BRISTOL, Tenn. -- It was marred by a lengthy rain delay and ended under bizarre circumstances, a mystery last-lap caution just before an icy rain began pelting the concrete banks of Bristol Motor Speedway.
It was an anticlimactic finish to an otherwise riveting race, under the circumstances. It didn't seem to disappoint Carl Edwards, who rode out the final two laps at a crawl to win the Food City 500 Sunday and earn an almost certain berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And perhaps, signal that the rest of the Ford camp is awakening.
"I guess I'm part of a group of guys that can go have some fun and focus on the final 10 races to get to this championship," said Edwards, who finished 13th in the final 2013 standings by fading in the Chase. "I've been a little bit jealous of those guys who have wins this early in the season."
Edwards, who led once for 78 laps, was running off from the field in the waning laps when a caution was issued on Lap 499 of a scheduled 500, mystifying his spotter and crew chief. Moments later, rain washed over the track again, rendering the .533-mile surface untenable.
Edwards took the checkered flag under caution in what was essentially a green/white/checker finish without the green. NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the yellow flag was waved because an official in the flag stand inadvertently activated caution lighting. Edwards' Roush Fenway teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., was second, followed by Aric Almirola and Tony Stewart.
Stenhouse said he would have had no qualms about racing his teammate aggressively on a final restart. He never got the chance.
"I was thinking that I would use the bumper if the opportunity was there," he said. "If you get the win, you're in the Chase and you can let the rest take care of itself later. ... I was thinking about doing whatever I could to win."
Stenhouse didn't get the chance because of the swiftness with which rain overtook the track. It would not have been an issue had a flag man not inadvertently leaned on and activated an override switch for the track caution lights, Pemberton said.
Pemberton, when asked if rain had helped take the series off the hook, quipped toward Edwards, "There's two happy people in the room right now."
Edwards, who lost a 2004 Truck series win at Charlotte Motor Speedway to Dennis Setzer when he slowed for a mistake caution light, complimented the series for admitting the mistake. That said, he was incredibly concerned by the caution.
"Concerned is really not a strong enough word," he said.
Edwards took the lead after skipping a pit stop on Lap 426 and went about numbing down a race that had featured several instances of three-wide racing and 12 leaders. A pitched battle between Stenhouse and Almirola helped his cause.
"I knew pretty quickly after we restarted that not pitting was the right call just how fast the car was," Edwards said. "We ran our fastest lap with 30 laps or 40 laps on the tires, so I felt pretty good. I was a little nervous that Kevin [Harvick] had four tires and I think he was fourth, and I thought if we get a caution he'll start on the outside at the top behind me, and if I were to get a bad start he might be in position to snatch the lead from that spot. With him out of the picture, I felt like we definitely had the right -- we didn't have a disadvantage on anyone."
The victory was well worth the wait for the previously underperforming faction of the Ford camp as Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports constituted most of the top five in Edwards and Stenhouse, and Richard Petty Motorsports' Almirola and Marcos Ambrose, who was fifth. Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski, who won at Las Vegas last week to all but lock in a Chase berth, assumed the points lead Sunday as former leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 24th. Joey Logano dropped two spots to fourth in points after suffering an early power steering problem and finishing 20th.
"We're real happy with the representation Ford was able to have tonight," team owner Jack Roush said. "You've got to stand in line and just wait for the racing gods to smile on you or to frown on you to see what you've got, but tonight we had good fortune."