Though a variety of drivers took turns at the front of the field during the first half of Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway, in the end it was the three men who had won seven of the previous eight Bristol races who fought for the win.
Ultimately, Kyle Busch, owner of four of those seven wins, pulled away from Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson to claim his fifth checkered flag at Thunder Valley and his 20th career victory overall. With the win he climbed to sixth in the standings, rebounding from his fiery demise at Las Vegas two weeks ago. His first Sprint Cup win of the season also marks his first weekend sweep of the 2011 season, as he won Saturday's Nationwide 300-lapper.
Busch has now won five consecutive NASCAR-sanctioned races at the track, dating back to last August when he became the first driver to sweep all the three National touring divisions in one week at one track since the Camping World Truck Series was first introduced in 1995.
For Edwards, his runner-up finish was his fifth top-two result in the last six Sprint Cup races. The Roush-Fenway Racing driver started from the pole, his third in that same span, and appeared ready to challenge his archnemesis for the lead before Busch pulled out to a .946-second victory. Edwards nearly continued the season-long trend of the race runner-up assuming the Sprint Cup point lead, which began with his second-place finish to Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, but instead leaves Bristol trailing Kurt Busch by a single marker. The elder of the two Busch brothers, who entered the day tied with Tony Stewart for the top spot, finished seventh. Stewart, meanwhile, was 19th and fell into another tie in the standings, this time for third with his tenth-place finishing Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman. They sit 12 points off the lead.
Johnson recorded his second third-place finish of the year, backing up his result from last month at Phoenix. The defending-race champion led a race-high 164 laps to Busch's 153, but lost the lead on the final round of pit stops and was unable to get back around Busch. After a spirited duel with Edwards for second place, he finally had to settle for the Show position but climbed five positions in the standings to seventh.
Matt Kenseth finished fouth in another Roush-Fenway Ford, while Paul Menard claimed the fifth spot for Richard Chidlress Racing. Menard passed Edwards for the lead on lap 19 and held it until the NASCAR-mandated competition caution at lap 50. He spent most of the day hovering just outside the top-five until overtaking Greg Biffle after the final restart. From there, he held off hard-charging teammate Kevin Harvick for his first top-five as a member of the RCR team.
Harvick led 37 laps and was running in the top-five at lap 437 when he had to take evasive action to avoid Kasey Kahne off turn two. Mark Martin got into Harvick, turning him sideways and doing significant damage to the left rear corner of the No. 29 Chevrolet. Harvick would recover and charge through the field for his sixth-placed finish, but behind his spin, a four-car incident involving fellow RCR driver Clint Bowyer, Trevor Bayne, and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing teammates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya broke loose.
For Bayne, it was his second multi-car incident of the day, having been involved in a pileup at lap 28 with, among others, David Reutimann, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, and Denny Hamlin. He piled into the back of Montoya's Chevy in the second crash, dooming the Daytona 500 champion to his second DNF in the three races since he burst onto the national scene with his fairytale victory in the Great American Race.
Hamlin, one of the pre-race favorites, never had a chance to get going. He spun in the first wreck and was hit in the left rear by A.J. Allmendinger. From there, his wounded Toyota could do little more than make way for the faster cars. He wound up 33rd, 12 laps down to his race-winning Joe Gibbs Racing teammate.
Bowyer blew an engine not long after being caught in the second big crash and saw his Chase hopes take another hit as he suffered his fourth-consecutive finish of 15th or worse. He is mired in 24th in the standings, 39 points behind tenth-placed Martin Truex Jr, who himself led 63 laps before fading badly to a 17th-place finish. Even worse off than Bowyer, however, is the fourth Richard Childress Racing driver, Jeff Burton, who's trouble-plagued afternoon ended with a season-best 20th-place finish. The veteran sits 29th in the standings, with his chances to compete for this year's Sprint Cup championship effectively on life support after only four races.
One driver who needed a rebound in order to have any hope of making the Chase was Greg Biffle. After three miserable races to open the season, he ran in the top-ten all day after starting second. His eighth-place finish bumped him to 23rd in the standings, a gain of eight positions. He still sits 37 markers outside the ten-race playoff, however.