By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets back to business this weekend with the running of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, we’ll take the opportunity to look at race from Bristol’s not too distant past, the 2008 Food City 500, for this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater.”
A year after Bristol underwent a repave and reconfiguration to add a new layer of concrete and progressive banking in the turns, drivers were still getting acclimated to the new surface as well as the first full season that the Car of Tomorrow was implemented when the series rolled into the half-mile bullring in April of that year.
Jimmie Johnson led the field to green with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, alongside and set the early pace, leading the first 13 laps, but was shortly overtaken by Clint Bowyer and his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Bowyer led 81 of the next 82 laps before the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch took over, leading 245 of the next 250 laps, with Stewart and Hamlin leading 144 laps and 90 laps each, respectively.
Kevin Harvick took over for the first time at lap 346, but Stewart was right back in the lead just five laps later for another 37 lap stint at the front of the field. Harvick retook the lead at lap 388 to add 27 laps to his laps led total for the day, but you guessed it, Stewart was back up front at lap 415, leading the next 82 laps before caution for debris flew at lap 491.
The leaders all made their way down pit road under caution for fresh tires, with the exception of Stewart, Hamlin, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., which would come into play shortly thereafter.
Stewart held the lead when the race went back to green with five laps to go, but a lap later, he would lose the lead to Denny Hamlin.
Meanwhile, Harvick was using his fresh tires to his advantage, powering past Earnhardt for third and setting his sights on Stewart. Pulling to the inside of Stewart with two laps to go, the two made contact in Turn 2, sending Stewart spinning into the wall and allowing Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer to speed past Harvick for second and third before the caution flag flew to send the race into overtime.
“You never want to finish like that,” Stewart said. “I thought I left him plenty of room, but I don’t know. I was far enough ahead of him that I didn’t see where he hit me or when he hit me. I’m sure somehow it was my fault, so I’m sorry I got in his way.”
“I just lost it there underneath of Tony,” said Harvick. “You know, it’s just the way it goes. I mean, he did the same thing in Indianapolis. I did the same thing here. Just made a mistake. They can take it for what it’s worth and go on with it.”
Hamlin got the jump over Burton on the restart, but coming off of Turn 2, Hamlin’s Toyota hesitated with a fuel pick-up problem, giving Burton the opportunity he needed to take over the lead and never look back. As Hamlin tried to recover the lost ground, Burton’s Richard Childress Racing teammates Harvick and Bowyer took over second and third, setting up a 1-2-3 finish on the day for RCR, a first in the organization’s history.
The .588 second margin of victory over Harvick broke a year-long winless streak for Burton and would be his second to last win of his career.
“It was a good day for us,” said Burton “We put ourselves in position, and that’s how you win these races. We’re not going to stand in here today and say we had the fastest car all day. We had good pit stops. We had good strategy. We did all the little things well. When you do all the little things well, a lot of times the big things take care of themselves.”
“That’s what happened for us today. We had some breaks, but we put ourselves in position to take advantage of the breaks. That’s how you win these races. Rarely do you see a team who doesn’t run very well win races. You have to put yourself in position over and over and over. That’s how you win ’em. Proud to say we did that today.”
Following the three RCR cars to the finish was Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Hamlin dropped all the way to sixth at the finish, while Stewart’s dominant day ended with a 14th place result.
In addition to the 1-2-3 sweep for RCR, the race was also the final race of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett’s career, as he struggled to a 37th place finish in his No. 44 Michael Waltrip Racing entry after a salute by the fans in attendance before the race when the displayed a “Thanks Dale!” sign that took up the entire grandstands.
“Enjoy this. We all have our time in this and mine has been fantastic to me. It’s been an honor and a privilege to be able to race in this series and say that I’ve raced with and against and sometimes beat the best in the world. Thanks for allowing me to do that. Enjoy it, it’s a great sport and you help make it what it is,” said Jarrett in the pre-race driver’s meeting.
“Just thankful for everything that’s happened in my career, the good and the bad,” Jarrett added after the race. “The good things were great, it made life fun, the bad things taught me good lessons in life. Thanks to a lot of people in this garage area that I can still call friends. I don’t think I made any enemies today, so that’s a good thing. It wasn’t the day we wanted for this UPS Toyota, but we battled and we had some things happening from the beginning to the very last couple of laps there. I’m going out with the best sponsor in the business in UPS and I’m proud of that. Just glad this is over and we’ll move forward from here.”
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