You can say what you want about the competition at Bristol. But Saturday night, a repaved Thunder Valley was a throwback to the great races of years past: unpredictable. From the second the green flag flew, for a pole sitter whose team has start-and-parked in several races (Casey Mears), you had as much of a chance of pegging the winner as predicting the right number on a roulette wheel. Only when the ball landed in Denny Hamlin’s court, tying a Sprint Cup season high with his third 2012 victory, did the race assume some semblance of normalcy down the stretch.
Normal? What a downer for a race that, for three hours had serious potential to shake up NASCAR’s world. Don’t get me wrong; the victory is a serious statement for a No. 11 team whose August up to this point had included zero top-10 finishes, a best finish of 11th and two DNFs. I seem to remember Tony Stewart having a similar disastrous summer before charging his Chase bid in just the same way; Hamlin, a month from now may point to this race as the one that salvaged a season.
But Hamlin didn’t need this Bristol victory. Having already all but clinched a Chase spot, with multiple wins already a solid top-5 finish could have turned his team around just the same. Instead, as the short track expert tacked on another trophy to his sterling resume, the real story lay within the carnage that surrounded him. One by one, like Survivor gone wrong, Bristol’s best underdog stories had the victory seemingly within reach – only to let it slip away.
Take Joey Logano, who made quick work of Casey Mears from the start and led a race-high 139 laps. All but a “lame duck” at Joe Gibbs Racing, driving the Dollar General Toyota he’s spent the summer somewhere in between “longshot” and “no chance” in the postseason “wild card” race. So what does he do? Lead more in one race than the last two years combined at the Cup level and, as late as lap 348 threaten to send heavyweights Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch into Mission Impossible mode a race early. Armed with arguably the most speed, no one batted an eyebrow when crew chief Jason Ratcliff gave up the lead for fresh tires.
Somebody should have.
“This was the most frustrating race I think I’ve ever been a part of,” Logano said afterwards, traffic and track position post-pit stop turning the night into a nightmare. “You just couldn’t do anything. I had a good car in the beginning of the race and the track changed and we tried to keep up with it. We just couldn’t keep up with it and get the car as good as we needed it to be after everything had changed. Then I started on the inside every single time, which is the end of the world because you lose about five spots every single time. We need to win and anything short of that is not good enough.”
From the upset special to simply upset – that’s the classic emotion that used to make Bristol so great. And Logano wasn’t the only one kicking himself. Next on the list was Carl Edwards, who eventually took the lead by not pitting and tried desperately to stretch his fuel tank to the finish. For a time, within the final 100 laps it looked like the No. 99 Ford was ready to come out of nowhere, ending a winless streak approaching a year and a half and snatch that second “wild card” bid away.
“All you can do is gamble like that,” he said, knowing pure speed wasn’t going to be enough. “If we would have pitted when we should have pitted, we were gonna run 10th or 15th anyway. I wanted a chance to win the race. If we would have had one more caution or a couple cautions and short runs, we were up there in a position to win this thing. You don’t get those opportunities very often, so I had to take it.”
Edwards’ quote was one Brian Vickers could relate to; after all, he’s going to have less than a dozen starts in a Sprint Cup car all season. So as Edwards chugged along, leading 45 laps, it was Vickers who initially was pushing the No. 99 car in an epic battle. Sliding into second, the part-timer hounded his prey, lap after lap before trying to pull a slide job on the inside entering Turn 1. It was a bold move, one that landed him the lead for the first and only time on Lap 444 of 500.
By Lap 445, he was lucky not to be heading back to the garage in pieces.
“I almost slid myself all the way to last place,” he joked, losing three spots with a spectacular save that kept the car intact but cost him a shot at the win. “I gave it all I could, but it wasn’t enough. I’d loved to have won this thing and I think we had a shot at it.”
And so it went. With Vickers out of the picture, Hamlin had no one to stop him while making mincemeat out of Edwards and taking control. Like a CEO winning the lottery, the checkered flag tilted towards the man who didn’t really need it.
The near misses could be a good thing for the short term; Atlanta should be 500 miles of teeth-chattering, risk-taking excitement as the clock ticks ever closer on some postseason bids still up for grabs. There was no question the intensity was up, bringing Bristol aggression back to a level we used to see before the final ten races became the only thing half the field started caring about. But when the curtain closes on Richmond, two weeks from now and some of these big names get left out of the part of the season that “really counts” races like Saturday night will be the reason why. A repaved Bristol, combined with circumstances gave them a chance.
They just didn’t up and take it.
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