Drivers ran side by side, laps at a time, in a battle for the lead. Cars careened wildly into the wall after contact from another — or from a tire pushed past its limit. And Joey Logano confronted Denny Hamlin, and inadvertently his crew, on pit road after the race.
Yep, Bristol is back.
The Tennessee bullring drew much commentary in recent years for the type of racing it failed to produce. On Sunday, both the track — and winner Kasey Kahne himself, delivered the punch fans have been hungering for at Bristol Motor Speedway.
In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Food City 500, there were 17 lead changes among 10 drivers — but there could have been many more. Throughout the race, drivers would pull alongside one another, with one getting a run off the turn but unable to complete the pass on the straightaway. Dogged determination kept the battles alive off and on throughout the showdown.
The final 100 laps of the race boasted epic battles for the lead — and for other positions throughout the top 10.
Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne ran side-by-side, or bumper-to-bumper, lap after lap. Kahne tried to go high, tried to go low, and simply could not complete the pass on Keselowski. Then they hit lapped traffic.
Kahne amped up his effort, trying so hard that he briefly lost control on the backstretch then reeled in his car back. He settled into second briefly — and then the caution came out when Jimmie Johnson’s tire failed and he hit the wall.
That caution proved to be the defining moment in Kahne’s win and the undoing of Keselowski – but the run showcased just how far Bristol has come.
Despite surrendering the lead to Kahne and settling for third, Keselowski praised the track and the racing it produced.
“I say that the old Bristol isn’t back,” Keselowski said. “I, quite honestly, feel like this one’s better.
“… It’s a very racy track. It’s a bit of an unknown. It changes a lot throughout the race. Certainly you have the ability to run into each other like you always had, but you also have the ability to really work a lot of different lanes. That makes lap traffic and all that stuff really, really fun to go through and really fun to watch.”
Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, turning in two of the top performances in the race, watched things slip away in a hard crash. Gordon was leading when his car shot into the wall, with Kenseth slamming into him. He literally had nowhere to go at the time.
Gordon’s car piled up across the hood of Kenseth’s car — crumpling the hood. Kenseth had been tracking down Gordon for several laps after leading for 85 laps earlier in the race. Gordon had led 65.
The crash changed the nature of the race — and briefly gave Kahne the lead, though an ensuing pit stop shook up things again. Several other notable crashes kept the cautions coming out at somewhat regular intervals as Tony Stewart crashed early after contact caused a tire failure. Jimmie Johnson also had a tire go down late and shot into the wall as teams either cut tires with contact or pushed them beyond their limits. Aric Almirola hit the wall twice and then Denny Hamlin spent the closing laps bouncing off the wall as he rode against it lap after lap, just trying to reach the end with his tire going down.
Kyle Busch rallied from being caught speeding on pit road early in the race to finish second.
“If we didn’t have so many of those, we’d be a lot better off,” he said when asked about coming back from the penalty.
And Joey Logano and former teammate Denny Hamlin engaged in a skirmish when Hamlin tagged Logano, who was running second, and caused him to spin and end any shot at the win. Logano then confronted Hamlin after the race, leaning into his car before being pulled aside from the crew members and briefly tangling with them.
Logano was incensed — “That’s a freaking genius behind the wheel of the (No.) 11 car — probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now.” Hamlin, meanwhile, was just somewhat dismissive in uttering, “He said he was coming for me. I usually don’t see him, so it’s usually not a factor.”
It was just the old-school Bristol fireworks.
And it did nothing to deter the hard racing for the win. Through all the drama, Kahne was churning his way toward the front time after time. And it finally paid off.
After opening the season with finishes of 36th and 19th, then finishing second a week ago after leading 114 laps, he was in position to change his fate. It wasn’t easy, though.
“He was driving into the corner so hard I couldn’t really do anything on the bottom or try any type of somewhat of a slide job or anything like that,” Kahne said. “It was just trying to get momentum off the corner and make something happen on exit. It took a while to do it. I bumped him a few times. He was sideways trying to hold us back.”
And then he took the lead. Finally.
“I got the lead, then gave it right back in lap traffic two laps later,” he said. “Definitely I was mad at myself at that point in time. About spun out off of (Turn) 2 a few laps after that. Had to calm down, get things going again. Felt like we got a good restart that final restart, got to the lead. From there it was just momentum and try to drive away.”
And just like that, Kahne’s season was back on track — after a hard-fought and gutsy win at a track on which many top drivers fell victim to setbacks.
“To win a Sprint Cup race here feels really good,” Kahne said. “… Feels really good to get in Victory Lane and get our first Sprint Cup win early in the season.”