Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Talk about quiet. Sam Hornish Jr. is quiet off the track, and on Friday night, he slipped under the radar until the end. But that’s where the quiet ended, as Hornish waged a furious battle with Austin Dillon for a fourth-place finish, beating Dillon by inches at the line. Hornish is showing steady improvement after being given a chance to start over in the Nationwide Series after a less-than-stellar couple of years in a Sprint Cup car. If he continues to race like he did on Friday, he’ll have another chance in Cup… and this time he’ll be ready.
What… was THAT?
One thing that you would never see back in the day at Darlington was a two-tire pit stop. Before the most recent repave, the track was hell on tires, and teams took every chance for fresh rubber. Friday night’s race saw Elliott Sadler use a two-tire strategy to take the lead after a caution flew on lap 126. But while Sadler’s and Brendan Gaughan’s teams tried to gain position, it proved to still be the wrong move at this track, and Gaughan wound up in a wreck just a handful of laps later, and when Sadler didn’t get the bite he needed on the subsequent restart, Joey Logano got into his bumper, putting Sadler in the wall. The more things change…
Where… did the first-timers wind up?
Darlington has long held the reputation of being hard to figure out, she lived up to her reputation on Friday night. Ryan Blaney, who wowed fans with his seventh-place run ar Richmond in his NNS debut, found out just how cruel the Lady in Black can be on lap 2, when the No. 36 Tommy Baldwin Racing machine broke loose under him and Blaney became the night’s first casualty, winding up with a 43rd-place finish.
The other Darlington newbies fared better, all finishing in the top 20. Travis Pastrana, also making just his second start, finished 17th. Danica Patrick, who in the past has spent the month of May in Indianapolis, cam home 12th in her debut. Cole Whitt and Dillon not only survived, but each scored a top-10 finish as they wound up 10th and fifth, respectively.
When… will I be loved?
This section goes to the biggest villain of the race, who is surely wondering where the love went after whatever transpired on the racetrack. While all the drivers were on their best behavior, several learned that if you try too hard to race your opponent and not the racetrack, bad things can happen. Just 45 laps into the race, TJ Bell and Josh Richardson tried to take it three-wide; Bell didn’t give Richardson enough room on the high side, and the result was a squashed No. 50 for Bell. The with just five to go, Logano tried to clear teammate Denny Hamlin on a restart just as Hamlin tried to make a move outside of race leader Sadler. Sadler ended up going from contender to a DNF in the blink of an eye. None of the incidents were intentional, but they illustrate well how tricky this racetrack can be.
Why… were some Sprint Cup regulars eager to race on Friday night?
Winning at Darlington is extra special because of the bragging rights for beating the track as much as the field. But for a handful of drivers, Friday night’s race was also a dress rehearsal for 500 miles on Saturday. For Hamlin, who dominated the race, it may prove to be the prologue to his second Sprint Cup win at the track. For others, like Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Logano, the Nationwide race was a chance to test the waters on the changing track surface. For Patrick, seat time was critical as she prepares for her first non-restrictor-plate Cup start Saturday night. Whatever the reason, for some, it seems, the allure of dancing with the Lady in Black is simply irresistible.
How… much do I love Darlington?
Darlington is a great track for so many reasons. Nicknamed the Lady in Black for the black marks that inevitably cover the walls after a race and The Track Too Tough to Tame for its notoriously difficult racing surface, it’s slippery, it eats tires (though not as much as it used to) and you get the sense that the racing is a lot like it was when the track opened as NASCAR’s original superspeedway. Unlike many of the intermediate ovals today, Darlington was purpose-built for stock cars, not as a multi-use racetrack, and it shows. Winners get a lifetime parking spot just behind pit road, so names like Baker, Earnhardt, Petty and Jarrett are among the likes of Gordon, Johnson and Smith. It’s hard to sit in the grandstands or walk through the garage here and not feel the ghosts of NASCAR’s past around you. Darlington is one of the few tracks left on the Cup circuit that both clearly remembers NASCAR’s long and storied history and lives up to its reputation. That makes this Lady the grand dame of the sport. There are only a few tracks on the circuit truly worth the cost of a plane ticket.
Like this column? Amy brings you the Big Six questions Monday after every Sprint Cup race on the website. If you haven’t checked it out, make sure to tune in on Monday to see what Amy has to say about the Bojangles Southern 500.