Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing took a week off for Easter break before being scheduled to return on Sunday, April 23 with the Food City 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway. However, the weather proclaimed otherwise and the race was rained out, forcing it to be moved to Monday afternoon. Despite early domination by Kyle Larson, it was Jimmie Johnson who scored the win. It is Johnson’s second win in a row and first at Bristol since 2007.
Points leader Larson, who started on the pole after qualifying was rained out and the starting grid was set by owners’ points, led Chase Elliott from the start. Although he started on the outside line, Larson committed to the inside, as did the rest of the field as they began to run single-file. It only took 13 laps for Larson to start lapping cars, eventually forming a gap of more than two seconds over 2nd-place.
On lap 54, the first caution came out when Kurt Busch spun on the straightaway, also collecting Chris Buescher. Although Busch was able to return to the race on lap 76, Buescher could not get his car repaired on time and was eliminated. The resulting yellow served as the scheduled lap 60 competition caution, though it was expanded to a red flag on lap 67 to allow track officials to clean up the track. After a five-minute delay, the race resumed on lap 71 with Larson and Martin Truex Jr. on the front row. Larson continued his domination, leading all 125 laps of Stage #1 en route to winning it. Behind him were Truex, Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Johnson, Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, A.J. Allmendinger and Kyle Busch.
The second stage began on lap 138 as Larson led the field to green with Truex and Logano behind him; despite his 3rd-place run in Stage #1, Jones dropped to 8th after his pit stop. Logano quickly passed Truex for 2nd, while Elliott took 3rd. Although Larson extended his lead, his race nearly ended with a spin on lap 191 when his car went sideways in turn two; he successfully saved the car before it could go around. Larson began to fall and Truex caught up to him, passing him for the first lead change of the day on lap 203. Six laps later, Kyle Busch blew a tire to bring out another caution.
Although the green came out on lap 218, it was short-lived as Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit the wall a lap later. The final green flag of the stage took place on lap 229, with Truex going on to win. Behind him were Logano, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, McMurray, Jones, Larson, Hamlin, Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Hamlin pitted for only two tires, which enabled him to take the green flag to start Stage #3 on lap 261.
On lap 324, David Ragan and Danica Patrick made contact as the former attempted to move down the track, spinning him and bringing out the yellow flag. Logano took the lead during pit stops and led the field to the restart on lap 330. On lap 385, Busch hit the wall again, forcing him to retire from the race for damage.
The next restart came on lap 393 and Johnson took the lead after bumping into Logano. Despite a poor restart, Larson moved up to 3rd after forcing three-wide with Truex and Kasey Kahne. Johnson continued to lead until lap 422, when Erik Jones’ tire went down and brought out a caution. Larson sped on pit road, causing him to take a penalty and drop him to 18th, while Hamlin pitted for just two tires and won the race out of the pits to take the lead for the restart.
Lap 428 saw the next restart led by Hamlin, though he was passed by Johnson, who was on four new tires, on lap 433. Johnson pulled away from the field and led the next 32 laps until the ninth caution of the day took place on lap 463, when Paul Menard spun while trying to avoid Kahne, who was in the wall. Harvick elected to stay out and inherited the lead, while another race leader in Truex also suffered a speeding penalty. For the restart with 32 to go, Truex was in 15th as Harvick and Johnson occupied the front row. Despite his earlier penalty, Larson moved up the field and battled with Harvick and Johnson for the lead with 23 laps remaining. Johnson took the lead on lap 480, while Clint Bowyer took 2nd. Bowyer, seeking his first win since 2012, was unable to catch up to the #48 of Johnson, who went on to win his second consecutive race and second at Bristol. It is Johnson’s 82nd career victory and Hendrick Motorsports’ first since the 2013 Food City 500, won by Kahne.
Bowyer’s runner-up finish is his first since the 2013 Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond. Harvick, Kenseth and Logano rounded out the top-5. Larson, who led a race-high 202 laps, finished 6th, while Truex, who led the second-most with 116, finished 8th.
“I knew I gave the race away there (the pit road speeding penalty),” Larson stated. “I was surprised I was able to line up with an opportunity at the end. We lucked out, taking two and then the 78 sped and it lined us up 4th, so I thought, ‘Maybe if I could get the top going quick and get by Kevin, I could get the win,’ but I think even if I was able to get to the leader, I don’t think I would’ve won, because Jimmie and Clint were way faster than I was.”
“This track has been really difficult,” Johnson commented. “Honestly, it’s what I’ve been looking for for 16 years. We finally figured it out. So, I’m very, very happy.”
Next week, the Cup Series runs its third short track in the last four races with the Toyota Owners 400 from Richmond International Raceway.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of SaJorden Miller, The SkyBoat