CARL CLEANS UP

Ed­wards Ex­tends Joe Gibbs Racing’s Win­ning Streak to 3

Cecil Whig - - SPORTS -

Tires that wouldn’t stay in­flated nearly punc­tured Joe Gibbs Racing’s chance to leave Bris­tol Mo­tor Speedway on Sun­day with a third straight win as Kyle Busch, Denny Ham­lin and Matt Kenseth all dropped out of con­tention with sep­a­rate is­sues. But Carl Ed­wards kept the streak alive, lead­ing the last 104 laps to win the Food City 500 from the pole to con­tinue the Gibbs stran­gle­hold on the early por­tion of the 2016 sea­son. It was Ed­wards’ first win of this year, the 26th over­all in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ca­reer and the fourth of the eight-race-old sea­son for his JGR out­fit. The win didn’t come with­out some gnashed teeth amid ner­vous mo­ments for Ed­wards and crew chief Dave Rogers af­ter his team­mates fell out one-by-one with tire prob­lems.

“I have the best team­mates in the busi­ness, and if they can have trou­ble, I can surely have trou­ble,” Ed­wards said. “I was ner­vous about it, but Dave did a good job of talk­ing to me about how hard we were push­ing the tires and what we had go­ing on there.”

Ed­wards also had to out­last three res­tarts dur­ing the fi­nal 40 laps of the 500-lap race at the high-banked Bris­tol short track, though he cer­tainly had an ad­van­tage as the leader. Be­ing up front comes with the perk of choos­ing a pre­ferred restart lane, and Bris­tol has given an ex­treme ad­van­tage to driv­ers on the high lane in re­cent years. Sun­day was no dif­fer­ent, and the pref­er­ence helped Ed­wards get away from the pack as con­tenders in the in­side groove strug­gled to find the same speed as those up top.

The ef­fects were more pro­nounced be­hind Ed­wards. Driv­ers who restarted in the out­side groove were of­ten guar­an­teed to pick up four or more spots on a restart as driv­ers tried to merge in line. That’s ex­actly how Dale Earn­hardt Jr. — left for dead on Lap 1 when an elec­tronic safety de­vice on his en­gine in­ad­ver­tently caused his mo­tor to stop run­ning — man­aged to fin­ish sec­ond.

“We got real lucky the last three res­tarts to be on the out­side line,” Earn­hardt said. “We restarted 10th, sixth and fourth, and when you restart fourth you’re typ­i­cally go­ing to come out in sec­ond place af­ter that. I was hop­ing we didn’t have any more cau­tions af­ter that. So it was good. We’ll take it.”

Earn­hardt uti­lized pit strat­egy and wave arounds to re­bound from run­ning last and two laps down by Lap 5.

“We weren’t re­ally that good all day,” Earn­hardt said. “We tried a setup that we’ve never re­ally ran here be­fore, just try­ing to learn a lit­tle some­thing go­ing for­ward, and we’ll go home and science it out a lit­tle bit.”

Earn­hardt got the good end of a late bat­tle with third-place fin­isher Kurt Busch, and they both fin­ished just ahead of Chase El­liott and Trevor Bayne — the lat­ter scor­ing his first top 5 in Sprint Cup since his stun­ning 2010 Day­tona 500 vic­tory.

Matt DiBenedetto’s sixth-place run in BK Racing’s No. 83 Toy­ota pro­vided an in­cred­i­ble story. DiBenedetto’s pre­vi­ous best fin­ish in Cup was 18th last year at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way. The top-10 run re­sulted in a vir­tual Vic­tory Lane of sorts on pit road for DiBenedetto as he emotionally cel­e­brated with fam­ily and friends.

Back in the real Vic­tory Lane atop a build­ing in Bris­tol’s in­field, the emo­tions looked much dif­fer­ent for Ed­wards and crew chief Rogers. The Bris­tol week­end — with a pole, most laps led and a win — ap­peared to be more of a cul­mi­na­tion of an off­sea­son filled with hard work and get­ting to know one an­other. It was like the driver and crew chief had fi­nally found the right har­mo­nious notes af­ter months of in­stru­ment prac­tice. “I don’t want to over­state it, I don’t think I can,” Ed­wards said. “I truly have never worked with some­one that I think is more like me and com­mu­ni­cates the same way as I do. If we don’t win the cham­pi­onship, it will not be be­cause of any prob­lem be­tween Dave and I. It’s un­real.”

Rogers echoed the sen­ti­ment of com­fort and co­he­sion. “The re­la­tion­ship that Carl and I were able to build this win­ter, I just feel re­ally com­fort­able be­ing me call­ing the races,” Rogers said. “I call them the way I want them. I don’t have to take on an adap­tive per­son­al­ity of any sort, and it works for Carl.”

Af­ter some tense mo­ments down the stretch, Cousin Carl cut loose with a cel­e­bra­tory Bris­tol back­flip.

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