Bristol’s race this weekend was aptly titled the Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up To Cancer. It was a chance for the NASCAR community to give back, lending its support to one of its most respected broadcasters.
It was also a special chance for so many to say goodbye. Byrnes passed away Tuesday morning after a nearly two-year, hard-fought battle with head and neck cancer. He was 56 and leaves behind wife Karen, 12-year-old son Bryson, two nephews and countless other family and friends who supported him in his battle. Byrnes, the play-by-play announcer for NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series had been involved with the sport for decades, from its days moonlighting on TNN to reaching the big stage of FOX Sports beginning in 2001.
I’m not going to sit here and say I knew Byrnes well; we sat in the same production meetings together during my time doing TV on the circuit but our conversations were limited. What I can tell you for certain, though is what he brought to the table was a level of professionalism and respect acknowledged by most everyone involved in the sport. When you do your job in that fashion, treating everyone the way you’d like to be treated it’s no surprise he was held in such high regard. Whether it’s the crew chief of a small, independent team, a powerhouse owner like Rick Hendrick or a TV production staffer, they’ll all be paying tribute to the man in much the same way. No one, no matter their position has a bad thing to say about him, a hard road to pave in an industry where one off-kilter report can color someone’s opinion for life.
Byrnes’ passing at such a young age reminds us all to live life to the fullest, every single day as tomorrow is not promised to any of us. Byrnes packed a lot into his 30-year career, traveling across the country to connect millions of fans to the beauty of stock car racing. He did it while balancing family life, close to son Bryson and keeping his priorities in order. In the midst of senseless tragedy, it’s refreshing to know Byrnes lived his life without regret, making his time here memorable enough that he leaves it connected to millions. At the end of the day, your biggest impact in this world is not the number of hours you work or the number of dollars you collect, but the way in which you treat and connect with other people. In that department, Byrnes was an A+, and it’s only fitting the Bristol event named after him was the sport’s best of the season. It’s only fair.
“Whether you had the privilege of knowing him or if you watched him on television for the past three decades,” said NASCAR CEO Brian France, “Steve’s work ethic and authenticity made him a beloved individual inside and outside the garage.”
France continued, “His level of professionalism was matched only by the warmth he showed everyone he met. He battled cancer with tenacity and was a true inspiration to everyone in the NASCAR family.”
Godspeed, Steve. You’ll be missed.
Let’s take a deep breath and look at the big NASCAR news items on the front burner after Bristol…
FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth finally gets over the hump
Kenseth’s first year at Joe Gibbs Racing was magical, a seven-win season that landed just short of a Sprint Cup championship. But 2014 was a different story. The veteran, now 43, was shut out of Victory Lane, scored just two runner-up finishes and never quite showed the speed that could make him a serious title contender in the new Chase. Just one year behind the retiring Jeff Gordon, a long list of prospects in Nationwide and Trucks (including phenom Erik Jones) made some wonder if Kenseth would start thinking retirement, too.
Not a chance. After a solid start this season, Kenseth took advantage at his best track, winning from the pole while surviving several challenges on late-race restarts in Thunder Valley. The victory locks him into NASCAR’s postseason early while finally putting to bed a winless streak that had clearly started to bother him.
“It wears on you a little bit,” he admitted. “Last year, there were some races we had chances to win and things just wouldn’t line up for us. [Sunday] was exactly the opposite.”
The victory gives JGR as an organization two wins through eight races, putting Kenseth and Denny Hamlin in the Chase. While most of their muscle has been flexed on the short tracks, that’s still light years ahead of the two wins in 36 races they accumulated all last year. Kenseth, who is one of the sport’s most consistent drivers can’t be counted out in the postseason, and while not known as a short track racer has shown considerable strength the last few years at Bristol and Martinsville. Expect him to win more this season.
SECOND GEAR: Close, but no cigar for so many
While Kenseth won the race, he wasn’t the fastest car. Many others saw their chance at victory go up through self-induced mistakes. Teammate Carl Edwards appeared to be a match for Kenseth, but he fell behind a bit on pit road and never got the preferred line during the final series of restarts. Fighting for second late, he slipped up while running side-by-side, slapped the outside wall and collected a surging Kurt Busch in a melee that left him out of contention.
“I made a mistake,” he said afterwards after dropping to 24th. “100 percent my fault. I was racing really aggressively there at the end and I drove into turn one and that was the first time I lifted off throttle. I just pitched sideways -- I drove it way too deep.”
As for Busch, he probably had the best car of all on Sunday but a decision to go down pit road during a late caution trapped him back in the field. While fresh tires helped, the loss of track position left him fighting through traffic with too few laps (19) to make up the distance. You wonder if the team would have made the same decision if regular head wrench Tony Gibson was on top of the pit box; kidney stones forced him to the sidelines and left him out of commission at the race’s crucial stage. It’s the third time in a month Busch has potentially had a winning car only to have circumstances out of his control cost him that chance at victory.
THIRD GEAR: Wrecked by the rain?
NASCAR suffered through several rain delays at Bristol but was determined all day to get the race in. While most celebrated their dedication, keeping the race from being run on a Monday, Team Penske wondered if they jumpstarted things too fast. An early wreck where Brad Keselowski lost control collected teammate Joey Logano and left them skeptical as to whether the track was race-ready after hours of track drying before the initial green flag.
“It’s been raining since we started the race,” Keselowski said afterwards. “It was just a really light sprinkle and the track was just barely dry. I don’t know. The rain was coming in and out and the car just took off on me. I would like to blame the rain, but I honestly don’t know. Usually when a car gets that far sideways and it’s kind of out of nowhere there’s a reason behind it. I just really hate that I tore up my teammate in the process. I hate racing in the rain, but I understand the position that NASCAR is in. They want to get the race going and this is one of those days where it’s gonna just keep raining off and on and we’re trying to get as many laps in at a time as we can to give the fans the best race possible, but we’re racing in the rain to do it and that’s what happens.”
Both drivers are already postseason eligible, so that reduced the sting a bit. But if that wreck had been worse, collecting 10 or 12 more cars, it would be a really hot-button issue within the garage this week.
FOURTH GEAR: The beauty of surviving Bristol
In some cases, the best way to get a good finish at Bristol’s fast-paced, 15 seconds-a-lap oval is refreshingly simple: survive. It’s not a matter of dodging the carnage but fighting through it, making sure your car makes it to the finish line intact that can make the difference between ninth and 39th.
Justin Allgaier and Danica Patrick were too such examples. Both had good cars but were caught up in several wrecks. Both could have had one bad hit leave them sitting behind the wall. But their teams did amazing work on pit road, patching up each car and allowing both drivers to stay either on the lead lap or within striking distance. When the smoke cleared at the end of the race, both had top-10 finishes and for Patrick, it was a performance that put her on the right side of the Chase cutoff.
Meanwhile, boss Tony Stewart, while cranky on the radio, had a crucial top-10 performance of his own. A sixth-place effort, his best of the season now puts the No. 14 car on the right side of the top 30 in points. That means a single victory could change things around for the program, landing them inside the Chase and ending whispers Stewart has lost a step during the past few years riddled with both injury and tragedy.
Other shoutouts go to Kyle Larson (seventh) and Brett Moffitt (17th) who each had one of their better 2015 performances.
Richard Childress Racing has issued a final appeal of their penalties for doctoring tires. It’s a risk, as their initial appeal dropped the points lost by Ryan Newman from 75 to 50, a crucial 25-point difference that currently has him inside NASCAR’s Chase cutoff. Final Appeals Officer Bryan Moss will hear the case and issue an official ruling… Kevin Harvick’s involvement in a mid-race wreck ended his streak of seven top-10 finishes to start the NASCAR season. The good news for him? Martin Truex, Jr. and Logano had troubles of their own, meaning no Sprint Cup driver has been able to start the season 8-for-8. Harvick’s lead in the standings remains a healthy 30 points… Jeff Gordon, third at Bristol now has five straight top-10 finishes to counterbalance an awful start to the season. Now ninth in the standings, he’s put himself in position to win the last few weeks and looks like he’ll easily qualify for the Chase in his final season… Denny Hamlin had back spasms during one of the rain delays, causing him to be replaced by young Erik Jones. Jones held his own in his Sprint Cup debut and strengthened his case to be in the No. 18 Toyota before Kyle Busch returns… It’s the second straight year the Bristol spring race has been delayed by rain.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Steve Byrnes photo courtesy of NASCAR / Getty Images, other photos by Action Sports, Inc.