You generally don’t see class racing outside of endurance racing. That is becoming an exception with Nationwide racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. The four Gibbs cars started the Darlington race in the first four spots in the field and stayed there for most of the night. While there were seven other drivers who led during the event, anyone watching the race knew that it was only a matter of time before the top spot was garnered by a JGR driver. Kyle Busch started the race from the pole and, even when he was back in the pack a few positions due to pit stops, he was the class of the field.
Busch led the most laps in the race and took the point for the final time on lap 130 after a lap 124 restart that saw him chase down Joey Logano and pull away for the final 17 laps. Elliott Sadler started on the outside of the front row, bounced his car hard off of the fence to bring out a caution but battled back to a strong runner-up finish. Brian Vickers, who started outside of row number two battled an ill-handling car after the first pit stop of the night but rebounded at the end of the race to chase Sadler to the line for a third place result. The only non-Gibbs car in the top 5, and thus first in class outside of the Gibbs onslaught, at the end of the night was Joey Logano. The Penske Racing driver took a gamble on the final caution and kept old tires to gain track position. He restarted at the front but was only able to hold off Busch for six laps. He managed his gaps to trailing cars and caused as much dirty air as possible to battle to a fourth place finish. Rounding out the top 5 was Matt Kenseth. The fourth JGR driver in the top 5, and last in the stable was Matt Kenseth. The driver of the No. 18 did lead during the race but at the end of the night he struggled to get back to the front with his JGR cohorts and only managed a fifth place finish.
The Lady in Black is beginning to regain the character that made her the toughest track on the schedule to race. All of the drivers who came into the Media Center after the race noted that the asphalt is beginning to lose grip and the resultant tire wear is going to require drivers to manage their tires and race the track more than they have the last few years since the repave. The advantage of new vs. old tires is not quite what the old track had but it is getting closer every year.
When the checkered flag flew and the dust settled there were eight drivers who led laps at Darlington. Out of the 147 laps of competition, Busch led 107. Kenseth led 27 and was the only other driver to lead double digits. Logano was at the front of the pack for eight laps. The other five drivers, Landon Cassill, Hal Martin, Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Clements and Tony Raines each were at the point for a single lap.
This victory extends Busch’s already impressive Nationwide win record to 56. Busch has scored those wins in 252 career starts, which gives him a winning percentage in the series of 22%. This is Busch’s fifth Nationwide win this season. This marks the second win of his career at Darlington. Busch also received a perfect driver rating of 150 points. It is the 16th time in his career that he has run a perfect race. The runner-up finish for Sadler is his fourth career top 10 at Darlington in 10 career races. It is also his fifth top 10 finish of the season. Vickers third place run was his fifth top 10 at Darlington in nine career starts at the Track Too Tough Too Tame. Kyle Larson was the highest finishing rookie with a sixth place finish.
There is no question that JGR was the best of the Good. Putting the four cars in the first four spots on the starting grid and finishing with four cars in the top five is the epitome of good. As part of the JGR brigade, Kyle Busch won the race and scored a perfect 150 driver rating.
Regan Smith is pushing JR Motorsports to new heights after taking the point lead last week at Talladega. After starting the race in 11th, Smith broke into the top 5 by lap 60 and stayed there until slipping out of it over the last 20 laps. After being the first JR Motorsports driver to lead the points last week he extended his point lead to 28 over Sam Hornish Jr.
Chris Buescher made his fifth start in the Nationwide series and came home in the 12th spot. With three starts this season his average finish is 12.0. Buescher started the race in 18th, got as high as 12th and spent all of the race in a better position than he started.
Mike Bliss started 19th, finished 19th, and spent the majority of the race running right around the 19th spot. Granted he’s running for an underfunded team but the total effort was just bad on Friday night.
Josh Wise is another driver who is living the dream on a shoestring budget. He is scratching and clawing his way through the Cup series each weekend but on the Nationwide side, it is a less than top of the line program. Wise started the race in 22nd and finished in 21st and didn’t deviate more than three spots from there all night long. Darlington can be a challenging track and it has to be very challenging to spend the whole night running in the same location on the leader board.
Mike Wallace is one of the best restrictor plate racers on the planet. Unfortunately for him they don’t use plates at Darlington. Wallace took the green flag in the No. 1 in the 25th position. After 147 laps and four sets of tires he took the checkers in….25th. In the end, Bliss, Wise and Wallace must have been very tired of looking at each other.
Trevor Bayne was looking to gain some momentum back after a less than stellar effort at Talladega. After a 28th at Dega Bayne started 10th on Friday night but brought out the first caution of the night with Bryan Silas. The rest of the evening was a battle to keep the back of the car from falling off and he wound up with an eight lap down 32nd place finish. Bayne is sitting 12th in points and is already 100 behind Regan Smith. It won’t be too much longer before Bayne will be talking about waiting until next year.
Travis Pastrana is learning a lot about stock cars. One of the things he learned this weekend is that just because you have run at a track before does not mean you’ll run better the second time around. Pastrana started 17th and didn’t move much in the first 70 laps. He then hit the wall, pitted and missed the commitment cone. By the time all of the legal ramifications of that had played out he was in 33rd position and ended the race in 28th, three laps down to the leader. He shows signs of catching on to these full sized cars and, in the end, he’ll most likely win a race or three, but it is going to be a long row to hoe.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Alex Bowman continues to impress in Robby Benton’s Toyota. Bowman started the race in 13th and held on for a 17th place finish while other well funded teams grabbed all of the spots ahead of him. Bowman is now ninth in points, 84 behind Smith.
Start and Parkers occupied five of the starting spots in the field. They prevented two other start and park drivers from making the race. They took home an undetermined amount of money by press time.
Cup regulars took five of the starting spots in the field and prevented two start and park cars from making the field. At press time they had not posted prize money so it cannot be determined what financial impact they made on the race.
The Final Word
The Joe Gibbs dominance of the Nationwide Series is beginning to shape up again. They have won five of the first nine races of the season, all by Kyle Busch. When this new car came out last season, many people thought that the playing field was going to be leveled. For the first five races it looked like that was the case. From then on, it has been heading back to a Gibbs world with the rest of the teams just trying to find a nut. Having Kyle Busch climb back behind the wheel of JGR cars certainly hasn’t hurt anything. Sweeping the top four starting spots and following it up with four of the top 5 finishing spots speaks volumes about where the program currently resides.
As for Darlington, the Track Too Tough To Tame was tamed by the JGR cars and the Nationwide drivers in general showed very well at the Lady in Black. There were only four caution flags during the race and only a handful of cars had dramatic Darlington stripes. One great thing to see was that the track surface is wearing tires. It is getting to a point that it is a true gamble staying out with eight lap old tires and the drop off from lap one to lap four is visibly measurable. While the bumps are not as pronounced, the abrasive surface is bringing driver skill back to the forefront of racing at Darlington.
Whether you love Kyle Busch or hate him, and there does not appear to be anyone in between, you have to appreciate the fact that he is a dominant driver in the Nationwide Series. Winning 22% of the races he starts is the stuff of legend that never happens in racing, especially at the national level. While Busch is raked over the coals for beating up on the lesser quality drivers in the series, many years from now we will look back and appreciate the amazing feat that has been his career in the Nationwide Series.
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