenly opened and NASCAR had no choice but to declare the race over.
NASCAR said after the race that someone in the flag-stand accidentally leaned on a switch to trigger the lights. NASCAR was forced to issue a full caution “because operation of the lights was comprised.”
“No harm, no foul, let’s act like it just didn’t happen,” Edwards told NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton.
Edwards led Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line. Aric Almirola from Richard Petty Motorsports was third as Ford drivers swept the top three spots — one day after a Ford team won the Twelve Hours of Sebring sports car race for the first time since 1969.
It was Edwards’ 22nd career victory, third at Bristol, but first of the season — and the one that should clinch him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship under NASCAR’s new qualifying format.
“We’re in the Chase and we’re going to go win this championship,” said Edwards.
Stenhouse was disappointed he didn’t get a shot to race his teammate for the win.
“I was thinking that I would use the bumper if the opportunity was there,” he said. “If you get the win, you’re in the Chase and you can let the rest take care of itself later. That’s what I was really thinking if we went back green. I was thinking about doing whatever I could to win.”
And Almirola also was having trouble accepting the final outcome.
“It’s frustrating because I had one shot to race Carl for the lead, and these races are so hard to win,” he said. “It was a great day for us, I’m not disappointed at all with third, but when you see it and you can taste it and it’s that close, you wonder what could have went different.”
Tony Stewart salvaged a horrific start to the weekend — he qualified 37th — by finishing a season-best fourth.
“I’m pretty excited about that,” Stewart said. “Everybody just worked hard all weekend. We had a long way to go from Friday, when we weren’t very good and every day we just got better and better. So, I’m really proud of this team.”
Marcos Ambrose was fifth as both of RPM’s drivers finished inside the top five.
Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin was sixth in the highest-finishing Toyota and was followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Brian Vickers was ninth and rookie Kyle Larson rounded out the top 10.