For much of the weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, it appeared the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars were the ones to beat for Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race. When the green flag dropped to start the race, the Gibbs drivers seemed intent on proving everyone right.
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch dominated the opening stages after starting from the front row, leading the first 224 laps between them, as fellow teammate Carl Edwards was a consistent factor in the top five and top 10.
While JGR's Matt Kenseth also got off to a strong start, a valve train issue under the hood sent smoke billowing from his exhaust pipes and brought the No. 20 Toyota's night to an end after just 110 of 500 laps.
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"They never warn you," Kenseth said of the engine failure. "It would be cool if they would send you a text or something."
Despite Kenseth's issue, the three remaining Gibbs cars continued to battle Team Penske for the race lead throughout the entire event, but it certainly was not without issue.
Running inside the top five with just over 150 laps to go, Busch was forced to pit under green-flag conditions with a loose wheel. The unscheduled stop dropped Busch to 18th, one lap down to the leaders. Without panic, Busch was able to work his way back onto the lead lap and once again set his sights on the front.
A little more than 10 laps later, it was Edwards who found trouble in the form of a flat tire while leading. His unscheduled stop mired him two laps down in the 18th spot. Edwards fought to get back into the lucky-dog spot, eventually earning the free pass and getting back on the lead lap with the final caution flag of the night on Lap 431.
Under that caution, the leaders hit pit road for the final time, with Busch exiting pit road in the second spot. However, NASCAR determined the No. 18 Toyota was speeding in section five of pit road, and sent Busch to the back of the field for the restart.
"(NASCAR) told us that we were speeding in section five -- our pit box is in section five. You can't speed if you're stopped on pit road," Busch's crew chief, Adam Stevens, said. "That could have just been -- maybe they meant to say a different number, I don't know, but there is no earthly way that you can speed in the segment that your pit stall is in; it's not possible."
Busch was able to fight back to the eighth spot when the checkered flag flew. Team owner Joe Gibbs said Busch's ability to remain collected when adversity struck showed "he's doing a great job of focusing and not losing his poise."
With each point and each victory putting Busch and the No. 18 team one step closer to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stevens was frustrated to give away another victory.
"It's frustrating. We put another car on the track that's capable of winning, and it's tough to do," Stevens said. "We've been able to do it I don't know how many weeks in a row. We had a race-winning car at Watkins Glen and Pocono, and just keep coming up short. This one's on us. We made a mistake at Pocono, we weren't aggressive enough at Watkins Glen and now just make a mistake on pit road. We had a loose wheel and we battled back from that, and then you speed on the last stop. You can't win if you speed on the last stop. That's all there is to it."
Edwards was able to take advantage of being back on the lead lap with a fast car, and wound up seventh when the checkered flag flew for race winner Joey Logano. Instead of being frustrated, Edwards was pleased with the team's overall performance and its ability to overcome adversity.
"Man, I was having fun up there racing for the lead with Kyle and Joey (Logano) and those guys. I really had a good time," Edwards said on pit road after the race. "Up until that flat tire I was literally out there smiling and having a good time. That's what racing's about."
Hamlin led three times for a total of 54 laps, but did not have enough to challenge Logano or Kevin Harvick at the end and wound up third when the checkered flag waved. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota described the race as a "decent, average day," adding it was "definitely not what we expected."
Edwards pointed out that despite not scoring the victory, the Gibbs cars continued to show they are among the best in the field as the Chase nears.
"If you look up there at the scoreboard, we're third, seventh and eighth," he said. "Matt had his trouble. I think if Kyle and I didn't have our trouble we'd be right up there in the top two or three. We're just having an awesome run. The cars are fast. It's fun. I think we're going to be really tough in the Chase."