CARL CLEANS UP
Edwards Extends Joe Gibbs Racing’s Winning Streak to 3
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.