After watching his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates all suffer similar fates at Bristol Motor Speedway, Carl Edwards no doubt remained nervous throughout his run to Victory Lane in Sunday’s Food City 500.
It didn’t even matter that his No. 19 JGR Toyota clearly was the class of the field after starting from the pole.
“Man, there were so many different things happening out there. Different guys were fast at different times,” Edwards told FOX Sports.
But no one was faster longer, or more consistently, than Edwards.
And while Edwards led a race-high 276 laps en route to his first victory of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the other three cars in the JGR stable all suffered major issues that prematurely ended their days.
That was on Edwards’ mind all the way up until he took the checkered flag.
“There was some concern,” Edwards admitted. “But for some reason with our car we didn’t have any of those issues. … This team doesn’t quit. And (crew chief) Dave (Rogers) is awesome. He can almost read my mind during a race. He’d tell me things during the race right when I needed them. So it was just a great day.”
There were a season-high 15 cautions in the race, including two in the final 15 laps.
That set up the final restart with five laps remaining, with Edwards lined up as the leader on the outside of the front row and Kurt Busch on the inside, and with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who mounted an incredible comeback, pushing Edwards from behind in the second row.
With Earnhardt pushing, Edwards pulled away from the field on the restart and could finally relax.
Earnhardt finished second after his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet failed to take off with the rest of the field at the very start of the race and he fell nearly three laps down almost immediately.
He spent the rest of the afternoon doggedly working his way back to the front, and benefitted greatly from some of the late cautions that helped him improve his track position.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch’s hopes of a third straight Sprint Cup victory went away early — and often — in Sunday’s race.
On Lap 52 of the 500-lap event, Busch’s No. 18 JGR Toyota blew a right-front tire and hit the wall. Then after making repairs for that incident, on Lap 117, a group of cars checked up in front of Busch and Chris Buescher ran into the back of him, sending Busch’s spinning out and bringing out the day’s third caution flag.
Busch’s day went from bad to worse on Lap 260 when he lost another right-front tire and hit the wall hard enough to send his car to the garage.
“We just kept getting tighter in the long run,” said Busch. “Not sure why that was. We had a really great car yesterday; fastest in practice and felt really good about things for today. Guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Busch’s teammate, Matt Kenseth, suffered a similar fate, hitting the wall twice after right-front tires failed. And just like with Busch, the second time Kenseth’s JGR Toyota hit the wall, it went to the garage, all hopes of winning dashed.
“We just keep blowing right front tires, I don’t know why,” said Kenseth. “The first one was a little confusing, I knew I blew a right front, but I thought they were telling me it wasn’t flat so I was a little confused. This one just blew a lot earlier and the angle was a lot worse hitting the wall.”
Denny Hamlin also ran into troubles during the race, first with a front-right fender falling off after a brush with the wall, and then when he blew a tire of his own and ended his day — leaving Edwards as the lone JGR Toyota able to avoid difficulties on the day.
Other big-name drivers were victims of penalties on pit road, including Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for speeding and Joey Logano’s team for losing control of a tire.
Edwards survived it all to earn his first win of the season and clinch a spot in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup that determines the season’s champion over the final 10 races of the year.
“Just awesome. Now we’re in the Chase and we can go have some fun,” Edwards said. “That’s just so cool.”