Who's Hot and Who's Not in NASCAR After Sprint Cup Series Race at Darlington
The Bojangles Southern 500 is now a Mother's Day weekend tradition for the Sprint Cup Series, revived in its glory despite being removed from its Labor Day weekend roots about a decade ago. It's still one of the races that every driver dreams of winning, alongside the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Brickyard 400 and a select few others.
But with great prestige comes greater momentum swings—both good and bad.
A handful of drivers and teams come out of Darlington bringing the heat, having established themselves as great contenders during the first 11 races of the season. Others will need to come out swinging in the second half of the regular season if they hope to make a title run, if only to ensure that their downward-trending momentum doesn't stay that way.
So who should be smiling after Saturday night's race, and whose fortunes are in need of improvement?
Hot: No. 20 Team
With apologies to the five-time championship-winning No. 48 team over at Hendrick Motorsports, this is the deepest individual team in NASCAR. Matt Kenseth won his series-leading third race of the season at Darlington without suspended crew chief Jason Ratcliff, relying on ex-Carl Edwards pit boss Wally Brown to call the shots.
While other teams can struggle without their pit leader, Kenseth just had another day at the office.
If nothing else, this illustrates just how good this team has always been, with only the driver behind the wheel (Joey Logano for the past four years) holding them back. And with Ratcliff back after the single-race ban, who knows what this team can do for the rest of the year?
Not: NASCAR Administration
So, how did those six-week suspensions work out for you, John Darby and Robin Pemberton?
Hmm? Didn't think so.
With two crew chiefs seeing a reduction to two races and another getting down to one, NASCAR would have looked foolish enough on its own.
But when the first round of appeals undid most of a 50-point penalty and six-week owners' points ban for Joe Gibbs Racing and its No. 20 team, the sport's authority went right out the window for the moment. (Taking Ryan Newman's car for random post-race inspection a week after Newman's harsh criticism of the sanctioning body didn't help, either.)
Hot: Kasey Kahne's Temper
The similarities are there. One driver feels slighted by the other. One is a Hendrick driver while the other runs for Toyota. One isn't known for his temper, while the other gives the media something to talk about (albeit for different reasons).
Either way, Kahne is peeved after seeing his day end early for the second week in a row and the third time this season at the hands of Busch. Stay tuned.
Not: Kyle Busch After Leading the Most Laps
If you had a quarter for every time Busch has failed over the past few years to win a Sprint Cup race after leading the most laps, you could probably get your laundry done.
He led 265 of 367 laps at Darlington before a cut right rear tire robbed him of both handling and the win.
Like last year's Chase, where he was frequently pacing the field only to see somebody else take the checkers, he had to settle for watching Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth take the checkers. He had seemingly broken out of the pattern with wins at Fontana (125 laps led) and Texas (171), but Saturday night proved a frustrating return.
Hot: Jeff Gordon's First 700 Starts
Gordon took an ill-handling Chevrolet to a third-place finish in his 700th career Sprint Cup start, running up front for much of the race and tying his best finish of the year. Per NASCAR loop data, he was one of only five drivers to run in the top 15 from start to finish, and he earned his fifth bonus point of the season for leading 16 laps.
After hitting the 700-start milestone, Gordon's numbers put so many drivers to shame. With 300 top-5s, he's one shy of David Pearson on the all-time list. With 417 top-10s, he may never top Richard Petty's mark of 712 in 1,184 starts, but he's got a comparable percentage (59.5% to 60.1%).
Not: Penske Racing Without Its Crew Chiefs
Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had better be thanking their lucky stars that an appeals board reduced their respective crew chiefs' penalties to two-week suspensions. Darlington was proof that the new guys just couldn't hang the same way.
Keselowski and Kevin Buskirk could only muster a 32nd-place finish, dropping the No. 2 from sixth to seventh in series points. Logano, meanwhile, dropped to 19th in the standings after finishing 22nd with Steve Reis atop the pit box. If it wasn't clear how valuable Paul Wolfe and Todd Gordon were to their drivers' successes before, it sure is now.
Hot: Denny Hamlin's Chase Hopes
Hamlin is hot right now because he has to be. In order to make the Chase, based on last year's statistics through 26 races, he'll need a minimum of 640 points to crack the top 20 (plus enough wins to qualify).
Finishing second at Darlington was a good start, but there's still a ways to go. Right now, Hamlin is 27th in points with 197 points; he has 15 races to score 443 points, an average of about 29.5 points per race (or a 15.5 average finish).
Right now, he's at a 16.6 average finish due to his wreck at Fontana (never crossing the finish line dropped him to 25th), and Brian Vickers' accident in relief at Talladega (they were classified 34th).
It's doable, and he's motivated.
Not: Paul Menard's Chase Hopes
As usual, Menard started the season out with enough consistency to crack the top 10 in points; for the fourth year in a row, he was there after Bristol. But this year, with an average finish in the mid-teens and four top-10s in the first eight races, he seemed ready to stick around for longer.
Now, he's teetering on the edge. Menard finished 19th at Darlington, leaving him in a tie for 10th place with teammate Kevin Harvick; were the Chase to start now, Harvick would get the tiebreaker by virtue of his victory.
History suggests that this is the end of the Chase dream for Menard, who will now likely fade to about 15th but continue his trend of improving on his points finish for the fourth year in a row.
Hot: Aric Almirola's Chase Hopes
He may have finished a lap down on Saturday, placing 20th, but that was only the second-worst finish of Almirola's season. He's got an average finish of 15.3, with lead-lap finishes everywhere but Darlington and Bristol (due to an accident), leaving him ninth in points.
Perhaps it's the return of the Petty blue to the paint scheme that has the No. 43 performing so well this year, or perhaps Almirola is just every bit as good as one would expect from a former Joe Gibbs development driver.
Either way, he has a chance to give Richard Petty Motorsports the second Chase berth of its history, and the first since Kasey Kahne made it in 2009.
Not: Hope for the Underdogs
Superspeedway races are NASCAR's big equalizer, as Front Row Motorsports showed at Talladega. But when the restrictor plates come off, things snap back to reality very quickly. David Ragan, the previous week's hero, fell to 39th at Darlington, while teammate David Gilliland could only muster 29th.
However, every underdog seemed to suffer at Darlington. The start-and-parkers were back to parking, and the other marginal teams were back to falling off the lead lap. 2011's winning combination, Regan Smith and Furniture Row Racing, weren't much better off. Smith finished 24th with Phoenix Racing, while Furniture Row, despite winning the pole with driver Kurt Busch, fell back to 14th.
Oh, well. It was nice while it lasted.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.