AP Auto Racing Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) – Matt Kenseth had the early lead Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where rain is disrupting a Sprint Cup race for the second time this season.
The start was delayed nearly two hours. NASCAR dried the track in about 45 minutes with its year-old Air Titan drying system, but drivers got in only 124 laps before rain forced a delay again.
The Feb. 23 season-opening Daytona 500 was stopped by rain for almost six hours before resuming for a frantic finish won by Dale Earnhardt Jr. before midnight.
And just like Daytona, the field at Bristol was racing against the weather. Knowing more rain was in the area, drivers had to be on their game early because the race is considered official at the halfway point of 250 laps.
Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were the class of the field at first, battling for the lead. When Logano finally got past Keselowski, he had a thick pack of traffic to navigate and his work cut out for him when NASCAR paused for a scheduled competition caution 50 laps into the race.
Jimmie Johnson came off pit road as the leader but the pace changed because of two quick cautions. Both cautions were for debris, but the second one on Lap 67 was bizarre – a battery appeared to come off of Alex Bowman’s car and landed in the middle of the backstretch. It was run over and hit by several other cars, and drivers wondered what had happened.
“It looked like a black and white pinata exploded,” Tony Stewart radioed his crew.
Confusion added to the caution period when tufts of white paper resembling toilet paper began blowing across the track. Keselowski wondered if these were decals from the banners along the track wall.
Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip later said it was toilet paper that Bowman’s team used to pack the battery into the car. Bowman disputed that, saying he was told by the team it was standard cloth.
When racing resumed following the caution, Logano lost his power steering and dropped to 28th in the field before caution for rain stopped the race at Lap 124.
“I’d say 500 laps is going to be a lot longer than I thought it was going to be around here,” Logano said during the rain delay, speculating about how difficult it will be to navigate around the .533-mile bullring without power steering.
“I was already huffing and puffing pretty hard trying to get the thing to turn. You can’t be quick with it. That’s the biggest problem, you can’t go fast. We’ll just have to fix it. The good thing is we’re (124) laps into this thing and there’s a long ways to go. The bad news is if we can’t fix it, we’re only (124) laps into it. So, either way, we’ve got our work cut out for us today.”
Same for Johnson, who was running second when his tire came apart. He had to pit for repairs and dropped to 39th, two laps down from Kenseth.
Crew chief Chad Knaus grumbled on the radio that the tire wasn’t flat.
“The tread just fell off of it. There’s nothing wrong with it. The rest of the tire is … great,” Knaus radioed. He then sarcastically said he was certain the team would be blamed for the tire falling apart.
“I’m sure it’s something we did. I’m sure it’s our fault.”
Goodyear quickly responded via Twitter, posting that Johnson’s team didn’t change the right front tires on its first pit stop. Going 115-plus laps caused the right front tire to wear through, Goodyear said.