The Bojangles Southern 500 deserved a back flip, and it was convenient that the guy who won it is probably the only NASCAR driver capable of reliably performing one.
Carl Edwards always stands on the window ledge of his cars and flips backward for the fans' enjoyment each time he wins. This time it might as well have been a personal homage to the toughest of NASCAR's tracks, Darlington Raceway, and a rules package that put a bit more of the outcome in a driver's hands.
"I don't think I can get in trouble for how much I liked it," Edwards said to NBC Sports in a telling nod to the NASCAR censors, "but I loved it. This is as good as gets. ... This is what it's all about. We're sliding cars, tires are falling off—this is the style of racing—if there's any chance we can run this in the Chase, I hope we can do it."
Hope springs eternal, but NASCAR has already announced that the experimental "low-downforce package" will not be used in the 10-race postseason that determines the Sprint Cup champion. A smaller spoiler on the cars' rear decks is the most noteworthy ingredient in the package, which was also used July 11 at Kentucky Speedway to positive reviews.
The racing was impressive. Crashes were frequent. Edwards' pit crew gave him the edge he needed, putting him back on the track faster than anyone else in the final pit sequence. He led the final 11 laps, eight of which were run under a green flag with Brad Keselowski, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick among those in pursuit.
Did the cream rise to the top? The top nine finishers were drivers who have already won at least one race this year.
"That was a lot of fun racing with Brad (Keselowski) and Kevin (Harvick)," Edwards said to NBC Sports. "We were pushing each other as hard as we could without bumping into each other, blocking each other just enough that the other guys would put up with it, and that was really fun racing.
"We've got this lower-downforce package, we can race close, the Goodyear tires fall off and it gets hard to drive. This is fun."
In fact, it seemed at times like infinite fun. Another result of race cars that were hard to drive was that more drivers failed to do so effectively. The race took four hours, 28 minutes, 35 seconds to complete. The 18 caution flags, slowing the field for 89 laps (24.3 percent of the distance), established a record for a race that has been conducted since 1950.
Eighteen different drivers were involved in crashes that resulted in caution periods. Three were involved in more than one.
Edwards is a longtime advocate of less downforce, but praise was effusive even from those who didn't win.
Fourteenth-place finisher Jamie McMurray said, "I am a big fan of this package. I think everybody is.
"I think the general consensus among all of the drivers is that we would like to start (the 2016 season) with this and possibly try to get even more downforce off the cars."
"I love the package," eighth-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
"The package in general is a nice balance of slip-sliding around and being on the edge," sixth-place Kurt Busch said, and the retiring Jeff Gordon, who will apparently never get another chance to try it, said, "I like the aero(dynamic) package. I like the race car."
On the final restart, Edwards' teammate, Hamlin, made a bold bid for the lead, and while he couldn't pull it off, the move had the effect of occupying Keselowski, who had led 196 laps after starting on the pole.
Keselowski longs to win one of NASCAR's four most prestigious races—Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte), Brickyard 400 (Indianapolis) and Southern 500—but now Edwards has won two of them this year. He won the Charlotte race on May 24.
This was Edwards's 25th career victory and first at Darlington.
After settling for second, Keselowski compared the new rules to a kid learning how to drive a car with a manual transmission and then becoming accustomed later to automatics.
"The race reminded me a lot of that because the cars, just five or six years ago when I entered Sprint Cup, were extremely difficult to drive, much like a stick shift when you're first learning how to drive," he said, "and then they've gotten really easy to drive over the last four or five years.
"It got to the point where we're all kind of looking around at each other as drivers going, wait a minute here, this isn't good. It shouldn't be this easy to drive these."
|Eight Races, Two Teams, Down the Stretch|
|Kentucky||July 11||Kyle Busch||Gibbs|
|New Hampshire||July 19||Kyle Busch||Gibbs|
|Indianapolis||July 26||Kyle Busch||Gibbs|
|Pocono||Aug. 2||Matt Kenseth||Gibbs|
|Watkins Glen||Aug. 9||Joey Logano||Penske|
|Michigan||Aug. 16||Matt Kenseth||Gibbs|
|Bristol||Aug. 22||Joey Logano||Penske|
|Darlington||Sept. 6||Carl Edwards||Gibbs|
Ten different drivers led at one point or another, and the lead changed hands 24 times, but with one race remaining in the regular season, no trend toward upward mobility was evident. Either a Gibbs-owned Toyota or a Roger Penske-owned Ford has won the last eight races, and the top four finishers split evenly between those teams.
"I probably had a little too much fun sometimes out there," Edwards said. "I really do enjoy it while I'm racing. It's fun. It was fun just to dig down and try to catch those guys and battle them, and then watching those guys battle, it's like, man, I hope they really get into it so I can catch them again.
"It's what I live for."
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.