At Bristol, the lead was a perilous place to be
March 18, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
He had what might have been the best car in the field, but it hardly seemed that way buried in traffic and with the rear bumper cover ripped off. As he braced for another restart near the end of a long, weather-plagued day-into-night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth keyed the radio button and emitted something resembling a sigh.
"All right," he said. "Sure has been eventful."
To say the least. Kenseth led 165 laps Sunday, far more than any other driver on the Tennessee short track, but at the end all he had to show for it was a banged-up race car and a 13th-place finish. And on an unforgiving day at the World's Fastest Half-Mile, he was one of the fortunate ones.
"It was a disappointing ending, but it was a really positive day," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. "We led some laps. We were a lot stronger than we’ve been the last few weeks, so looking forward to hopefully taking that momentum to California.”
By Bristol standards, he had reason to be pleased. Carl Edwards may have done a victory backflip after an odd finish that included the caution lights being inadvertently flipped on during the final laps of the race, but many other drivers took their turns at the front of the field Sunday -- and were left with only frustration as a result. Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick -- between them they led almost 70 percent of the event, but none of them were around to challenge Edwards at the end.
It was that kind of afternoon and evening at Bristol, and by those standards, Kenseth was among the lucky ones. The winner of the track's regularly-scheduled night race last summer, Kenseth looked poised to take two in a row as he moved to the front early. He was running second behind Kurt Busch when traffic stacked up because of an accident involving Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt, and Timmy Hill slammed into the back of the 2003 champion as a result.
"That one car must not have seen the caution, and hit me going like 4,000 miles an hour," Kenseth said. Indeed, Hill said he wasn't notified in time by his spotter, and took full blame for the incident. The contact forced Kenseth to make multiple pit stops, during which his crew cut damaged body parts -- including that back bumper cover -- off the car. He restarted 30th, as the last car on the lead lap, and then proceeded to rocket back up through the field.
In no time, Kenseth was back in the top 10, back in the top five, back in the lead. "We've had unbelievably good cars here the last two times," he said. "I was really pleased with my car once the race got rolling. I really felt pretty good about it if we could stay out of trouble, which we didn’t."
At Bristol? No chance. Kenseth was running in the top five on lap 408 when he suddenly bobbled up the track and pancaked the wall, falling back in the field in the process. "Really loose, bud," he told crew chief Jason Ratcliff over the radio, and after the next pit stop the No. 20 team discovered why -- Kenseth had a flat left-rear tire. He tried to make one more charge through the field, but the vehicle simply wasn't capable of it.
"For some reason, we just could never get the car tightened up again," Kenseth said. "Just really couldn’t go forward after that."
He was far from alone in that sentiment. Kyle Busch led 73 laps, third-most in the race behind Kenseth and Edwards, but wound up seven laps down in 29th after his car first suffered an undiagnosed issue, and later spun up into the wall. Johnson led 44 laps prior to a three-hour rain delay, but wound up two laps down in 19th after a tire came apart on him when the concrete track was still green. Kurt Busch led 28 laps, but finished 30 laps down in 35th after smacking the wall trying to miss his spinning younger brother, and then having to go to the garage with a broken ball joint.
And finally there was Harvick, who led 28 laps but finished 53 laps down in 39th after smoke began emanating from his car. He hit the wall, and drove into the garage area with part of the vehicle on fire. Crew chief Rodney Childers surmised a tire rubber fire burned into the oil line. "Disappointed but not mad," Harvick, who won earlier this season at Phoenix, wrote on Twitter. "Had the fastest car (three) weeks in a row." Harvick was leading last weekend's race at Las Vegas when he suffered a hub failure that scuttled his hopes of a second consecutive victory.
Given all that, no wonder Kenseth emerged optimistic from a very long and difficult day at Bristol.
"I feel like a high school kid in my first race today -- I felt like I bounced off of everything," he said. "It was definitely an eventful night. Certainly not the result that we wanted. There was a lot of positives that came out of tonight. I thought we performed really well on the race track -- the strongest we’ve been so far this year.”