NASCAR at Bristol 2014: Winners and Losers from Irwin Tools Night Race
The 2014 edition of the night race at Bristol had all the right ingredients—very quick, blink-and-you'll-miss-it action; spectacular wrecks; an emotional driver throwing something at another driver (within the rules); and a large, vocal crowd.
Joey Logano came away with the victory in what ended up being a forgettable contest that may best be remembered for the lack of controversy normally associated with the high-banked half-mile.
It was the 24-year-old’s third win of the season and his first since Richmond in April.
"This is like one of the three biggest races of the year, I feel like...it's the Bristol night race. And to have this in the record books with your name on it is really, really cool," Logano told a national television audience in Victory Lane.
Team Penske scored a one-two finish, as Logano found himself embattled against teammate Brad Keselowski in the closing laps, but Logano clearly had the better Ford Fusion and Keselowski had to settle for the runner-up position.
"As far as tonight is concerned, running second is certainly something to be proud of," said Keselowski in a post-race interview. "I’d love to have that one more position, but it just wasn’t there."
Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively, but it was a tough night for a number of Chase drivers, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Aric Almirola.
Let's take a look at the biggest winners and losers from Bristol.
Winner: Jimmie Johnson
The defending Sprint Cup champion was happy with his fourth-place finish, his best result since winning at Michigan in June.
"Top-fives are good. We are happy about that," said Johnson in a post-race release. "We had some issues on pit road and got nailed for speeding twice, which was totally on us. Just mistakes made there that kind of hurt us a little bit, but we still got a third top-five, finished fourth."
It wasn’t a typical Johnson and Co. outing, as crew chief Chad Knaus spent a good deal of the race dialing in the No. 48 Chevrolet and using pit strategy to keep Johnson up with the race leaders. An early pit road speeding penalty set the team back in the first half of the race.
This team still doesn’t look like it's ready to make a championship run this season, but a top-five is a moral victory for a group that is still searching for the handle.
Loser: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was a tough night for Junior Nation.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was involved in an early wreck that damaged his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet beyond repair.
“The first thing I saw was the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) hitting the inside wall,” Earnhardt told his manufacturer’s rep after the accident. “I don’t know how it started. There was a little bit of smoke so it was tough to judge the speed of his car coming back up the track. I thought I could go around the top and be alright, but I guessed wrong.”
It was Earnhardt Jr.’s second DNF of the season (Texas) and came at a time when this Chase-bound team could use a good night to get it pumped up for postseason play.
There is absolutely no question that this Steve Letarte-led team will rebound from what was an extremely disappointing evening.
Winner: Roush Fenway Racing
Roush Fenway Racing had another strong outing at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night, with all three drivers placing their Ford Fusions in the top 10.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led the group with a late-race run that gave him a sixth-place finish. Teammate Carl Edwards, who won the spring race, finished seventh, and Greg Biffle was 10th.
"Bristol is a lot of fun," Stenhouse Jr. said in a post-race interview. "When you’re able to turn your car all over the place, I was able to run in on the top, turn and drive across the bottom and make up a lot of ground and pass some cars. That felt really good to pass some cars. It was a great night. We needed it."
Edwards is in the Chase based on his win, while Biffle, who is winless, clings to the 16th and final Chase position by five points.
Loser: Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin’s night at Bristol ended early, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver wasn’t at all happy with Kevin Harvick.
Harvick was attempting to pass Hamlin when the two collided, sending Hamlin’s Toyota into the wall. It was damaged beyond repair.
"Last year, he [Harvick] was just not paying attention, and he didn't know that I had a cut tire last year, and he just thinks he knows everything and probably thought he knew everything again,” Hamlin said in a manufacturer’s release following the accident. “I just wish I had some kind of car left so I could show him the favor back. We're not even halfway, we're racing for the lead—it's a misjudgment. He's a good driver. He knows better, he just made a mistake."
Hamlin displayed his disgust by throwing his HANS device at Harvick, but he did it within the new rules mandated by NASCAR that prevents drivers from exiting their vehicles before safety officials are present.
Hamlin was expecting to have a strong night at Bristol, a track where he’s had success in the past. A good night would have been the springboard this team needed going into the Chase. It has been a good summer for the No. 11 team, which has scored five top-fives in the last seven races. But Hamlin’s lone win, which gets him into postseason play, stands out, especially when several drivers have multiple wins heading into the Chase.
Winner: Jamie McMurray
It was one of those “shoulda, coulda, woulda” nights for Jamie McMurray.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver led a race-high 148 laps but not any in the final segment. He struggled with the handling of his race car, but a pit stop was to no avail.
“Our car got really tight with about 100 laps to go,” said McMurray in a post-race interview. “We freed it up on the last pit stop and it didn't really help. I really thought tonight was going to be our night to put them back in Victory Lane. But we had a good car. It was a lot of fun.”
McMurray is winless this season, and for a while, it looked like Saturday night might be this team’s night.
Atlanta (where the Sprint Cup Series races next weekend) is a good track for McMurray, but based on his run at Bristol, Richmond could be the place for a win.
Loser: Kevin Harvick
A costly pit road mistake robbed the Stewart-Haas Racing driver a chance to challenge the Team Penske Fords for the victory.
Harvick led 75 laps, and his Jimmy Johns Chevrolet got better as the race went on.
“We got a speeding penalty there at the end,” Harvick said in a post-race interview. “I knew I was close, but I tried to get everything I could on pit road and wound up biting us. Just proud of all my guys; they did a good job. Raced hard all night, just made a mistake there on pit road speeding.”
This team has had more than its share of pit road missteps this season and should have five, or even six, wins to its credit.
Despite the 11th-place finish (Harvick did start from the pole, setting a new track record in the process), this team remains a clear favorite heading into the Chase.
Winner: Jeff Burton
Veteran driver Jeff Burton did an admirable job in his second outing as the substitute driver for the absent Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.
Burton was in the thick of the action with the race leaders for much of the night. As the night wore on, the way in which the track rubbered up caused problems for several drivers, including Burton, who struggled with his car’s handling in the last half of the race.
“I don’t know if it was rubber buildup [on the race track] or what, but it was a handful,” said Burton in a post-race interview. “[It was] a different race car from the start of the race.”
A hole in the nose of Burton's Chevy contributed to his problems. Even though it is a short track, aerodynamics play a role at Bristol, and a hole in the No. 14 car’s nose had a dramatic effect on its handling.
Burton soldiered through these issues and delivered the journeyman's result that was expected from the 47-year-old.
“We had a fast car till about 150 to go,” said Burton, who was making his 41st career Sprint Cup start at Bristol. “We got some nose damage, and we weren’t good after that. But I’m proud of the effort of everyone on this Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 team.”
Loser: Kyle Busch
Somehow, Kyle Busch needs to figure out a way to translate his success racing in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series to his Sprint Cup ride.
It was another difficult night for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who was involved in an early wreck and then struggled for the rest of the night, scoring a 36th-place finish.
Busch’s sole win this season came early, in March at Fontana, and since then, this Dave-Rogers-led group has had an up-and-down season. Three runner-up finishes this summer (Kentucky, Loudon and Indianapolis) reveal that the team does have championship potential. But as of late, Busch’s No. 18 Camry seems to be a magnet for trouble early in a race.
Dustin Long with MRN.com hints that radio conversations between Busch and crew chief Rogers following Busch’s wreck could be a sign of a rift between the two, asking, "Was it simply heat-of-the-moment comments after a frustrating night or signs of a rift between Kyle Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers?"
Long, however, quoted team owner Joe Gibbs as saying, “I think it was just one of those things where it heated up. I think they handled it the right way, they went and had a good discussion.’’
From what could be seen on television, Bristol Motor Speedway appeared to have its largest crowd in quite some time for the Irwin Tools Night Race.
Since the recession, this event and many other NASCAR races have suffered from poor attendance. But track officials here have done much to remedy the situation by offering special ticket pricing and family packages.
On Saturday night, the buzz was back, and there was a genuine air of excitement that had been missing for several years.
One of the big attractions at Bristol is the pre-race ceremonies, where drivers get to choose the music that is played when they are introduced.
At one time, this race was the most difficult ticket to obtain, as the Bristol night race had the reputation for being the one NASCAR event on everyone’s bucket list. Even though Saturday night’s less-than-memorable race didn’t live up to all the pre-race hype, a good crowd at Bristol is a good sign for NASCAR.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis