On a night when throwback paint schemes recalled NASCAR’s past in vivid color, and a low-downforce aerodynamic package suggested the future direction of the sport, Carl Edwards overcame early misfortune to win an exhilarating race at the Lady in Black.
Grabbing the lead thanks to a blisteringly fast pit stop under the track-record 18th caution of Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, Edwards pulled away after a restart with eight laps left and beat polesitter Brad Keselowski to the finish line by .902 seconds to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the venerable 1.366-mile speedway.
An outspoken proponent of the low-downforce configuration, Edwards was thrilled with the quality of the racing and elated with his second victory of the season and the 25th of his career.
“I don’t think I can get in trouble for how much I liked it, but I loved it – this is as good as it gets,” Edwards said. “This is what it’s about. We’re sliding cars, tires are falling off – this is the style of racing – if there’s any chance we can run this in the Chase, I hope we can do it. It was an awesome day.”
For the record, NASCAR will run its standard 2015 competition package throughout the Chase, but the low-downforce configuration got rave reviews from a wide array of competitors.
“I loved it,” Keselowski said. “It separates the race car drivers from the pretends, and that's the way it should be.”
Edwards' victory didn’t come without significant adversity. The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota lost two laps after staying out on old tires when the rest of the lead-lap cars came to pit road under caution on Lap 62.
That decision forced Edwards to pit early on Lap 89, and a subsequent caution for Michael Annett’s crash in Turn 2 trapped him two laps down. Edwards spent the next 200 laps working his way back to the front.
Edwards was locked in an intense three-way battle for the lead when caution for Jeb Burton’s spin in Turn 2 on Lap 355 of 367 took fuel mileage out of the equation and set up the final round of pit stops.
Edwards edged Keselowski for the top spot leaving pit road and parlayed that advantage into a hard-earned victory.
Denny Hamlin came home third, followed by Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. It was a late duel with Keselowski and Harvick during a 43-lap green-flag run preceding the final caution that made an indelible impression on the Missouri driver.
“A win like this is really special, especially leading into the Chase,” Edwards said. “This is what we needed. We just needed a shot in the arm and needed to have a good night like this. All over, it's cool.
“I hope I never forget those last 25 laps. That was really fun, and the restart was fun, but truly racing with Brad and Kevin was a blast. I really had a good time.”
In what was a banner night for Joe Gibbs Racing, Kyle Busch completed his journey back from an 11-race injury absence with a seventh-place finish that locked Busch into the top 30 in the sereis standings and clinched a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the four-time winner.
“Making the Chase was something we weren’t all sure was possible after my injuries,” said Busch, who broke his right leg and left foot in a wreck during the Feb. 21 NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona. “It’s a great opportunity to be with these guys on this M&M’S Crispy team. They’re working really hard at Joe Gibbs Racing – we’ve got a lot of speed, and I think all four cars have a really good shot at this championship.
“I had my hands full tonight. I think I just got a little behind on what our adjustments needed to be for the race, but our whole team just really turned this thing around, and it turned out to be a solid finish for us.”