What’s been the best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of 2016?
Easy. It’s Bristol, baby.
Sunday’s Food City 500 was wild, unconventional, and by all means a bit strange, but it also played out as arguably the most exciting race of the young 2016 season, despite a dominant performance from Carl Edwards to take the victory after 500 laps.
Every race on the NASCAR calendar provides a few stories – good or bad – for fans and media to consume. Some have surprising results, such as A.J. Allmendinger’s 2014 win at Watkins Glen. Others provide comeback stories, i.e. Jimmie Johnson overcoming early issues to win his first Brickyard 400. A few provide stories relating to the vehicles themselves, from the success (Kentucky 2015) or failure (Michigan 2015) of rules packages to tire debacles.
Incredibly, the 500-lap thriller at Bristol Motor Speedway provided all of the above.
Continuing a familiar story, certain teams faced tire issues on the demanding high-banked Tennessee oval. Favorites Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth both saw their days ruined by tire issues, as did Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. Whether the fault of the flats was with Goodyear or the teams remains to be seen, but tire concerns were a constant storyline throughout the 500-lap race.
Comeback stories could be found throughout the day as well. Three of the top five finishers were forced to overcome early issues to score improbable finishes.
The first, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is also the most unlikely. Issues with the No. 88 Chevrolet’s ECU left Earnhardt without power as the green flag fell to begin the day. NASCAR’s most popular driver managed to get his machine to pit road, but didn’t return to the track until he was nearly three laps down.
Incredibly, by the halfway point, Earnhardt was on the lead lap, and courtesy of his position in the high lane on the race’s late restarts, he rallied all the way back to his third runner-up result of the season.
The aforementioned tire issues were the biggest problem for Chase Elliott. Concerns over a possible flat tire forced the rookie to pit road in the middle stages of Sunday’s race, costing him precious time on the track. However, the Georgian had a great car, and maneuvered it all the way up to second in the closing stages before a late restart shuffled him back to fourth.
The most surprising top-five finisher, Trevor Bayne, also had to overcome controversy. He was running inside of the top 10 in the early stages of the event when he mistakenly crossed over the orange commitment area of pit road before heading back onto the track during one of the race’s yellow flags. The No. 6 car was forced to complete a pass-through penalty as a result, and spent the rest of the day battling through traffic. Thanks to fresher tires than his peers and favorable positions on late restarts, Bayne snuck into fifth to claim his first top five since his surprising 2011 Daytona 500 win.
Bayne’s comeback was just one of many surprise stories on the day.
Landon Cassill led 20 laps and ran inside of the top 10 for a large part of Sunday’s race for Front Row Motorsports until contact with Ty Dillon forced him to pit road and a 22nd-place result. Roush Fenway Racing had all three of its drivers in the top 10 with less than 50 laps to go, though the late restarts shuffled Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. to 12th and 16th, respectively.
Both Elliott and Ryan Blaney challenged for the lead and ran inside of the top 10 for much of the day, though their great runs are becoming less of a surprise and more of an expectation with each week. Clint Bowyer, an unexpected back marker for much of the year, pulled off the unthinkable to give HScott Motorsports an eighth-place finish from 36th on the grid.
The best story, however, was Matt DiBenedetto. Once a part-time start-and-park driver in the XFINITY Series, DiBenedetto showed how talented he is by bringing the underfunded BK Racing a sixth-place result at Bristol. The performance left him struggling for words as tears of joy filled his eyes on pit road, and left drivers from Edwards to Earnhardt praising him in the media center and on social media after the race.
Proud of @mattdracing. Good kid. Like seeing good things happen to good people.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 17, 2016
There may still be some grumbles after Sunday’s race at Bristol. Fans on social media complained about the surprising amount of open seats at the track, and many looking through rose-colored glasses still criticize Bristol because drivers no longer run the bottom lane exclusively.
However, while not everyone was pleased, most that took in the race at face value can agree that it was one of, if not the best race of 2016.
If that’s the kind of racing the lower-downforce package is going to supply this year, next week’s race at Richmond International Raceway should be worth the price of admission.