It was worth the wait for Matt Kenseth and the Dollar General team today in Thunder Valley.
A long day at the famed short track of Bristol Motor Speedway had it all, with several big wrecks and rain delays of more than five hours turning the 1 PM scheduled NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes and Standup to Cancer into a night race.
When it finally concluded Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth earned his first victory of the season, while a late-race accident took away a certain top-five finish from Carl Edwards, who finished 24th. Meanwhile Denny Hamlin, suffering from neck spasms, was replaced following nearly a four-hour rain delay by rookie Erik Jones and the No. 11 FedEx Camry would finish 26th. David Ragan would get caught in a mid-race accident and was left to finish 41st.
Matt Kenseth started the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota from the pole and led the first five laps of the day before dropping back to second on the opening run. A wreck would bring out the first caution of the day and rain quickly turned the yellow flag into a red one for nearly four hours. When the race resumed Kenseth would remain in a fight for a spot in the top five as he found the balance on his No. 20 Camry pretty good, but dealt with tight handling once in traffic. Kenseth would pit under caution just past the halfway mark and crew chief Jason Ratcliff would make the call for a major adjustment pulling a spring rubber out of the right rear of his car. Kenseth would line up seventh for the restart on lap 277, which followed yet another brief red flag for rain. He would manage to avoid a wreck in front of him shortly after the restart and that allowed him to restart fourth on lap 292. Kenseth would jump into second behind just his teammate Edwards following the restart. He would come down pit road on the next caution and restarted ninth on lap 350 when several teams made the decision to remain out on the track. Kenseth would drive up to fourth before another caution on lap 367. He would restart in the fourth position but managed to jump immediately into second and was on the bumper of the leader with 100 to go. Kenseth would show patience while battling for the lead he would claim the top spot when the 42 was forced to pit on lap 437. The 41car would take the top spot from Kenseth with 56 laps to go, but a caution with 27 laps remaining would force the teams to make the decision on whether or not to pit. Ratcliff made the call to remain on the track and the 20 team assumed the lead for the restart with 20 to go. Kenseth would clear his teammate Edwards on the restart when another caution came out for a big wreck with 17 to go. He would restart as the leader gain with eight to go and once again cleared the field on the restart before a caution would bring things to halt. After yet another stoppage for rain Kenseth would line up first with the 24 to his inside for a green-white-checkered finish. He would drive away for his first win of the season and essentially clinched his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Carl Edwards started the No. 19 Comcast Business Toyota in the fifth position and held a spot in the top five for the entire first half of the race. Edwards, the defending race winner, moved into second at the halfway mark and took his first lead of the race just a few laps later on lap 257. A caution for light rain would bring the field back down pit road and the 19 team kept Edwards out front with a fast stop. The rain would continue causing NASCAR to throw another red flag on lap 274. Edwards would hold the lead through the lap 277 restart when a wreck just behind him brought out another caution a few laps later. He would continue to hold the lead through the ensuing restart once again. Another caution would come out and Edwards would come to pit road. He would line up 10th for the restart on lap 350 when several teams made the call to remain out on the track. Edwards would lose several spots back in traffic and was running 13th when another caution came out on lap 367. A few of those that stayed out came in allowing Edwards to restart 10th on lap 381. He would run sixth with 100 laps to go and was back into the top five and all the way up to third with 45 laps remaining. A caution with 27 laps left would force teams to make the decision on whether or not to pit and the 19 team remained on the track to restart second with 20 laps remaining. Edwards would fall in behind his teammate to run second following the restart when a big wreck with 17 to go brought out yet another caution. He would hold the second spot for a restart with eight to go and was in a battle with the 24 car when he got loose and ran up into the wall. The 41 car couldn’t stop and hit Edwards hard from behind causing significant damage to the Comcast Business Toyota. He would bring the 19 down pit road for repairs. After a tremendous race that saw him lead a total of 86 laps, the 19 team would be scored with a disappointing 24th-place finish.
Denny Hamlin started the No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota from the fifth position and was able to hold that spot through the short opening green flag run to start the race. A wreck between the 2 and 22 cars on lap 20 would bring out the day’s first caution and just two laps later the yellow flag would move to a red one when the rain moved back in. The race would restart after a nearly four-hour delay, but when it did, the driver of the 11 would be rookie Erik Jones. Hamlin had suffered a neck spasm in the opening laps of the race and when the delay didn’t alleviate the issue, a decision was made to use caution and bring Jones, who had finished fourth in Saturday’s XFINITY race, back to the track to finish the race for Hamlin. Jones would do a fantastic job despite the challenges of the task at hand and jumping into a race car that was set up for another driver and then having to drop to the back of the field when the race restarted. He would manage to gain position on the track despite losing a few laps to the leader. He was running 32nd and was three laps down for a restart on lap 277. Jones would get caught in an accident with 27 laps to go running into the back of the 17 car when it checked up suddenly. All-in-all it was impressive effort from the 18-year-old with a 26th place finish.
David Ragan qualified the No. 18 Snickers Xtreme Toyota in 11th and quickly jumped in the top ten during the brief opening green flag run to start the race. A nearly four-hour red flag for rain would turn this from a day race to a battle under the lights and Ragan continued to prove to have a fast car despite the changing conditions. A competition caution on lap 62 would bring the field down pit road but despite a great stop from the Snickers team, the 18 would be called for speeding on exit and had to go to the back of the longest line. The loss of track position on the short track proved costly as Ragan would drop two laps down. After another brief red flag for rain Ragan would restart a couple laps down in 29th on lap 277. An accident at the front of the field after the restart would bunch the field and the 18 would suffer a little front end damage, but it didn’t prove to be severe. Unfortunately for Ragan the big one was still to come however, as he was collected in a lap 311 wreck when the 48 and 26 cars made contact in front of him and he was unable to avoid the spinning cars. The damage would force the 18 team to the garage for repairs. He would return to finish the race and would be scored in 41st when the checkered flag waved.
Kenseth captured the win, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five. There were 11 cautions for a total of 117 laps and 21 lead changes among six different drivers, including three red flag cautions for rain which combined for more than five hours in delay.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will head to Richmond International Raceway next weekend for a Saturday night battle on April 25. Fox will broadcast the race live with coverage starting at 7 PM (race begins at 7:30 PM ET).