Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Let’s give credit where credit is due. The race on Sunday night was one of the best in a long time. There was close racing, authentic cautions, and attrition. Yes, Brad Keselowski was dominant, but dominance is part of racing sometimes. Ned Jarrett once won this race by 14 laps. The low-downforce package, coupled with a tire that actually wore out before the end of a fuel run, was a huge step in the right direction. Returning the Southern 500 to what has always been its rightful date was another one. No, none of the fanfare or the success of one race erase the mistakes, but NASCAR hit a home run this weekend.
If NASCAR hit the home run, then the rest of the weekend already had the bases loaded. The retro theme, from the paint schemes to Aric Almirola‘s Richard Petty Fu Manchu, also brought about a segment of the race being covered by Ken Squier, Ned Jarrett and Dale Jarrett, who called it to perfection. That raises the question of whether the voices in the booth are partly to blame for the lackluster races? Squier made it sound like every lap was a barnburner. For a day, at least, NASCAR regained a bit of its former glory. And it was enough to remind us what might have been.
What… beyond the drivers’ control affected the action?
For the first time in a while, tires really meant something. Teams burned through tires trying to keep up with the field. Strategy played a serious role, as some teams used most of their allotted 12 sets of Goodyears early. Kasey Kahne was down to one fresh set with over 100 laps to go. How big were fresh tires? Carl Edwards stayed out under an early caution due to a miscommunication, and fell from the race lead to 27th in a matter of a few laps. Crew chiefs were telling their drivers to buck up and drive. Coupled with the lower downforce package, a real tire strategy put the racing into the teams’ hands to a degree we haven’t seen in a long time.
Another factor was the sheer length of time of the race. After more than three hours, there was still more than a quarter of the race left. Racing is physically demanding on an easy night, and this one was far from easy. Drivers at this level don’t generally get distracted by small aches and pains, but the longer the race and the more tired they get, the more likely they are to make a small mistake. Casey Mears, suffering from the flu before the race even started, sounded exhausted on the radio by the two-thirds mark. But at the end of the night, there’s a reason some races are 500 miles – because physical difficulty should be a factor. If anything, the sport needs more races that make everyone step it up a notch.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Keselowski took his first pole of the season and, for the early part of the race, nobody could touch the No. 2, as he dominated, leading 196 laps. However, he got outjumped on the final restart and had to settle for second. If he had a nickel for the races he should have won this year, he could probably buy a cup of coffee to drown his sorrows.
Kevin Harvick won last year, when the Darlington race was held in May, and he certainly tried to repeat, driving his car to the limit in the closing laps, getting dangerously loose in the process. In the end, a less-than-stellar restart cost him a shot at the win, but he turned in another top five (fifth) in his mind-numbingly consistent season, where through 25 races he’s finished in the top five 18 times, and failed to make the top 10 just three.
When… did it all go sideways?
The race featured a record number of cautions as drivers quickly learned that the low downforce package made it awfully easy to lose a racecar. Out of 18 caution flags, 16 flew for accidents. Notably absent: debris cautions, except for those for legitimate concerns after cars bounced off one another or brushed the wall. So, while there were too many wrecks for my taste, at least the cautions were authentic, and, on the flip side, NASCAR wasn’t too quick to throw a yellow for minor contact with the wall (Darlington stripes abounded). In other words, the race played out naturally, as it should have, and that in itself was a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t perfect – clean air was still too important, and fewer crashes would have been ideal – but it was close.
Why… did Edwards win the race?
Edwards had a great car when it really counted and he made the most of the final pit stop when his crew got him out first, pulling away from Keselowski and Harvick and holding off teammate Denny Hamlin at the same time. Battling back from an early flat tire which cost him a lap in the pits, Edwards moved steadily forward until he could force everyone’s hand when it mattered most. Joe Gibbs Racing is on a roll these days, and if the competition isn’t laying low until the Chase, it could be a runaway.
How… did the little guys do?
The Three Best
Furniture Row Racing; Martin Truex Jr.: Truex may not have had a winning car on Sunday night, but he logged another top-10 result, finishing ninth. The consistency Truex has shown this year will make him a threat in the Chase, not just to make the final four, but to actually win it. The last time a single-car team won the title was more than 20 years ago, when Alan Kulwicki took the 1992 championship.
Hillman Racing; Landon Cassill: Is Cassill the most underrated driver in the series? He just might be, and he showed it on Sunday, running among the best small teams all night and often among some considerably bigger ones. Cassill scored his third top 20 of 2015 at one of the series’ most demanding tracks. The team’s motto is “Constant Growth,” and its dedication to that was on display all night long.
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger needed a strong performance at Darlington and came up with a solid one. This team is capable of more, but Lady luck has not been on its side this year. Sunday night, Allmendinger was a bit of his own worst enemy, tangling with a few other drivers and not making many friends, but ultimately taking a 23rd-place check to the bank and gaining two spots in the points.
All the Rest
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing||Furniture Row Chevy||7th||9th
Strong car; not quite enough to challenge for the win, but consistency may pay off in Chase
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman-Smith Motorsports||Snap Fitness Chevy||31st||20th
Solid run – smart, strong race from start to finish; ran inside top 10 at one point
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing||Kroger/House-Autry Chevy||34th||23rd
Reported 10 out of 10 tight early; tangled with Justin Allgaier but both saved it; got into Allgaier again as well as Sam Hornish Jr., a bit of a wrecking ball; also penalized for jumping a restart
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing||Chevy||35th||24th
Slapped wall about lap 90; unscheduled stop; tangled with Josh Wise; solid finish at end of the day
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing||Cosmo Motors Toyota||25th||25th
Good qualifying effort; continues to be the best BK team with a solid race
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports||Love’s Travel Stops Ford||38th||27th
Reported loose early; fought handling all race
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing||GEICO Chevy||32nd||29th
Mears was battling flu all day; handling “terrible” early, tight then loose; Gear issue under 30 to go cost him two laps
|21||Ryan Blaney||Wood Brothers Racing||Snap-On Tools Ford||9th||30th
Slapped wall lap 94, heavy damage
|23||Jeb Burton||BK Racing||Estes Toyota||41st||31st
Making race was a step in the right direction; spin with 10 to go
|33||Mike Bliss||Circle Sport||Little Joe’s Autos Chevy||42nd||32nd
Into wall lap 137
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports||Brandt Chevy||27th||33rd
Tangled with Allmendinger early and for a second time mid-race, a good bit of damage as result
|26||JJ Yeley||BK Racing||Beds For Kids Toyota||36th||34th
Narrowly avoided lap 6 crash; not so lucky on lap 125, tangled with Michael Annett
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports||Dockside Logistics Ford||40th||36th
Involved in lap 7 crash; made repairs but fought loose car rest of the night
|98||TJ Bell||Premium Motorsports||Chevy||43rd||37th
Went to garage for repairs after tangling with Bowman;
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports||Pilot Flying J Chevy||39th||39th
Spun on his own; tangled with Yeley on lap 125, extensive damage
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports||Speed Stick Ford||37th||43rd
Involved in lap 7 crash-heavy damage hit inside wall
|30||Travis Kvapil||The Motorsports Group||Curtis Key Plumbing Chevy||DNQ||—||N/A|
|32||Josh Wise||GO FAS Racing||Corvetteparts.net/Beerfrost.com Ford||DNQ||—||37th|
|62||Timmy Hill||Premium Motorsports||Champion Machinery Chevy||DNQ||—||N/A|