Denny Hamlin dominated all night long Friday and was primed to score his fourth win in his last five tries at Darlington. In the end, Joe Gibbs Racing took the trophy, but it wasn’t Hamlin. That honor instead went to Joey Logano, and it didn’t come without controversy.
After a quiet race by Darlington standards, things went haywire on lap 142. Elliott Sadler, who had used tire strategy to take the lead, appeared to spin his tires slightly on a green-flag restart. Logano, running third behind Sadler, tried to bump the No. 2 down the track, but in doing so turned him into oncoming traffic, damaging Hamlin’s machine and ending the night for Sadler. Logano would then hold off his teammate on the next restart, apologizing to Sadler from Victory Lane after the event was over. Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Sam Hornish Jr. and Austin Dillon rounded out the top-5 finishers.
The end result proved costly for Sadler, as his 24th-place finish cost him 18 points on leader Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who finished sixth after starting from the pole. The defending NNS champion now leads Sadler by 23 points, with Austin Dillon 35 markers back in third.
*Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.*, as described above, built his points lead up by 18 over the course of one weekend. Races don’t get much more productive than that. But more notable was also the way that the No. 6 team raced, even with Sadler threatening for the win late. Earning the pole after a rough practice session, leading laps, all good stuff. But when everything was on the line late, and all the No. 6 team could do was hope to minimize damage, they did just that. Stenhouse moved up in the top 10 as the race wound down, and thus was able to capitalize when Sadler got booted. It wasn’t a race-winning performance, but it was the type that title runs are made of.
Hats off to *Austin Dillon* for a top-5 result… he ended up holding even serve in the championship battle in doing so. *Sam Hornish, Jr.* also finished fourth, arguably his strongest run in Nationwide competition since his win at Phoenix last fall.
While JGR’s Cup drivers came home 1-2, their lone Nationwide regular finally brought home a solid result after a trying start to 2012. *Brian Scott’s* seventh-place finish was his first top 10 since Fontana, only his second of the season, and a career best result at Darlington by a mile (his previous high was a 20th in 2009). Those Dollar General cars really painted Darlington yellow… the parts that Bojangles didn’t, anyway.
*Danica Patrick* and *Travis Pastrana* finished 12th and 17th, respectively, in their first Darlington starts. Both of those results are impressive given their experience levels.
*Cole Whitt* came back from 40th to a top-10 finish (+30 spots) after starting in the rear with a backup car. That’s impressive on any level, but especially at Darlington in a short, 200-mile race that moved at a feverish pace all night Friday.
*Elliott Sadler* went from race leader with five to go to wrecked and done, all courtesy of a bump from Joey Logano. It’s a simple story; NNS regular plays strategy correctly, is contending to win, dumped by a Cup regular. Sadler noted in post-wreck remarks that this put the No. 2 team back to where they were a season ago in Daytona after a disappointing event. Both gaps in points were not insurmountable… but then again, the No. 2 team never surmounted it either. Either way, the reality is that a Cup double-dipper had a major impact on the title race this Friday night. We may well be looking back at this one as what decided the championship for Stenhouse.
If they had no bad luck, there’d be no luck at all for *Mike Wallace* and the No. 01 team the past month or so. Losing a hauler to fire is bad enough for any operation, but now the team has suffered wrecks in back-to-back races; this time, Wallace found the wall between turns 3 and 4 on lap 35. Wallace and the No. 01 completed only 81 circuits en route to a 30th-place result, his worst at Darlington since 2006.
*T.J. Bell* ended up pounding the inside frontstretch wall on lap 46 courtesy of midpack racing gone bad. Bell ended up in a field of congestion, battling three-wide entering turn 4 when contact with Josh Richards put the No. 50 into the fence. Though the broadcast booth noted that Richards could have cut Bell a break, racing in as close quarters as the two drivers were, the same could have been said for Bell not to come across the nose of the No. 39. Two inexperienced drivers at Darlington going at it hard in turn 4 is a recipe for disaster, and in this case it was the No. 50 that fell victim. Bell finished 32nd.
*Brendan Gaughan* pounded the turn 3 wall late, finishing 26th in another disappointing outing in RCR equipment for the former series regular.
The field didn’t make it through two laps at Darlington before an ugly wreck snarled up a number of race cars early. Super-rookie *Ryan Blaney* flat lost his Chevrolet entering turn 2 on lap 2 and pounded the fence, ending the night for Tommy Baldwin Racing before it even started. Even more of a mess ensued behind Blaney’s spin; *Jeremy Clements* was tagged from behind slowing to avoid the carnage and went headfirst into the interior retaining wall, while *Matt Frahm*, *Casey Roderick* and *Chase Miller* all sustained damage as a result of contact in the melee. This one wreck took out a lot of Nationwide regulars… and a lot of regulars that didn’t need a wreck at that. Of all the drivers involved, Frahm enjoyed the best finish in 28th; Blaney was dead last in 43rd.
*Underdog Performer of the Race: Jeff Green.* With Eric McClure still not cleared to race after his harrowing accident at Talladega last weekend, Tri-Star Motorsports tabbed their full-time start-and-park driver in Jeff Green to take over the No. 14 car for the weekend. The 2000 NNS champion did not disappoint, putting forth a solid effort to come home 19th, the best result of 2012 for the Hefty team. What’s more, it was the first race Green has run the distance in since the fall of 2010 at Gateway. To find Green’s last top 20? Go all the way back to Talladega, 2010.
Honorable mention goes to *Morgan Shepherd* for his 22nd-place finish, a tremendous rebound after destroying a race car at Talladega the weekend prior.
Start-and-parkers occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in Friday’s race, taking home $72,801 in purse money. (Of note, Blake Koch and the No. 15 team retired after only 29 laps with “electrical” issues; will follow up on this one in the coming weeks).
Cup regulars won Friday’s race, scored 4 of the top-10 finishing positions, occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions, and took home $134,853 in purse money.
115 of 387 starting positions occupied (29.7%)
$2,609,717 dollars won
4 of 9 trophies collected (44.4%)
*The Final Word*
* It’s been years since Clint Bowyer famously uttered that a monkey could win behind the wheel of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Nationwide Series Toyotas, but it appears to still hold true. Even without Rowdy racing every week, JGR is winning an awful lot of races.
* Does 200 miles at Darlington strike anyone as being too short for a Nationwide-caliber event? Do the math…that’s only 40% of Cup race distance, the shortest race on the schedule for any companion event by that measure. Adding another 50 miles or so would make this event even more challenging… and considering how well a number of first-timers seemed able to do this weekend, maybe that’s in order.
* The good news about Carl Edwards in the booth for Friday’s race? Well, for one, he wasn’t racing. And two, he openly admitted bias towards Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Hey, open admission has to be better than veiled objectivity right? The bad, though… it didn’t take 10 minutes of broadcast time before Carl was telling a DW/Rusty esque “back when I raced here” story of his own exploits at Darlington. There’s 43 drivers in the field, and on any given weekend viewers are lucky to hear the stories of 20 of them. Use this time better and tell us a new story.
* Elliott Sadler handled the aftermath of his wreck with Joey Logano as the consummate professional… but he was also visibly dejected at having a shot at victory literally rammed from him late. This is the first major league adversity a title contender has faced in 2012. It’s that time of the season; the honeymoon is over, the grind has begun. Heading to a track at Iowa that Stenhouse’s No. 6 team dominated a season ago (two wins), the No. 2 has to rebound… now.