Saturday’s showcase NASCAR tussle at Bristol Motor Speedway was prefaced by picture-perfect skies and temperatures in the mid-80s that had the enthusiastic crowd of nearly 160,000 heading to the Tennessee bull ring by early afternoon for the Irwin Tools Night Race and its scheduled 7:47 p.m. green flag.
By the time darkness fell in the first 250 laps of the 500 lap shootout, there was plenty of thunder, most of which fell firmly in turns three and four.
Eleven cautions during the race and a red flag stoppage on lap 447 brought out the final 53-lap rough-and-tumble finish that saw Matt Kenseth hold off Kasey Kahne in the final 10 laps of what became Kahne riding the bumper of Kenseth, but never being able to find an opening to slide by the eventual winner. Juan Pablo Montoya, Brian Vickers and Joey Lagano rounded out the three-through-five finishing spots.
The screaming fans, few of whom had left before the checkered flag, saw Kahne attempt several passing maneuvers in those final ten laps.
“We won the Bristol Night Race,” Kenseth exclaimed after the win. “That’s pretty awesome. This is a special place with special fans.”
Throughout the entire day fans created a party atmosphere, with the area around the speedway a virtual city of race fans, campers and motorhomes, all building up to most everyone entering what is dubbed “The Last Great Colosseum” for an evening of trading paint among NASCAR’s greats.
Third place finisher Montoya admitted he was looking for a rumble between Kenseth and Kahne. “Yea, I was hoping they were going to wreck on the white flag, to be honest.”
The big wreck of the night came in turn three of lap 447 when seven cars got tangled up, ending any chances for Kevin Harvick and defending champion Denny Hamlin. In what has become vintage Bristol, a boiling Harvick parked in Hamlin’s pit spot, then walked over to get an explanation from Hamlin. “He just said he had gotten spun out,” Harvick commented afterward. “That’s just Bristol.”
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. held the lead for 32 laps in the early going before finishing 10th. NASCAR sweetheart Danica Patrick stayed in the lead lap for the first half of the race before fading, finishing in 26th place, seven laps down.Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was involved in the second biggest wreck of the day in lap 358, leading to a 36th place finish.