NASCAR at Darlington 2014: Winners and Losers from the Southern 500
It wasn’t unusual for Kevin Harvick to have the best car on any given race weekend this season.
He had the best car all weekend at Darlington Raceway. The No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS was fast in practice and fast enough in qualifying to win the pole.
But in 18 attempts, Harvick had yet to cross the finish line first. On Saturday night, he was not to be denied.
Toward the end of the race, three-time Southern 500 winner Jimmie Johnson made a run and so did Dale Earnhardt Jr., who took the green flag ahead of Harvick in the second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish.
In the end, it was crew chief Rodney Childers' gutsy four-tire call on the final pit stop and Harvick’s determination to win that sealed the deal and awarded the veteran driver with his second win of the season, making him a lock for the Chase.
Winner: Four-Tire Pit Stops
When it came time to make the call on the final pit stop, crew chief Childers knew without hesitation that it would be for four tires.
“I thought we had a strong car all weekend, so when it comes down to the end like that, I thought the right thing for us was to put four tires on. I was sitting there thinking in my head there would be three or four that put two on, and we were right beside the 20 and the 24 on pit road, so I knew that's what they were going to do. But I still thought four was the right thing.”
The night before, Harvick watched as his teammate in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at JR Motorsports, Chase Elliott, took four tires on his final pit stop, putting him in sixth place for the final restart. Elliott used those new tires to his advantage, driving around the cars in front of him, including Harvick to take the checkered flag first.
Harvick himself agreed with his crew chief during the post-race press conference.
“I’m a four‑tire guy,” he said, “so I would have probably argued a little bit if he'd have said two tires on the radio.”
Loser: Early-Race Glare Presents Serious Visibility Issues for Drivers
Early in the race, which began approximately one hour before sunset on the East Coast, many drivers reported having serious issues with the sun's glare as they drove into the sunset at nearly 200 mph down Darlington Raceway’s back stretch.
Dustin Long with MRN Radio reported on Twitter that Jeff Gordon was telling his spotter of the situation:
Fox Sports television broadcast analyst Darrell Waltrip commented that driving directly into the sunset has always been a problem, even when he was an active driver, and he joked about closing his eyes—albeit for a split second—when driving into the sun.
Winner: Not a Win for Junior, but His Best Finish at Darlington
He likely would have given anything to finish just one spot higher, but second place was a career-best finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Southern 500.
After the race, it was hard for him to shake off the feeling of falling just one position short.
“It's a little disappointing to come that close because I know I don't really run that well here and the opportunities to win are going to be very few compared to other tracks,” said Earnhardt Jr. It hurts a little bit to come that close because we worked so hard to try to win races. Running second is great but nobody is going to really remember that. But we're proud of it.”
A short while after the race, Earnhardt Jr. appeared pleased with the results on Twitter:
Not a bad turnaround for the team that finished dead last the week before at Texas Motor Speedway.
Loser: Kurt Busch's Good Run Gone Bad
Two-time Southern 500 winner Kurt Busch started 13th and ran in the top-15 for the majority of the night at the 1.366-mile oval. Crew chief Daniel Knost and Busch agreed on a two-tire strategy for the team’s final pit stop on Lap 361.
The No. 41 came in 12th and restarted ninth. Busch was able to keep the Haas Automation Chevrolet in the ninth position until the next caution on Lap 365. The entire field stayed out and set up the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish.
As Busch took the green flag on Lap 369 for the first attempt at the green-white-checkered flag, he was hit from behind by Clint Bowyer in the No. 15 Toyota, forcing a slide into the inside wall that caused enough damage to prevent Busch from finishing the event.
“That was a terrible way to end what could have been a decent night,” Busch said during a post-race interview. “We called for a two-tire stop at the end hoping to gain some track position, but it seemed like everyone had the same idea. We gained a little, but the guys behind us all had four tires. I hate it for the team, but we keep learning each week and we will get better.”
Busch finished 31st. He sits 26th in driver points, but a win at Martinsville has secured him a spot in the Chase.
Winner: Jeff Gordon, Winningest Southern 500 Driver Watches His Chances Fade
The points leader going into Darlington, Jeff Gordon remained the leader at the end of a long night that saw his No. 24 Chevrolet SS go from being a fast race car to a crippled one.
“There towards the end, we just kind of started fading,” said Gordon in a post-race interview. I got into the wall a little bit and got the right-side flattened up a little bit and then from there I just went downhill.
“I thought it was going to be a lot worse than that. So, it’s good to be leading the points. I feel like I missed an opportunity, but this is another great race car and I’m happy about that.”
Week after week, Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports team is almost good enough to win, as if this group will need the right set of circumstances to come together. In Sprint Cup racing, sometimes that’s what it takes.
This was a good week for this team. And while he's not the driver celebrating in Victory Lane, Gordon appears to be content with his team's continual progress toward that first win of the season.
Unfortunately the next stop on the Cup schedule is Richmond, one of Gordon's worst tracks. Two wins in 42 attempts and 16 top-fives doesn't exactly sound like the place where those right circumstances will come together.
The following week is where it's likely to happen, at Talladega.
Loser: Bad Brad in Search of a Good Weekend
The Las Vegas winner hasn’t scored a top-10 finish in the Cup Series since that weekend back in February.
That could be because this Paul Wolfe-led team is trying out new setups since they’ve got a race win in their back pocket. Or it could just be that they’re struggling.
Finishing 26th at Fontana; 38th at Martinsville; 15th at Texas and now 17th at Darlington is indicative of a team that is struggling.
The oftentimes blunt speaking Brad Keselowski was out of character following the Southern 500, making excuses for his team’s mediocre outing.
“It was a long night. We didn’t get the finish we wanted, that is for sure. We ran a lot better than where we finished,” Keselowski said in a post-race interview.
“We got used up on those last restarts and took some bad lines that didn’t go and what not. That is just part of the deal at this place and we will just have to move on to next week. The track was slick but it is the same for everybody, so that is part of the unique challenge of Darlington that we all love.”
You have to love the “…took some bad line that didn’t go and what not” part of that quote. This is a team that appears searching for help. Has it lost the handle? That's a real possibility.
Jeff Hammond with Fox Sports.com dared to compare Team Penske with Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing, a comment made in the afterglow of Joey Logano’s victory at Texas:
“Their consistency and their commitment to excellence should not surprise us in the NASCAR world, based on all the success that Roger Penske has had in all other forms of racing. So I will say this cautiously, at this point in time: Team Penske is on the same level of a Joe Gibbs Racing and a Hendrick Motorsports.”
A closer examination of their recent record shows more inconsistency than consistency, making Hammond's assumption sound a bit off base.
Winner: Kyle Busch Survives Contact and Finishes Top-10
Former Southern 500 winner (2008) Kyle Busch looked to be a contender in the early laps of Saturday night’s race. After the sun went down, the handling on the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota went south.
It got so bad at one point, Busch claimed not one, but two of the infamous “Darlington Stripes” as the right side of his Toyota smacked the outside wall of “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”
The second stripe occurred with less than 100 laps remaining, forcing Busch onto pit road, while his Dave Rogers-led teammates pulled out fenders, corrected the front-end alignment and changed tires.
Saavy pit calls by Rogers in the waning laps of the race put Busch up with the race leaders, where he finished a remarkable sixth place given the condition of his race car. It was his sixth career top-10 finish at Darlington.
"I guess we should be happy with sixth considering how we could have finished,” said Busch in a post-race interview. "I’m a little disappointed because I really feel like we should have gotten fourth, but we seemed to always be behind one of the cars spinning the tires on the restarts at the end. It’s a top-10, which is good going into the off week."
Indeed it was a good weekend for Busch, who sits comfortably in sixth place in driver points with one win (Auto Club Speedway) after eight races.
Loser: Is Stenhouse Jr. One Huge Disappointment in 2014 ?
Once seen as a replacement for Matt Kenseth, whose number he inherited, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hasn’t delivered on the promise of just a couple of years ago.
After capturing two consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series titles for Roush Fenway Racing (2011-2012), Stenhouse Jr. appeared destined for success. But since his debut in the Cup Series, his finishes have not been indicative of a former champion.
One could place blame on the cars coming out of RFR, as Stenhouse Jr.’s teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle aren’t having memorable years either, with the exception being Edwards’ win at Bristol last month.
But one has to wonder why Stenhouse Jr. is hanging back in the mid-pack of every race and running a lap down, while coincidentally mirroring the performance of Danica Patrick? Could he be trying to teach her some of the fine intricacies of driving a Sprint Cup car? Or is he being overprotective?
Or is he just a huge bust?
His second-place finish at Bristol, finishing right behind teammate Carl Edwards made sense. It was obvious RFR had the setup for Bristol. But since then, Stenhouse Jr. has floundered mid-field, his 20th-place finish at Darlington an example of his best work. Patrick? She finished 22nd.
This team won’t make it to the Chase on points. It can only hope that all the stars align themselves in perfect harmony, and the No. 17 car ends up in Victory Lane.
Does Jack Roush really see the future of his racing organization lying in the hands and at the feet of this young man?
Winner: 'The Lady in Black' Remains a Elusive, Yet Alluring Date
Full grandstands, great weather and an exciting race finish.
This old track, representing a significant part of NASCAR’s past, showed once more that old doesn’t mean boring and that “The Lady in Black” still is as alluring as she has always been.
The Southern 500 is a long (this year’s edition was just under four hours) and arduous race that leaves drivers, crew chiefs and pit crews exhausted and spent.
Race winner Harvick called it the one race he wanted to win, even if it meant he won no others this season with his new team.
“To come here each year and know that now you only have one shot, but to win the Southern 500 and you look at the names and pictures on that trophy that they have out there (referring to the media center lobby) is something that's pretty phenomenal to be a part of.”
Harvick also made a point of saying in the post-race press conference that the worn out asphalt that covers Darlington’s 1.33-miles is ideal for racing and presents the perfect racing surface.
“Darlington is what it was supposed to be tonight, the cars slipping and sliding and bouncing off the walls and hard to drive. That’s how you want every racetrack to be.”
And while the track may have (temporarily) lost its traditional Labor Day spot on the Sprint Cup schedule, it's lost none of its tough-as-nails charm.
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.