Who’s in the headline – While Carl Edwards’s name appears in the headlines, it is his pit crew that deserves the accolades. The new aero package provided some great racing and passing opportunities, but the race came down to an eight-lap dash for the cash. Fresh tires were good enough for 15–20 laps, so whoever made it off pit road first or second and then grabbed the lead on the final restart was going to win the race. The No. 19 pit crew ripped off a stop that vaulted their driver from third to first and ultimately put him in the position to win the race.
What happened – NASCAR put its low-downforce package on display for the second time this season, and it afforded drivers the opportunity to make a difference over and above the car and pit crew. Brad Keselowski started on the pole and led the most laps by far at 196, and 11 different drivers led the race and nine lead changes occurred with on-track passes for the lead. The leaders had an advantage for certain, but a better car could run down and pass the leader given the proper amount of time and opportunity. In the end, the Joe Gibbs Racing pit crews out-performed the rest of the garage on the money stop and put their drivers in position to win the race. Edwards beat Keselowski and Denny Hamlin to score his first Southern 500 victory.
Why you should care – Drivers and fans have been screaming for years that the racecars are far too aero-dependent and equally as easy to drive, making it rare to see a car spin by itself as a direct result of how much these cars are glued to the racetrack. There were 18 caution flags on Saturday night, which was a new record for the Southern 500, and all but two of them were for incidents involving cars and not debris cautions. This package, while far from perfect, was a great step in the right direction and hopefully a sign of things to come for the sport in 2016.
What your friends are talking about – It is all about the aero package. There was racing all over the track, people were spinning unprovoked and nine times during the race, a car caught and passed the leader during a green-flag run. Tires wore out and drivers made a difference through saving their equipment or putting it on the edge. It may be far from perfect because the aero advantage of the leader is still a little too much, and the tires don’t fail as routinely as they should when pushed too hard, but it was a vast improvement over the earlier package for 2015. From the sound of Steve O’Donnell’s comments after the race it is absolutely the direction that NASCAR is heading for next season.
This week will be loaded with the hype about people making the Chase and people missing the cut. As the series heads to Richmond, the bubble line is drawn below Clint Bowyer, who leads Aric Almirola for the final Chase spot by 29 points. Kasey Kahne is the only other driver who can potentially point his way into the Chase that is not currently in, 31 markers behind Bowyer. None of the drivers in on points has locked their position. Jamie McMurray is 44 ahead of the cut-off line, which means it will take a cataclysmic collapse for him to not make it. Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Paul Menard are currently in and need to hold serve in order to make the playoffs. Look forward to an entire pre-race show loaded with ifs and buts to explain every possible scenario for everyone to make the Chase. In the end, it is still about win and be in.
In case you were worried about it, Kyle Busch cannot fall out of the top 30 at Richmond, so he is locked into the Chase.
The Silly Season rumor mill is abuzz with the speculation over the future of David Ragan and Bowyer. The word around the garage is that Bowyer is going to HScott Motorsports for a year and then heading to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2017. HScott is denying the rumor and says they are working hard to bring Justin Allgaier back to the team with Michael Annett, who is already on board for next season.
Tony Stewart‘s attorneys have submitted the list of witnesses they intend to call in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the Kevin Ward Jr. family. It includes five different individuals connected with Ontario County, N.Y. There are also eye witnesses and others whose testimony should be pertinent to the case.
There was quite a bit of buzz in the infield at Darlington about flags. While some folks believed it was targeted at the Confederate flag, people purported to be from NASCAR were going through the infield before the races and telling people they had to lower all flags while the racing was on television. It was based on obstructing sight lines for fans on the front straight trying to see the cars on the back straight. None of the fans Frontstretch spoke to said there was ever any threat or discussion of ramifications. During the Southern 500 there were still flags on haulers in the garage and on the pit boxes on pit lane, along with the flag pole in Victory Lane. It would seem like a prime situation for a civil liberties lawyer.
Who is mad – Kevin Harvick was apparently mad after the race. He parked his car on pit lane and immediately bolted without commenting to any of the assembled media. There was a three sentence, generic comment that was put out by Chevrolet that said the car was great and he just got behind on the last restart. It seems that, with the Chase on the horizon, the number of second-place finishes versus the few wins he has might be starting to wear on him.
Jimmie Johnson spun early in the race but was back in contention shortly thereafter, thanks to a competitive car. Unfortunately for Johnson, as the event wound down, he was out of tires and dropped through the field like a stone when the money was on the line. The No. 48 looked poised to be making that customary late-season run to playoffs but this year seems different. The team is making mistakes that are not typical for them and strategy calls are backfiring. Johnson has to be a little concerned that the team is only hitting on about six cylinders when its time to be firing on all eight.
Kurt Busch was in the top three for most of the night and was looking to finally put a Southern 500 trophy on his mantle. As the race wound down Busch felt his car was capable of winning the race and was working to put himself into the mix with under 50 laps to go. Unfortunately he was heading into turn 3 on the first lap after a restart, and Martin Truex Jr. got into his back bumper and spun Busch out. The 2004 champion had to start shotgun on the field and methodically moved his way through the field, but could only manage a sixth-place finish. Like Harvick, Busch has been in the mix in many of the races this season but events have conspired against him. If the stars finally align you can expect Busch and his No. 41 team to be in the mix at Homestead.
Who is happy – Normally, the winner doesn’t end up in this category but after Saturday night, we’ll make an exception for Edwards. The eventual race winner started 13th and worked into the top 10 early. During the third caution of the event, Darian Grubb made the call to stay out and Edwards conducted a ‘no tire’ experiment in front of the world. He failed, dropped like a rock and eventually had to pit for a flat tire that put him two laps down. Edwards languished in the 30s for almost 200 laps before he got back onto the lead lap and began to get back into the mix. From there it was a steady climb toward the front, and Edwards came into the pits in the third spot when the final caution of the night flew. A lightning fast stop put Edwards in the top spot and he held onto the lead on the final restart to claim his first Southern 500 win.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked to be a long way from having a competitive car when he hit the track for the first practice on Friday. The team made slow gains throughout the sessions but he was still quite far off from the front runners when testing ended on Friday. Once the flag dropped on Sunday night the No. 88 began moving forward. Earnhardt got into the teens by lap 40 and worked into the top five before coming home with an eighth-place finish. Ending the night as the top Hendrick car is a small consolation prize for the team, but a third consecutive top-10 run at Darlington is a stepping stone toward a run at the championship.
Stewart has been a fixture in the mad category this season, so a chance to put him in the happy section cannot be passed up. Stewart started 17th and ended up 15th but, in the middle, he led the race, competed with the eventual race winners and generally looked much more like the Stewart that everyone wants to see on the track.
When the checkered flag flew:
Edwards joins the exclusive group of drivers who have 25 victories in the Cup series on his resume. It took Edwards 398 starts to reach the milestone. The win puts Edwards in a tie for 28th on the all-time wins list with his JGR teammate Hamlin, Earnhardt Jr., Jim Paschal and Joe Weatherly. This win is Edwards’s first career victory at Darlington Raceway and second of 2015.
Keselowski led a race-high 196 laps to earn the extra bonus point for most laps led. His second-place finish is his fourth of the 2015 season and fifth top-two run of the year. It was Keselowski’s best career finish at Darlington. The runner-up finish for Keselowski is his 14th all-time, which puts him alone in 53rd on the list.
Hamlin came home in third place for the fifth time in 10 career starts at Darlington. It was Hamlin’s fifth podium finish of the season and second in a row. He has 72 career top-three runs, which is tied for 34th all-time with Weatherly.
Matt DiBenedetto came home in 25th to win the Rookie of the Race.
Harvick, Joey Logano, Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Edwards, Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch all have wins in 2015. With one race left before the Chase, all of the race winners are locked into the Chase, assuming they attempt to run Richmond or receive an exemption should they miss the event.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 24 races without wins and their standing in points:
10) Jamie McMurray
11) Ryan Newman
13) Jeff Gordon
14) Paul Menard
15) Clint Bowyer
Takin’ it to the Bank
Cup winners this year have pocketed $8,595,836 in 25 races, while the last-place finisher has taken home $1,986,541.
In the Xfinity Series it has been $1,705,744 for the winners and $314,984 for last place in 23 races.
After 14 Truck races, the winner has $723,941 in his coffers and the last loser has banked $136,682.
What is in the cooler – The Southern 500 was on the verge of receiving a full six-pack as the action wound toward the final 10 laps with Harvick making a run toward Keselowski. Unfortunately the caution flew as Jeb Burton spun off the track in turns 1 and 2. The resulting eight-lap run to the checkered was not long enough for the tires to fall off sufficiently and Edwards took advantage to run away for the win. In the end, it was still a tremendous weekend with very competitive racing that saw cars able to run down the leader and pass them. As a result it receives five ice-cold Rooster Red Ales from Southern Hops Brewing Company.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The final race of the regular season rolls off Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. The final five slots in the Chase will be known when the checkered flag flies after 400 miles. The racing action can be seen on NBC Sports Network at 7:30 p.m. ET. It can also be heard on MRN affiliates or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.