Carl Edwards celebrates in Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway late Sunday night. Photo by Johnathan McCoy.
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Worn tires betrayed drivers repeatedly throughout the day and well into the night during Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
But as the final laps clicked off the board at the end of a marathon day at the half-mile track, an old set of tires carried Carl Edwards to a Food City 500 victory.
After a caution on lap 422, Edwards gambled and stayed out on old rubber to take the lead, checked out on the final restart of the race on lap 461 and took the checkered flag under a mysterious yellow flag that flew right before the skies opened up one final time to end a bizarre day in Thunder Valley.
With his third win at BMS, Edwards virtually locked up a berth in the Chase by patiently working his way forward after starting 12th before rolling the dice late in the race to put himself in position to seal the deal. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished second to give Roush Fenway Racing a 1-2 finish, and Aric Almirola, Tony Stewart and Marcos Ambrose rounded out the top five.
"It's just an awesome night," Edwards said. "We're in the Chase and we're going to win this championship. I just can't believe we turned this thing around. We were terrible (in practice) on Saturday, so I'm just glad we turned it around."
Sunday's race was pushed back from its scheduled starting time, but the drivers were eventually able to get rolling and completed 124 laps before another bout of rain led to a 3-hour, 18-minute delay. The race finished under the lights, and it ended under a shroud of uncertainty.
Edwards was well on his way to victory when the caution lights came on just 2.5 laps short of the finish. The field slowed, and confusion reigned as everyone searched for an explanation for the caution, which set up a green/white/checkered finish. But before that could happen, the skies opened up and Edwards took the checkered flag under caution.
NASCAR announced after the race that the caution lights came on when somebody in the flagstand inadvertently leaned on a switch that triggered the lights.
"After review of the situation, post-race, what had happened, it appears that in the flagstand, one of the flag people had leaned on the switch that is the manual override on the caution lights," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's director of competition. "At that time the flagman threw the flag. We tried to turn them off, and realized the override switch was on."
But thankfully for the governing body, a well-timed rainstorm ended the race with the field frozen to reflect the running order at the time of the malfunction. The resolution was also a great relief to Edwards as well as his crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, and team owner Jack Roush.
"I seen the lights come on and I knew something was wrong," Fennig said. "It just wasn't right what happened. But at the end, the rain came and NASCAR made a great decision, yellow and checkers and that was it."
After the race, Stenhouse said he was fully prepared to do whatever he needed to in order to get a win even though his teammate was leading the race.
"I was thinking I'd use the bumper if the opportunity was there," Stenhouse said. "If you get the win, you're in the Chase and you can let the rest take care of itself later."
As it turned out, the green/white/checkered finish never materialized and four Fords finished in the top five. That was a relief to Roush, who had a nightmare scenario creeping into his mind when he saw the caution lights.
"I had a picture in my mind's eye of three or four of those Fords ending up in a hairball and letting one of the Toyotas or Chevrolets behind come through for the win," Roush said. "But that was just anxiety, an old man's anxiety."
Edwards said he was prepared for the worst, especially with his hard-driving teammate nipping at his heels. He recalled losing a truck race in a similar scenario in Charlotte more than a decade ago and wasn't about to let that happen again.
"I knew what Ricky was thinking," Edwards said. "It was going to be a battle. The way I envision it in my mind, knowing Ricky, neither one of us would have made it back to the start/finish line."
While Edwards was busy working his way through the field, several potential winners rose to the front of the field only to be knocked out of contention by a myriad of unfortunate events.
Matt Kenseth led the most laps — 165 in all — but was plowed into by Timmy Hill under caution as both cars tried to avoid a wreck. Kenseth recovered from heavy damage to get back into the lead, but debris on his tires forced him to fall back in the final 100 laps and he never recovered.
"I told (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) that I feel like a high school kid in my first race today," Kenseth said. "I felt like I bounced off of everything. It was definitely an eventful night."
Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick were among the drivers who led portions of the race before falling victim to all sorts of incidents and accidents.
In Johnson's case, he gambled by staying out on old right-side tires and led 44 laps, but his day was ruined when he blew a tire and fell off the lead lap for good. Edwards, on the other hand, was able to preserve his worn tires at the end of the race, and the gamble paid off.
Roush chalked it up as being part of the mysterious game of chance that is auto racing.
"You've got to just stand in line and wait for the racing gods to smile on you or to frown on you," Roush said. "But tonight we did have good fortune."