Carl Edwards beats rain, field at Bristol
March 16, 2014, Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com
But nothing would come easily this day or night for drivers, fans or track officials in a race delayed more than five hours by rain.
Edwards had opened a lead of more than four seconds when the track's caution lights inexplicably came on with less than three laps remaining. Moments later, a cloudburst released the hardest rain of the day or night.
"I did not want to see that caution," Edwards said. "Concern was not a strong enough word. So, I'm glad the rain came. I think there were some higher powers at work there."
NASCAR Vice President of Competition and Racing Development Robin Pemberton attributed the light malfunction to human error; in this case, humans bundled up against the cold in layers of clothing.
"In the flagstand, it appears one of the flag people had leaned on the switch that is the manual override for the caution lights," Pemberton said. "When the flag stand realized this, the flagman threw the caution flag (six seconds later). After that happened, we froze the field from the tower."
Of course, mishaps were the order of the day and night in a race delayed close to two hours at the outset, then for 3 hours and 19 minutes just 124 laps into the race.
Kevin Harvick, racing fourth with 50 laps remaining, left the track in flames. Matt Kenseth saw his fast car become even faster after his Toyota was rammed from behind and Kyle Busch seemed on his way to continuing his domination at Bristol until tire troubles led to his spin and eventual demise.
Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig made the winning decision on a late-race pit stop, electing to stay on the track and hold off the field for the final 71 laps without the benefit of fresh tires.
"We had only 17 laps on our tires," Fennig said. "The weather, at that time, wasn't a factor anymore, once the track became rubbered in. We knew the speed (of our car) was there."
"I knew pretty quickly after restarting that not pitting was the right call," Edwards said. "We ran our fastest lap with 30-40 laps on the tires."
Edwards wasn't sure his team would even be in position to challenge for the victory.
"I can't believe we turned this around," Edwards said. "We were terrible on Saturday. Jimmy told me (our crew) worked until 3 a.m. on simulation stuff. We'd been struggling lately, so for us to come out here and run so well with the number of Fords out of our shop, that was big.
"(Now) we're in the Chase and we're going to go out and win this championship."
Edwards has improved his finish each week this season since opening with a 17th in the Daytona 500. He was eighth at Phoenix and fifth last week at Las Vegas.
As the race wound down, Edwards was most concerned about Harvick, who led 28 laps and would have been restarting behind him on fresh tires.
But Harvick's car began smoking with 50 laps to go. Harvick lost control, pounded the wall and climbed out of the car that was on fire after driving it to the garage. Jamie McMurray, who led 10 laps, took evasive action, suffered damage and finished 38th. Brad Keselowski, who'd led 40 laps, then ran into the back of McMurray and ended up 14th.
Kenseth led the most laps -- 165 -- despite being rear-ended by Timmy Hill as the field was checking up for a caution on Lap 157. Even with extensive damage below the rear spoiler, Kenseth was in contention until his car lost handling on Lap 409. He finished 13th.
Busch, who won Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race for his record-setting 16th national touring series victory at Bristol, led 56 of the first 250 laps but fell out of contention after developing tire problems on Lap 275 and finished 29th.
Almirola's third-place finish was the best of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, but he had visions of victory for Richard Petty Motorsports.
"I saw it, right there at my fingertips on that one restart when I raced side-by-side with Carl," Almirola said. "When you can see it and taste it and you're that close, you wonder what could have went differently. But he had a lot better car than we did tonight."
The series now heads to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., for the Auto Club 400 on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.