By the time the Food City 500 ended under gray skies Monday afternoon, a day later than originally scheduled, it proved to be well worth the wait.
Fans witnessed racing at Bristol Motor Speedway at its best, and one of the sport’s all-time best celebrating in the new front stretch Victory Lane.
Jimmie Johnson passed Kevin Harvick for the lead with 21 laps remaining and pulled away in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for his second victory in 31 career Cup Series starts on the high-banked, half-mile.
For the seven-time and defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, the victory marked his second consecutive in the Cup Series – he won the April 9 race at Texas Motor Speedway – and 82nd of his career.
“It was just a lot of fun,” said Johnson, who is one victory away from matching Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time wins list. “There were so many competitive passes and so much racing going on over the course of the event. Of course, I was happy to get away at the end and not have to worry about Clint (Bowyer) or anyone else behind me.”
Clint Bowyer enjoyed his best Cup Series finish in almost four years with a runner-up performance Monday in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Harvick finished third followed by Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano.
Bowyer started ninth, but couldn’t close the gap on Johnson in the closing laps.
A pair of miscues on pit road cost Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. shots at winning the race. Larson started from the pole, led every lap of the opening 125-lap stage and 202 laps overall in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. On what would be his next-to-last pit stop, Larson was caught speeding on pit road and sent to the tail end of the longest line on the restart. He made up ground by taking two tires on his final pit stop but was not able to challenge the leaders before the end.
Truex also got caught speeding while leaving pit road with less than 50 laps remaining. He was first off pit road followed by Johnson, Larson and Ryan Newman but was forced to drop to the tail end of the longest line. He finished eighth.
Truex won the second stage and led 116 laps in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota. He felt he had the fastest car on the bottom lane throughout the race.
Drivers applauded the track for its efforts to ensure a competitive race, raving about how the track conditions changed throughout and how the different variables fostered great racing. At one point in the final stage, the top four cars were separated by a half-second. The race featured the bumping and banging expected at a short track. Drivers ran the high line and the low line, or both, the longer a green flag run continued. Johnson said he found a rhythm running the top in turns 3 and 4 and the bottom in turns 1 and 2.
An unrelenting weather event Sunday forced officials to push the Food City 500 to Monday. It also cleaned the track of rubber that had accumulated over the course of the weekend. Teams were concerned about how the rain would affect the condition of the track Monday.
Traction compound had been applied to the bottom lane in the turns before race weekend in an effort to encourage a return to bottom-groove racing. Crews treated the bottom groove again a few minutes after the garage opened at 9 a.m.Monday. A multi-point sprayer attached to a metal tank towed behind a golf cart applied the compound.
Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, said the changing track conditions played into their team’s favor.
Johnson lined up third behind Harvick and Denny Hamlin on the final restart with 32 laps remaining. Harvick and Hamlin opted not to pit and were on older tires. Johnson made the decisive pass on the bottom in Turn 2 on Lap 480 of 500. In all, he led three times for 81 laps.
The race featured 14 lead changes among seven drivers and was slowed by nine cautions.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt and Kyle Busch and Erik Jones were some of the notables involved in incidents over the course of the race.
What was believed to be a broken oil cooler on a restart in the second stage sent Earnhardt into the wall and out of the race after 218 laps. Earnhardt was running 20th at the time and finished 38th.
It was a trying day for Kurt and Kyle Busch, who entered the Food City 500 tied with five Cup Series victories apiece in their careers. Kurt Busch’s bid suffered a blow in the early going when he hit the inside front stretch wall after exiting Turn 4. His team was able to repair his car enough to return to the track after a pair of pit stops. He was three laps down in 38th place and finished 25th.
In his effort to add to his record of 17 national series race victories at Bristol, Kyle Busch’s day was derailed by tire trouble. He smacked the Turn 2 wall after experiencing a problem with his right front tire on Lap 211. Busch was able to stay on the lead lap and managed to climb back up to seventh place before experiencing a similar problem with his right front tire with 117 laps to go. He finished 35th.
“We had our issues and we were trying to march our way back up towards the front and get there and thought we were doing a good job of that and trying to be conservative with the tires,” he said.