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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Goodyear 400 at Darlington

What happened?

Martin Truex Jr. won the Goodyear 400 at Darlington on Sunday (May 9) after leading 248 of 293 laps for his third win of the 2021 season.

Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers at NASCAR’s Throwback Weekend.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Brad Keselowski took the lead at the start of the race but didn’t hold it for long, as Kevin Harvick took over on lap 5. Two laps later, Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola slammed into the inside wall and was subjected to a last-place finish, causing the race’s first caution. Almirola spun with a little help from Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Harvick retained the lead on the restart briefly until Kyle Busch took over at lap 14. The track was slick and the cars looked hard to drive early with the 750-horsepower package. On lap 23, Busch cut a tire and spun as Truex was trying to pass him for the lead. Busch didn’t hit anything and was able to continue on the lead lap.

Truex held the lead through pit stops and pulled ahead of Tyler Reddick and Hamlin early in the run. The race stayed green until pit stops began with just over 30 laps left in the first stage. On the pit cycle, Ross Chastain stayed out trying to catch a caution. He was way off the pace and was actually lapped with two laps to go in the stage, which Truex easily won.

Stage two started out a lot like the first, as a Stewart-Haas car hit the inside wall and wound up completely destroyed. This time it was Cole Custer, whose wreck looked eerily similar to Almirola’s crash. 

There was another wreck shortly after the next restart, as Kurt Busch also hit the inside wall and ended his day early. NASCAR determined Busch had contact with Bubba Wallace to the point they rescinded the free pass, keeping the No. 23 a lap down.

 

Everyone pitted on this caution except Hamlin and rookie Chase Briscoe. Truex quickly regained the lead, but Hamlin and Briscoe did a solid job keeping their cars in the top 10 for the duration of the green flag run. Pit stops began with just over 40 laps left in the stage with no major incidents. The race stayed green until the end of stage two while Truex stretched his lead over Kyle Busch to over 14 seconds, capturing his third stage win of the year.

The third stage went green with 100 laps to go. Truex again got out to an early lead while Busch, Hamlin and Larson followed. The next set of green flag stops started with 70 laps left. Busch and Larson chopped into Truex’s lead by pitting two laps earlier, but still stayed around three seconds back.

Larson took second from Busch with 54 laps left and kept within striking distance as the final round of pit stops came with just under 40 laps to go. The No. 5 came out of the pits just 1.5 seconds back of the No. 19, closing the gap from seven seconds, and crept up to within a few car lengths. Lapped traffic became a factor as Larson stalked Truex for the final 30 laps. He had one final shot with under 15 to go, but Truex swiftly moved past Ryan Newman and Tyler Reddick to build a cushion.

Truex ultimately pulled away for his 30th career victory, second at Darlington and third of the 2021 season. 

Who stood out?

The easiest way to explain Truex’s performance at Darlington was hearing what he said after taking the checkered flag.

From start to finish, the No. 19 was on a different level than its competition. Truex led 248 of 293 laps while his only real challenge was Larson popping into his mirror for the last 20 laps or so. Even then, the victory was hardly in doubt.

Truex has now won three races this season, while no other driver has won more than once. His wins at Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington all have a common theme — the 750-HP package. While 1.5-mile, 550-HP tracks still populate most of the schedule, the 750-HP package will decide the champion. The final two races of the season at Martinsville and Phoenix are 750-HP tracks, and it’s hard to pinpoint anyone besides Truex as the current (way too early) favorite.

READ
Zach’s Turn: More Horsepower, More Success for Martin Truex Jr.

Larson was the only man who could hang with Truex on Sunday. And by hang, I basically mean Truex didn’t completely outrun him. Unlike what we’ve seen from the No. 5 in past weeks, the team eased into the race. Larson started in 12th and slowly crept his way to the front for the final stage. When he got his shot to battle Truex, it was clear he was just a tick behind in speed.

Overall, Darlington was a day Larson and his team needed. He had finished outside of the top 15 in four of the last five races entering the weekend despite leading the most laps at Kansas Speedway last week. It might not have been the win they wanted, but second is a type of run Larson needs when he doesn’t quite have race-winning speed. There’s no shame in losing to an absolutely dominant car.

READ
Bridesmaid Again: Kyle Larson a Close Second at Darlington

Byron continues to rival Hamlin and Truex as the most consistent drivers this season. Darlington marked his 10th straight top-10 finish and he is now third in the standings. In his first three full-time seasons, Byron never had more than 14 top-10 finishes in an entire year or finished higher than 11th in points. We’re absolutely seeing a breakout from the 23-year-old Hendrick driver, and more wins are likely on the menu for the No. 24.

READ
Dropping the Hammer: William Byron Racing for Mother After Her Brain Tumor Diagnosis

Who fell flat?

What in the world happened to Keselowski at Darlington? He started on the pole and quickly shuffled out of contention. Multiple issues throughout the day subjected him to a 24th-place finish. Even before the tire issues and hitting the wall, Keselowski and the No. 2 were just not good.

Both his Team Penske teammates ran in the top 10 for most of the race and Keselowski had one win, seven top 10s and a 10.4 average finish of his own in 13 career Darlington starts. I mean, how strange was that performance? Truly perplexing.

The worst season for Kurt Busch since 2012 continued with his wreck at Darlington. He’s finished outside the top 10 in nine straight races and outside the top 15 in six of those nine. It’s been a total disaster for Busch since his strong start to the season. You have to assume that he’ll figure it out and start rattling off good finishes, but it’s definitely time for the 2004 Cup champion to be concerned.

He’s barely outside the playoffs as the regular season nears its halfway mark, 28 behind the cutline. There’s still plenty of time to claw back into it, especially with some good tracks for Busch coming up (Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway). Busch hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2012 and has only missed it three times since 2004.

Almirola’s miserable season continued at Darlington before it even got started. He wrecked before the competition caution after starting at the rear for pre-race inspection failures. Almirola is mired back in 28th in points and his only hope to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year might be to win the regular season finale at Daytona.

What did this race prove?

The odds of a random winner get lower and lower with every passing week. The powerhouse organizations have really flexed their muscles after an unorthodox start to the season. At Darlington, the top 10 consisted of three Joe Gibbs Racing cars, three Hendrick Motorsports cars, one Penske car, one Stewart-Haas Racing car and (surprisingly) two Roush Fenway cars. As we get into the meat of the schedule, these teams are showing it’ll be tougher and tougher for any more Michael McDowell-type upsets.

After mentioning the powerhouses, it’s time to shine some light on Roush Fenway Racing. They nudged both their cars into the top 10 with the big boys, as Chris Buescher and Ryan Newman continued to kill everyone with consistency. Buescher is currently in the playoffs and Newman already has more top 10s this season than he did last year, as the former premier organization of NASCAR looks to get back to the top.

The 750-HP package produces better racing than the 550 version, but it might not always produce better races. The 550-HP package keeps the cars close together and takes a lot out of the driver’s hands. The 750-HP package separates the truly great drivers and cars, as we saw with Truex. The No. 19 completely destroyed the field, making for a somewhat boring race without much mystery about the winner.

Despite that, the package clearly did produce great racing throughout the field where cars seemed more equal. It’s a tricky balance. Having cars closer together over long runs is great. Natural battles for the win like we saw at Darlington are also great, even if Truex was clearly way better than his competition. Just because the race for the lead wasn’t outstanding doesn’t mean the racing was awful. I favor the 750-HP package, but 550 has certainly helped at some tracks that are usually less exciting (Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas, etc.). I’m glad NASCAR has moved the 750-HP package to Darlington and Nashville Superspeedway for this season in addition to the short tracks.

Paint scheme of the race

Throwback weekend is the toughest race to decide on the best scheme. For me, a great throwback scheme has three things…

(1) The car design perfectly matches, including the little details (shapes, colors, etc.);

(2) The sponsor is the same and, if applicable, the old logo is used;

(3) The number font matches the old car. With those three stipulations, the field narrowed significantly. After much deliberation, Corey LaJoie’s Alan Kulwicki-inspired Zerex Chevy takes the crown.

Better than last year?

Darlington hosted two spring races last year as NASCAR returned from its COVID-19 pause. We’ll compare 2021’s race to the first one last year (the first race back), which was also 400 miles and run on a Sunday afternoon. Jimmie Johnson (!) was cruising to a stage one victory before wrecking on the final lap. There were a couple of single-car incidents throughout the race, and it all ended with Harvick holding off Alex Bowman on a restart with 30 to go before pulling away to win it. It was a good race, as most are at Darlington, and it was enhanced because we were all itching for live sports after two months in quarantine.

This year, Darlington used the 750-HP short track package as opposed to the 550-HP package used in 2020. As mentioned earlier, I think the actual racing was a lot better deeper in the field. Drivers struggled with grip and had to nurse the pedal all afternoon. The finish was decent as Larson sort of challenged Truex, but the winner was never really in danger in the caution-free final stage. I think the race was worse than last year even though the racing was better.

Playoff picture

Truex is the first driver with three wins this season, as the other nine winners all have just one victory. He’s piling up the playoff points like we saw a few years back with Furniture Row Racing, jumping up to 18. That’s double the second-place driver, Larson, who has nine thus far in 2021.

While there was no new winner to lock himself into the playoffs, we did see a shakeup around the bubble. Hamlin, Harvick and Chase Elliott remain over 100 points ahead of the cutoff. The final three spots are now occupied by Austin Dillon (+48), Buescher (+19) and Reddick (+0, tied with Matt DiBenedetto).

Here’s a look at the full standings following Darlington.

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads north for its one and only trip to Dover International Speedway this season. It will be the first time since 1970 (Dover’s second year on the Cup schedule) that the series only visits the Monster Mile once. The Drydene 400 will go green on Sunday (May 16) at 2 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

Goodyear 400 Race Recap: Martin Truex Jr. Outduels Kyle Larson on Mother’s Day

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: DARLINGTON

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janice

clean air was the determining factor of the race.

David Russell Edwards

Isn’t it almost all the time?

Bill B

I thought the race was OK but I haven’t ever seen a race at Darlington that I didn’t think was OK. Truex was so dominant that there wasn’t as much drama as there normally is. A few more cautions that mixed up the running order a bit more would have created some additional drama but the lack of cautions didn’t allow for wave-arounds, which always makes me happy. The guys that finished on the lead lap deserved it, and those that didn’t finished where they should have. The way it’s supposed to be.

Bill B

To the Frontstretch staff….
For the last couple of weeks I have noticed that when I post a comment, that all the comments disappear including the comment I just posted. This happens in Firefox, Chrome and Edge browsers. It isn’t until I close the browser and come back that I can see all the comments again. Like the cache isn’t clearing out. If I go into one of the other browsers (not the browser in which I posted the comment), I can see all the comments.

Anyone else notice this?

janice

happens to me as well.

Bill B

Thanks Janice.

additional information…. I actually have to manually go in and clear the cache if I want to go back in right after I posted and see the comment. I think it eventually clears out on it’s own if I wait an hour or so to go back in.

WJW Motorsports

Same…

JD in NC

Same.

DoninAjax

After posting go back to the home page and press F5 for Refresh and see if that helps.

Bill B

OK I will try.

Bill B

F5 didn’t do anything but it actually looks like the problem has been fixed. When I posted the “OK I’ll try” comment the rest of the comments didn’t disappear.

Dan Greene

Hey y’all, Frontstretch web guy here. Made some changes to the comments. Let me know if that does anything one way or the other.

Bill B

Test

Bill B

I think you fixed it Dan. Thanks.
Is there an email address that I can use when I find issues instead of the comments section?
I could explain and document issues much better in an email.

Dan Greene

You can email me directly at dgreene@greeneweb.com

WJW Motorsports

Thanks Dan – appreciate you jumping on that…

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