Who … should you be talking about after the race?
55 long years to the day. It was well over five decades since the last time a No. 43 visited victory lane in Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500. That is, until Sunday night (Sept. 4), when the Lady in Black once again gave it a spot on her dance card.
In 1967, it was Richard Petty himself driving the car to take the checkers. This time, it was 26-year-old Erik Jones behind the wheel of the car still owned in part by the King himself.
Jones has shown flashes of brilliance this year; the Next Gen has been the equalizer NASCAR needed and smaller teams like Petty GMS Motorsports are taking advantage. At Darlington, Jones ran in the top 10 for most of the night and when the caution flew for Cody Ware’s third adventure of the race, Jones’ team put him in exactly the right position. He came out of the pits in second place with fresh tires.
Jones didn’t have the car to beat former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and race leader Kyle Busch head to head; neither did anyone else for much of the night. But as the cars circled the track under that final caution, a puff of blue smoke trailed from under Busch’s No. 18. The smoke got thicker and heavier as Busch’s engine detonated, putting Jones in control at the green with just over 20 laps to go.
Jones then had to hold off Denny Hamlin, another former JGR teammate, lap after lap, and he did it flawlessly. Hamlin made a last-ditch move on the final lap, but couldn’t quite get to Jones’ bumper. Victory lane was painted Petty blue once again.
— Petty GMS (@PettyGMS) September 5, 2022
And don’t forget… Michael McDowell. In the wake of a sixth-place finish Sunday night, McDowell’s 11th top 10 is not only double his previous career best but he’s earned more than five playoff drivers, including Hamlin. The new car certainly agrees with the veteran, whose lower-budget Front Row Motorsports team has had modest success in past years but never been as consistent as it is right now.
— Michael McDowell (@Mc_Driver) September 5, 2022
What … is the buzz about?
Give credit where it’s due. This week, NASCAR deserves some credit for listening to teams and upping the time on its Damaged Vehicle Policy from six minutes to 10.
Teams had asked for the adjustment because they can change the toe links, parts that fail easily in a crash, in less than 10 minutes but could not make the swap in under six. NASCAR agreed to the 10-minute clock as a result.
The new car has certainly given teams its share of challenges, and it was good to see NASCAR roll with the punches. It’s easy to criticize the sanctioning body; everyone wants the best for the sport. But it’s unfair to criticize without pointing out what’s done right.
This was one of those decisions.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Joey Logano won the spring race at Darlington, and early on, it looked like he was picking up right where he left off. Logano led the first few laps and stuck inside the top five for the opening two stages. As the track cooled down, though, Logano’s car lost a bit of the magic. While he stayed inside the top 10, he wasn’t able to make a run at the win, finishing fourth.
Playoff rookie Daniel Suarez, who started at the rear after failing pre-race inspection, fell off the lead lap early, but got a boost from a brief rain delay, using the free pass to get back on pace. He was in the top 10 by stage two, an impressive accomplishment. Pit cycles in the final stage cost him some positions, dropping him to 20th with fewer than 40 laps to go after speeding on pit road. But from there, Suarez was able to grab a couple of spots on the final restart, finishing 18th and remaining above the top 12 cutline by two points.
Regular season champ Chase Elliott struggled in qualifying, starting 23rd. He fell back early but was gaining ground as the first stage wound down. A lap 113 spin sent Elliott to pit road for repairs to the right rear suspension, but the 10-minute clock ran out on the No. 9 team and he finished 36th and last on the night.
Elliott’s recipe for the rest of the playoffs was simple after his finish.
#NASCAR … After finishing last in the Southern 500, Chase Elliott was asked what he has to do the rest of the first round of the playoffs. He said: 'Run better than we did today.' https://t.co/sFvLYAhYwW
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 5, 2022
Defending Southern 500 winner Hamlin has four wins at Darlington, more than any other active driver. He was among the top drivers in the early stages, but couldn’t quite match the speed of his teammates. While he could run with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps, he just couldn’t find a way around them.
Staying out too long on the final round of green-flag stops dropped Hamlin from third to 10th with 38 laps to go. While fresher tires gave Hamlin a faster car, and a late caution for Ware erased any advantage as the leaders all poured onto pit road for new tires. Hamlin restarted second but wasn’t able to get close enough to his former teammate Jones to make a move, settling for runner-up. Still, for a driver who has struggled with consistency this year, it’s the kind of outcome he needs to make any kind of title run.
Woes continued for defending Cup champion Kyle Larson as he found himself on pit road with engine troubles with 35 laps to go in the first stage. He got back on track three laps down in 35th, reporting the car was running better and he was fast.
Fast wasn’t enough, though. Larson gained a lap in stage two but then smacked the wall on lap 193, setting him back. A wave-around late in stage two moved him to just one lap down, although he needed some luck in the final stage to make something happen. He found a little of it, getting back onto the lead lap, and climbed his way back to 12th by the finish.
When … was the moment of truth?
The caution flying in the middle of a pit stop cycle may have changed the complexion of the last 100 laps, but the concerning thing is that for the third and fourth times this season, a car caught on fire during the race. Flames erupted underneath the No. 4 car while Kevin Harvick was on track. And while the field was under caution, JJ Yeley’s car also caught fire.
All four cars have been Fords, and what the incidents have in common is that the heat from the engine and exhaust headers ignites rubber debris or even the carbon fiber pieces of the car’s body.
Harvick was able to roll to a stop and exit the car quickly, but the fact remains that his car spontaneously combusted in the middle of a race with no warning or previous incident.
Harvick’s comments after the fire were harsh and pointed; he blamed the issue on ‘crappy-ass parts” and NASCAR’s lack of attention to safety, yet another black mark on this car’s safety record.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
The Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway this week, and without spring race winner Kurt Busch in the field, it’s anyone’s guess which way the chips will fall.
Busch led 116 of 267 laps in that race, while the next driver on the list, Christopher Bell, led just 37. William Byron, Tyler Reddick and Larson also led more than 20 laps, but it’s hard to pick out a favorite because teams have all made gains with the Next Gen since May.
Facing playoff elimination already after Darlington, the bottom four in the playoff standings are Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Harvick, so those drivers have a different agenda as they fight for their lives for the next two weeks. The non-playoff drivers have a season’s worth of pride on the line. Nobody is going to back down anytime soon.
How … can the playoffs live up to the regular season?
The playoffs were conceived to give the regular season more excitement and to create some late-season drama. But after a 26-race span that saw 16 different race winners and a former champion miss the title hunt in the final seconds, can the playoffs stack up?
If the usual suspects cart home the hardware over the next 10 races, then the regular season, with all its unpredictability, could easily overshadow them, particularly if the Championship 4 comes down to some combination of Elliott, Harvick, Logano, Hamlin and Kyle Busch. This group has rotated the title race among themselves (with a few variations) for the last few years.
On the other hand, if the changing of the guard comes full circle and the younger set boots the veterans out of the title hunt, that’s something new. Ross Chastain has never had a playoff run to draw from, but his tenacity is made for this kind of racing.
Reddick’s biggest obstacle may be Austin Dillon unless Dillon is eliminated quickly. If that happens and Richard Childress Racing has to throw everything at the No. 8, Reddick is a threat with last year’s playoff experience giving him some information on how to race this format.
But what would really make this span of races stand out is if the drivers who missed the playoffs, yet have flirted with winning, can steal a bunch of races. That takes away the free pass for the playoff field in those events and really makes them race for their lives.
We got everything we wanted from the regular season, and it’s going to be hard for the playoffs to match the unpredictable nature of the first 26 races. We got plenty of drama at Darlington thanks to mechanical woes, but will it be the same old same old when the series pulls into Phoenix Raceway in November?
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.