BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — After four rain delays and 11 extra laps, Matt Kenseth finally drove to victory lane.
It took him nine hours to get there Sunday at a water-logged Bristol Motor Speedway.
Kenseth snapped a 51-race losing streak by holding off Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on one final restart in NASCAR’s determined effort to stage a complete race.
The start was delayed nearly 90 minutes because of rain and the race was stopped three more times, including one delay that lasted almost four hours.
The final stoppage came when the race had already surpassed the scheduled 500 laps, but a quick rain shower had stalled NASCAR’s attempt to race to the checkered flag following an accident with eight laps remaining. So, NASCAR parked the cars on pit road and sent out its dryers to quickly try to give it one more shot.
It was a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish and Kenseth, the pole-sitter, got a terrific jump on the restart. He wasn’t challenged in part because Gordon had a poor restart.
Johnson slid past Gordon to take second place, and Gordon finished third.
The race had a series of hiccups unrelated to the rain stoppages: Austin Dillon ran out of gas while running third because of the lengthy final caution, Denny Hamlin didn’t get back in his car after the first rain break because of a kink in his neck, and the two Team Penske drivers wrecked each other just 20 laps after the start.
Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch were in contention until they wrecked following a restart eight laps from the scheduled finish, and Busch put together his strong run with an interim crew chief because Tony Gibson couldn’t leave his motorhome due to pain from a kidney stone.
Kyle Larson, while leading, had a miscue with a pair of cars a lap down and the chaos it created sent Landon Cassill hard into the wall.
Hamlin, meanwhile, said he felt something strain in his neck 12 laps into the race. The race was stopped for rain on Lap 22, and Hamlin went to his motorhome to see if he could get his neck to feel better. Instead, it stiffened and he was hardly able to turn his head when NASCAR summoned drivers back to their cars.
“I can’t move my head or neck like I need to, and I’m not doing this team any justice if I go out there like this,” Hamlin told The Associated Press from the garage. “I have no idea what happened. I think it’s just a pull, something where you jerk your head around and you feel a pain. Almost like you slept on it wrong.”
Because Hamlin won last month at Martinsville, he’s already earned a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and didn’t see the point in getting back into his No. 11 if he wasn’t going to be competitive.
Joe Gibbs Racing turned to 18-year-old Erik Jones, one of its development drivers, to replace Hamlin.
“We’ve got a win, so go let this kid get some laps,” Jones said.
Jones had no Sprint Cup experience, but was coming off his first Xfinity Series victory last week at Texas.
When the race resumed after a rain delay of 3 hours, 58 minutes, Jones got a few dozen laps before a competition caution gave him a chance to catch his breath. He radioed that the steering wheel was too close, but the team did not have an opportunity to make any adjustments.
Prior to the rain delay, Brad Keselowski wrecked teammate Joey Logano and both Team Penske cars suffered significant damage.
Persistent rain delayed the start more than an hour, and NASCAR rushed to get the event underway during a brief window.
Although it was damp and cold when the race began, there weren’t any issues until the 20th lap, when Keselowski spun trying to get around a lapped car. He spun directly into Logano, and both cars were heavily damaged.
Logano, who led all 300 laps Saturday to win the Xfinity Series race, thought Keselowski’s issue was a loose car and not rain. Keselowski was dejected as he looked at both damaged cars.
“I hate racing in the rain, but I understand the position that NASCAR is in. They want to get the race going and this is one of those days where it’s going to just keep raining off and on and we’re trying to get as many laps in at a time as we can to give the fans the best race possible,” Keselowski said.
The weather ruined what Bristol officials had hoped would be a successful weekend for their spring race.
Once one of the toughest tickets to get in all of sports, Bristol boasted a streak of 55 consecutive sellouts. But attendance has been on a five-year decline for Bristol’s spring race in part because of an ever-changing race date that moved the event earlier and earlier into March.