Ever since Darlington Raceway was repaved, races can be run to different rules as compared to the past.
Saturday night was no different.
Mark Martin and a few other teams gambled on fuel mileage Saturday night. While the rest of the leaders pitted for four tires and gas on lap 321 under caution, Martin and five others stayed out, having pitted under the previous caution. From there, Martin held off challenges from Jimmie Johnson to win the Southern 500 presented by GoDaddy.com on Saturday night.
After the race, Martin was definitely very happy, but was quick to commend his crew for getting him to victory lane.
“…This win was pure race team and [crew chief] Alan Gustafson,” Martin said during the post-race press conference, referring to the pit strategy (staying out) that ultimately gave Martin the lead that he held for the final 55 laps.
Hendrick teammate Johnson, after all of the issues he had during the weekend, came home in second place.
“I’m very relieved and proud of the race team,” Johnson said. “We kept our heads and fought through it all night long and got [ourselves] as good finish.”
Martin Truex Jr. lead early Saturday night before settling in for his second top-10 finish of the year in sixth. Brad Keselowski, in the part-time GoDaddy.com No. 25 for Hendrick Motorsports, continued his great form of late with a seventh-place finish. Greg Biffle was eighth, followed by rookie Joey Logano in ninth. Polesitter Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10.
This race, despite the re-invigoration of the venerable Southern 500 name and the classic wall paint, will be best remembered for a couple of tidbits. First, the sheer amount of caution flags thrown during the race. A record (for Darlington) 17 cautions slowed the race for 73 laps and resulted in an average speed of 119.687 mph.
Secondly, the continued lack of tire wear at the track. Historically, tires have fallen off in performance like a stone at Darlington, but since the track was repaved last year, the rubber does not wear anywhere near as much. The strategy that won the race Saturday night for Martin would have never worked in the past. It remains to be seen how long this will last.
Gordon used a similar strategy to Martin’s at the end of the race Saturday. This resulted in a fifth-place finish, despite a night that saw Gordon have to pit under green early on and lose a lap. The fifth-place finish allowed Gordon to expand his points lead to 29 points over new second-place Stewart. Stewart has earned five top-five finishes in the last six races to move up in the standings. Kurt Busch drops back a spot to third after a mediocre run at Darlington. Issues with handling through the race resulted in a 16th-place finish. Johnson moves up two places to fourth despite a terrible start to the weekend.
Johnson had a bad-handling car in the practice sessions Friday, then wrecked the car in qualifying, forcing him to start at the back of the field in a backup car with no laps on it. Despite this, Johnson used strategy to bring the Lowe’s Chevrolet home in second place.
Denny Hamlin drops a position this week to fifth place after a 13th-place finish. This was better than it could have been since Hamlin spun out on lap 162 and fell down to 32nd before coming back up through the field. Jeff Burton is now up to sixth, 217 behind Gordon after a 12th-place run. Burton had a strange shock problem on a pit stop that cost him a lap in the pits under yellow before charging back up through the field. Kyle Busch is down two spots to seventh after smacking the wall and having to spend time behind the wall for repairs. Newman, after the slow start to the season is now up to eighth after a fourth-place finish.
Biffle and Kenseth are both up two spots to ninth and tenth, respectively. Biffle had a good chance at victory until a wreck late in the race. Martin is now in 11th spot after his victory Saturday night. He is now only 10 points outside the top 10. Carl Edwards rounds out the top 12 after Saturday night. A wreck on lap 285, which Edwards blamed on his own teammate Biffle, and driving around wounded resulted in a 32nd-place finish.
Around the 35th-Place Cut-off
This week, there was no movement of teams into or out of the Top 35 in owner points. In fact, there was consolidation of the previous status quo. The 36th-place team (Red Bull Racing Team No. 82) failed to qualify for the race, which essentially clinched the fact that no one was going to move in or fall out of the Top 35.
Money problems are starting to seriously hamper the efforts of the TRG Motorsports No. 71. First, it was issues with the “American Monster” sponsor that they unveiled back at Phoenix, then writing off a car at Talladega in the first big crash only seven laps into the race. A couple of weeks ago, the team was only 26 points outside of the top 35. Now, they are 157 points out of 35th, albeit still in 37th place in owner points. This week, the team dropped out after only 27 laps due to a fuel pump failure, according to the official results.
As for the teams clinging onto the top 35, they had OK races. The Front Row Motorsports No. 34, driven this weekend by Tony Raines because of John Andretti’s Indianapolis commitments, finished three laps down in 25th, a fairly steady race. This was enough to not only maintain 35th, but gain on Robby Gordon in 34th.
As for Robby Gordon in his own No. 7, he was hampered by damage on his Quaker State Toyota caused by wall contact. This resulted in multiple extra pit stops under green. Eventually, Gordon brought the No. 7 home in 28th, 14 laps down.