Winners and Losers from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Darlington
If you don't like the way the middle stages of a NASCAR race play out, just wait for the end of it.
The first three-quarters or so of Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway were mostly caution-free, allowing Kyle Busch to lap the majority of the field at a relatively quick clip. It seemed like he would coast to an easy victory, completing a sweep of the weekend.
But anyone who turned off the race early, thinking the outcome was never in doubt, may be surprised to find out that it wasn't meant to be.
Instead of Busch taking his third win of the season, it was Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth who pulled into victory lane after a long night. Overcoming the loss of crew chief Jason Ratcliff for the weekend, Kenseth won his third race of the year to lead the series in that category.
So who else had a good (or bad) day at "The Track Too Tough To Tame"?
Winner: Matt Kenseth
Everything came up roses for Kenseth all week.
Son Ross took a victory at South Boston Speedway, while the team took a win in NASCAR's appeals process by getting reductions in all of their penalties. He also qualified seventh for Saturday's event, at a track where his average start coming in was 21.6—making it his second-worst track on the circuit.
Things only got better on Saturday night. The No. 20 ran up front all night, despite the lack of an on-site presence from Crew Chief Ratcliff, and Kenseth managed to lead a handful of laps in the middle stages of the race.
Then, as the checkered flag inched closer, Kenseth capitalized on Kyle Busch's late-race woes to make the winning pass, giving him a series-leading three victories in the first 11 races of the season.
Loser: Kyle Busch
The weekend started out nearly perfect for Busch, who dominated Friday's Nationwide race and started third in the Sprint Cup race on Saturday. It was clear that he would be a favorite to sweep both races on the weekend.
On Saturday, nobody had anything for Busch for much of the race, whose pace was so fast that he managed to get the lead lap down to 10 cars at one point. Unfortunately, late in the race, his ability to turn the car faded due to a cut right-rear tire, dropping him from a dominant leader to a frustrating sixth. It was the 10th time in his career that he led the most laps in a race, but failed to bring home the victory.
Winner: Joe Gibbs Racing
How much better does it get? The week started when Gibbs won a major appeal against NASCAR for penalties accrued at Kansas that reduced Kenseth's points penalty to 12, Ratcliff's suspension to a single week and vetoed a six-week suspension of the No. 20 team's ability to score owners' points. Then, on Friday, four Gibbs cars finished in the top five of the Nationwide race, led by a dominant Busch.
In the Sprint Cup race, nobody had anything for Gibbs cars for much of the night. Busch dominated the majority of the event, only yielding the lead to teammate Matt Kenseth in the final stages of the race. Kenseth and Denny Hamlin finished 1-2, while Busch led the most laps and finished sixth.
Loser: Front Row Motorsports
A week ago, Bob Jenkins' perennial backmarker team scored one for the little guys when teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 at Talladega. Ragan made an impressive run over the final two laps, passing marquee drivers like defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, and put himself out of reach of former teammate and polesitter Carl Edwards' much higher-budget Ford.
But Saturday night was back to reality for the little team that could. Ragan, Gilliland and Josh Wise were all non-factors, falling off the lead lap early. Wise also got caught up in a late-race accident after making contact with Marcos Ambrose, and Ragan pulled into the garage during that very same caution flag. Gilliland's 29th-place finish was the best of the three.
Winner: Denny Hamlin
For the first time since Fontana, Hamlin was in the driver's seat of the No. 11 car at the checkered flag of a Sprint Cup race. This race, however, ended a bit more positively than the last time, as he didn't need to be removed from his car or suffer another back injury.
Hamlin qualified sixth, second-best of the three Joe Gibbs Racing cars, setting him up for another great run at his best track (he had an average finish of 5.9 coming into Saturday).
A consistent run enabled him to stay on the lead lap into the late stages of the race, and he eventually worked his way up to second. For a driver whose Chase prospects rely on incredible consistency to make up for the race he missed, this was a great start.
Loser: Kasey Kahne
He may have run up front for most of the race, but for the second week in a row, Kahne's chances at victory were ended by racing with Kyle Busch. At Talladega, Busch spun Kahne to start a major accident, though the two drivers exchanged texts and a phone call during the week to clear the air.
But hard racing for the lead between the two with less than 40 laps to go ended Kahne's day. Heading into the first turn, he attempted to clear Busch on the outside, but got loose (replays were inconclusive as to whether or not the cars made contact) and slapped the outside wall.
A caution came out when Kahne's car inexplicably lost power, and he fell to 17th in the final running order; after the race, a frustrated Kahne noted to FOX the frequency with which the two drivers had been making contact on the track.
Winner: Wally Brown
It's true that Brown, the temporary replacement for Ratcliff at Joe Gibbs Racing, inherited a team that has been dominant for much of the season. But having already worked with driver Matt Kenseth while at Roush Fenway Racing, Brown was put in the perfect position to maintain the team's level of performance.
And maintain it he did. Kenseth passed Busch with less than 20 laps to go, coasting to an easy victory. It was the first win of Brown's career, making him the second consecutive crew chief to take a maiden Sprint Cup victory after Jay Guy did with Ragan at Talladega.
Loser: Kevin Buskirk
Job security in the fraternity of Sprint Cup crew chiefs is only so guaranteed. Temporary crew chief gigs, usually by way of suspension, are a great way for prospective candidates to get their name in the mix.
Unfortunately for Buskirk, he didn't have anywhere near the day that Wally Brown did. Replacing Paul Wolfe atop Brad Keselowski's pit box, the ex-Yates Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports crew chief wasn't able to guide the defending champion to any temporary magic.
Keselowski fell off the lead lap, got caught up in a late-race accident with Casey Mears and finished 32nd, falling to sixth in points.
Winner: Fans Who Wanted Late Cautions
After about 300 laps of mostly green-flag racing, things got pretty messy toward the end of the race. Multiple cautions, including accidents that collected Mears, Keselowski, David Reutimann and Wise, set up enough late pit stops to ensure that everybody could make it to the end of the race on fuel.
That's when things really got interesting. Leader Kyle Busch held on as long as he could, but finally a faster Kenseth got by in the race's final stages. Others made their way around Busch to make things interesting, while Hamlin had to hold off Jeff Gordon in a hard fight for second.
Loser: Paul Menard
It's become a staple of every Sprint Cup season—Menard runs up front toward the beginning of the year, cementing himself as a top-10 driver. Then his performance eventually fades, leaving him somewhere in the top 20 at the end of the season.
Well, Menard finally fell out of the top 10 in points after a 19th-place finish at Darlington. He dropped to 11th after being leapfrogged by both Busch and Kevin Harvick (keep in mind that Harvick wins the tiebreaker between the two in points by virtue of his Richmond victory).
On the bright side, FOX reports that Menard is close to signing a contract extension to keep him at Richard Childress Racing, giving him a few more years to reverse the trend in good equipment.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.