Tempers flared between Joey Logano's crew (yellow/red) and Denny Hamlin's crew after Sunday's Bristol 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It was a hellava race.
It may not have been an epic race, or an epic crowd, but it was the best race of the NASCAR season so far, Kasey Kahne pulling out the win over Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski in Sunday's Food City 500....and emotions boiled over in the garage afterwards between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin.
The storyline of the early season has been little action or passing, but that certainly wasn't the case here. Saturday's Nationwide finish was a wild one, with Busch holding on for a fender-banging finish over newcomer Kyle Larson. And Sunday's 500 was full of side-by-side action too, the kind of action fans have been craving.
Drivers could race side by side all the way around the track, though passing for the leader did get a bit dicey at time. Lapped traffic was terrible, which made for great action, and frayed nerves behind the wheel. Watching these guys work lapped traffic was amazing.
The high-line was the fast line, on a very fast track, with very fast cars. But the lower line also worked, for many drivers. And drivers could recover, usually, when they got in trouble. Kahne and Hamlin in particular made dramatic saves.
About the only thing that might have made the day any more exciting would have been if track owner Bruton Smith had brought in Hooters Girls and trampolines.
Matt Kenseth was going for the lead with 50 miles to go when Jeff Gordon blew a right-front tire in front of him and landed on top of his car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski had the lead for the final restart, with 40 laps to go. But he got bumped from behind by Hamlin just before the green and couldn't quite recover. Keselowski wound up battling Busch for second, some two seconds behind Kahne.
Still, with 25 laps to go five men had great shots at winning, remarkable. Certainly a very good day both for NASCAR's new 2013s and for Smith's sometimes controversial concrete.
Kahne, who kicked himself for losing last week at Las Vegas to Matt Kenseth, was determined not to throw this one away...though he almost did.
"Brad got out to the lead there, and it took my car a few laps to get going," Kahne said. "But I reeled him in.
"Just trying to make the pass was tough. He was driving into the corner so hard I couldn't really do anything on the bottom or try any type of somewhat of a slide job or anything like that. It was just trying to get momentum off the corner and make something happen on exit.
"It took a while to do it. I bumped him a few times. He was sideways trying to hold us back. I got the lead once then gave it right back in lap traffic two laps later.
"Definitely I was mad at myself. About spun out off turn two a few laps after that. Had to calm down and get things going again.
"Felt like we got a good restart that final restart (lap 461 of 500), got to the lead. From there it was just momentum and try to drive away."
After a string of races here that weren't quite up to Bristol's wild-and-wooly reputation, this one was a slam-bang deal, with 10 crashes.
Some situations may take a while to mend....
Logano had been battling Jeff Gordon for the lead midway through the three-hour race when he got bopped lightly by Hamlin.
Logano's car slapped the wall and that pretty much took him out of contention.
Hamlin had complained about Logano's racing at Daytona. The two were teammates the past several years for Joe Gibbs, but no longer.
Logano charged over to Hamlin's car immediately after the race, stuck his head in the window to make some pointed comments before crewmen pushed him away. Several crewmen got into a pushing-shoving match before it all cooled off.
"It was frustrating," Logano said. "We were capable of winning the race.
"I understand the way he races, now that he's not my teammate. I'll race him the way he races me."
Hamlin offered a few sarcastic comments about the situation: "You've got to control your car. He slid up in front of me, and he's lucky he didn't wind up with a broken radiator.
"I meant to run into him, didn't mean to spin him out."
What did Logano tell Hamlin post-race?
"He said he was coming for me," Hamlin said. "But I usually don't see him anyway."
However Logano has been strong this season since moving to the Roger Penske camp. And he wasn't a bit happy with Hamlin: "That's a freaking genius behind the wheel of the 11 car... probably the worst teammate I ever had -- so I've learned that now.
"He decided to run in the back of me. Whatever. I have a scorecard, and I'm not putting up with that. What goes around comes around."
Hamlin lost a tire at the end and barely nursed his car home 23rd.
Logano had no sympathy:"He deserves it."
What happened in Daytona to trigger this?
"I never did anything wrong in Daytona," Logano insists.
"I think he's just driving like an idiot. I'm not going to get run over and not do something about it."
Kasey Kahne at the finish line. Another victory for Chevy team owner Rick Hendrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
That wasn't the only apparent issue Hamlin now faces. Keselowski was the leader for the final restart, with Hamlin right behind him; Keselowski says Hamlin was too aggressive in the seconds just before that restart and took him out of contention.
"I haven't seen the replay, I just know my rear tires were off the ground before I got to the restart....and that was the deal, and it ruined our chances," Keselowski said. "It was going to be a hellava battle with Kasey.....but I'm not sure what happened."
The race was in doubt right from the start, though it was clear who had the best cars in the field -- Kahne, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Keselowski.
Kurt Busch, after three bad races, was suddenly up front Sunday, finishing fourth, his best since joining crew chief Todd Berrier.
Gordon was leading late when his right front tire blew; Kenseth was running second right behind Gordon at the time, and Gordon's car flew up the track into the outside wall and landed on Kenseth's hood, nearly on the windshield.
Johnson also blew a right front tire late, taking him out of contention. That wound up costing him the Sprint Cup points lead. Keselowski, off to the best start of his career, is the points leader heading west again to Los Angeles for next Sunday's California 400.
Goodyear reported Gordon and Johnson both melted sealing beads because of excessive brake heat. Four other drivers also melted sealing beads, Goodyear said. There were similar issues at Phoenix two weeks ago, involving Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick.
Why sealing bead issues? For one, these new 2013 stockers are much faster than last year's car. And drivers may sometimes ride the brakes if the car isn't handling just right.
Tony Stewart is definitely not off to a rip-roaring start this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The day got off to a bad start for Tony Stewart, who cut a left-rear in contract with another car and crashed.
An accordion crash took out several, including Jeff Burton, whose foot got jammed somehow in the pedals, potentially a very serious situation.
The race looked to be a Kyle Busch versus Kasey Kahne versus Denny Hamlin day early on. But Busch was hit with a pit road speeding penalty, which sent him to the rear of the field. Busch did manage to battle back, as he did at Las Vegas last week in a similar situation. "If I could just stop making mistakes, we'd be better off," Busch said.
Despite the threat of rain hanging over Bristol Motor Speedway all day, the full race was run, and on time, without the wet.
Kurt Busch, off to such a slow start this season, was perhaps the day's biggest surprise. Yes, he's one of the top performers at this track over the years, but he's been ragged this spring. Not Sunday, though. He even managed to recover from a loose wheel to get back in the hunt.
After the series of tire issues drivers appeared to try to settle in and just log laps for a while.
Things picked up in earnest with about 175 laps to go in the 500-lapper, with Gordon battling teammate Kahne. Then Logano charged into contention, challenging Gordon. And then Hamlin, also in the hunt, punted Logano.
That left Kenseth fighting with Gordon for the lead, and Kenseth was perhaps a lap or two away from making the pass for the point when Gordon's tire blew.
Kasey Kahne's celebratory burnout (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)