Kevin Harvick led for 214 of the 367 laps at Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but he didn't lead the final and most important one.
Martin Truex Jr. jumped to the front of the pack down the stretch on Sunday and then outraced Harvick in a two-man finish to clinch the victory. NASCAR on NBC shared the celebratory reaction from No. 78:
Here is a look at Truex Jr. and the rest of the top 10 finishers:
|Southern 500 Top 10|
|Position||Driver||Time Behind Leader (seconds)||Laps Led|
|1||Martin Truex Jr.||--||28|
Here are the updated Sprint Cup Series driver standings following Sunday's race, per NASCAR.com:
|Sprint Cup Series Standings|
|8||Martin Truex Jr.||696|
While Truex Jr. captured the checkered flag at the end, there was an interesting start to Sunday's race. According to Jonathan Merryman of NASCAR.com, the first two pace laps occurred in "single file to give all the fans a chance to see all the paint schemes" for NASCAR Throwback.
Harvick and his paint scheme controlled the race early, as he led for the entirety of the first 50 laps. In fact, he was more than a full three seconds ahead of Brad Keselowski and the rest of the field and maintained his advantage through an early green flag pit stop.
While Harvick seized the initial control, Jeff Gordon was among those who started slowly. His inclusion was the marquee storyline before Sunday's race. NASCAR.com noted that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the rest of the 2016 Sprint Cup Series with concussion symptoms, which means Gordon and Alex Bowman will each fill in for various races.
Gordon assumed the duties on Sunday as a seven-time Darlington winner.
Keselowski was on that lead lap, and he took over first after Harvick set the pace through the opening 93 laps. He held on to that lead through the first caution of the race and created plenty of separation from one of the usual contenders, Jimmie Johnson, as Bob Pockrass of ESPN.com explained:
NASCAR shared the highlight of the costly sequence:
Up front, Keselowski led for a solid 45 laps before Harvick battled his way back to the front. The two jockeyed for position, but that ended before the 200th lap when Keselowski pitted for vibration. Pockrass tweeted that "Keselowski was told he had a loose wheel," which pushed him back into the field.
That opened the front up for Harvick, and Stewart-Haas Racing noted that he made some history on Sunday:
The drama wasn't limited to the tussle for first place. Tony Stewart bumped Brian Scott and helped push him off the track. Geoffrey Miller of Athlon Sports said NASCAR scheduled a meeting with Stewart after the race, while the sport's Twitter account captured the contact in question:
Harvick controlled much of the race after Stewart's incident, but he lost his lead on a restart after a later caution. Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch all quickly surpassed him, but it was Matt Kenseth who jumped ahead with 100 laps remaining and Harvick closing.
Harvick took over that top spot once again with a strong outside push on the 273rd lap. However, it was short-lived thanks to a sluggish pit stop. He fell from first to 12th, and Pockrass said "it apparently was an issue with the pit gun" that cost the leader.
He clearly wasn't pleased, via Pockrass:
One of the primary beneficiaries was Kyle Larson, who was in front after the 300th lap. He held that advantage for 45 laps, but a caution opened the door for others later in the race. The caution came after Paul Menard's tire ended Kurt Busch's night, via NASCAR:
Ryan Newman was in front with 30 laps remaining, but Truex Jr., Keselowski and Harvick were all within striking distance down the stretch. Truex Jr. wasted little time taking advantage of that striking distance and made a move for the lead with an inside pass with 29 laps left.
Harvick moved into second and appeared primed to complete the comeback after his lackluster pit stop, but he made contact with the wall and lost critical time. Despite the incident, he was still in solid position after a restart with 10 laps remaining after holding off a push from Larson for second.
Jeff Gluck of USA Today weighed in on the dramatic battle with five laps remaining:
Truex Jr. did exactly that and outlasted the final push from Harvick. The victor even put some additional space in between himself and the challenger in those last couple of laps and earned the win.
Next up is the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday, and it is the final race before the Chase. Truex Jr. has plenty of momentum moving forward following his impressive showing on Sunday, but there are a number of silver linings for Harvick as well.
He is the points leader and likely would have won the Southern 500 if not for a couple of correctable issues. If he races like he did at Darlington and receives some better showings on pit stops, he will be a difficult contender to beat during the Chase.
Truex Jr. figured out a way to do it on Sunday.
Truex Jr. praised his team after the win, per Kelly Crandall of NBC Sports: “This is just—this is unbelievable…The pit crew was flawless tonight. They won us the race.”
Harvick pointed to the pit road problems after placing in second, per Crandall: “Out ream in the garage did a great job. They brought the fastest race car to the track once again and we just didn’t do a good job on pit road and gave it away.”
While it was surely a frustrating loss for Harvick, he at least proved capable of controlling the majority of a race. If he does that in the Chase, he will be a formidable force.