Each week NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down the top storylines from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. This week, we break down the Bojangles’ Southern 500 from Darlington Raceway.
Comeback of the Year?
After winning Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Darlington with a last lap pass on Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin headed into Sunday night’s main event looking for the weekend sweep, but despite having one of the fastest cars on track, he almost gave the win away.
Hamlin would lead 121 of the first 313 laps, but it was a pit road miscue on lap 313 that set up what could only be classified as the comeback of the year.
As Hamlin headed toward pit road for a green flag pit stop, he couldn’t get slowed up in time, missing the entry to pit road and having to make another lap before making his stop. The miscue meant that Hamlin was upwards of 20 seconds behind race leader Martin Truex, Jr. with about 50 laps to go.
Even with the massive deficit between himself and Truex, Hamlin buckled down and began picking hime way through the field, inching ever closer to Truex as the laps ticked away. With a handful of laps remaining, Hamlin was filling the rear-view mirror of Truex’s car and was obviously the faster of the two cars.
Truex would eventually blow a tire with two laps to go, but even without that, it was going to be tough for Truex to keep Hamlin at bay.
So, how did Hamlin pull off the comeback?
“Drove our ass off,” said Hamlin. “That’s as hard as I could drive.”
“This is the Southern 500. It doesn’t get much bigger than this. This is the granddaddy of them all. This has so much history. I’m so happy to be in victory lane at Darlington. This is where I got my very first start in Joe Gibbs Racing, so this track, these fans means a lot to me.”
“It means everything to me. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, this is a throwback to my history – this is for Roy Hendrick, Bugs Hairfield, Wayne Patterson, Eddie Johnson, the short track guys that I grew up watching. This was a throwback to them. Back in 1985 and 1989, I was at Southside Speedway in the stands watching them race and learning everything I could from them and this is a throwback to them and their history.”
Darlington Throwback Weekend a Resounding Success
Since returning to their rightful place on the schedule with the Labor Day weekend date, Darlington has transformed the Southern 500 into a throwback weekend, with the track, drivers, teams, and many others in the industry paying tribute to days gone by.
In the third year of the throwback weekend, it was another resounding success, as all but a few teams sported throwback paint schemes, honoring drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Richard Petty, and many others.
The weekend also brought out the NASCAR Hall of Famers as they were honored by the track all weekend and were a part of the festivities from start to finish.
Seven-time champion Richard Petty also got to pace the field in one of his legendary cars and could be seen with a grin stretching from ear to ear as he led the field around prior to the green flag. Petty even stayed out on track a bit too long, causing NASCAR to have to black flag him to get him off the track for the race to start.
With moments like that, it’s no wonder that the Darlington throwback weekend is one of the most highly anticipated race weekends all season long and hopefully, it will continue to be for years to come.
Truex Wraps Up the Regular Season Points Title
Despite suffering a flat right-front tire with two laps to go at Darlington, taking him out of contention for his second straight Southern 500 win, Martin Truex, Jr. left the track “Too Tough to Tame” with an eighth-place finish and the consolation prize of the regular season points championship, giving him an all-important 15-point bonus for the playoffs.
“It was definitely a bittersweet night for us, to come up just two laps short there, blow a tire at the end after having no issues with tires all night and having such a good race car,” said Truex. “I don’t know if that last run was the longest one we made all night. I’m not really sure to be honest. I was kind of out there caught up driving my guts out at the end trying to hang on. It’s unfortunate we blew the tire, but really proud of everybody on this team for an amazing season so far, and to lock up the regular season points is a huge accomplishment for us, for our team. I feel like we’ve come a long way in just a few years together and continue to climb.”
“Proud of everybody. Wish we could have won, but that’s the breaks. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t, and tonight we come up a little short. But definitely a lot to be proud of.”
Starting the day on the outside of the front row, Truex soared into the lead just two laps from the end of the first stage to give himself yet another stage win on the year. The second stage would be more of the same as Truex gave up the lead under the stage break, but would be back up front two different times, including the final 22 laps of the second stage to win that stage as well.
As the final stage played out, Truex would cycle into the lead two more times, taking over the top spot for the final time from Kurt Busch on lap 326 and setting sail en route to trying to capture back to back Darlington wins.
With the coarse pavement that makes up the Darlington surface wreaking havoc on tires, Truex was pushing the limit of his tires as he tried to make it to the end while also trying to hold off a hard charging Denny Hamlin behind him. As the two drivers continued to battle with two laps remaining in the race, the Goodyear tires on Truex’s car gave up heading into Turn 3, sending him into the wall and ending his hopes of a win.
Richard Childress Racing Impresses at Darlington
Despite both Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman having wins to lock themselves into the playoffs, the two Richard Childress Racing drivers hit a mid-season lull, but in the last few races they have begun to turn things around and get the momentum back on their side with the playoffs looming large and Darlington was a continuation of that.
Dillon posted his first top-10 in more than 12 weeks at Michigan in early August and even though he struggled at Bristol, the No. 3 team rolled into Darlington with confidence as they were sporting a paint scheme reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s Wrangler car.
As for Newman, he had scored top-10 finishes at Michigan and Bristol and likewise had a special throwback scheme similar to Earnhardt’s.
Both drivers would start outside the top-10, but as the race progressed, used pit strategy to their advantage to climb up the leaderboard and held on with older tires late in the race to score finishes of fourth and seventh, respectively.
“I’m just really proud of this team for bringing out this Dale Earnhardt scheme out and making it run good like that… it means a lot to me and all the RCR guys,” said Dillon. “I’m proud to represent tonight. It was a good time, for sure. The American Ethanol Chevy was good. That long run was like torture; those guys were coming on (newer) tires so we had to be really smooth and it worked out for us.”
Heading into the regular season finale, there are still three playoff spots up for grabs after Darlington, but at this point, it is going to take a hail Mary from a driver currently outside the top-16 to be able to make it into the playoff field.
The closest competitor to those currently in was Clint Bowyer, but his hopes of closing any ground in Sunday night’s race were dashed just 18 laps into the race when the engine on his Ford expired, putting him squarely in win or go home territory at Richmond next weekend.
“It just blew up,” said Bowyer. “It’s a pretty inopportune time to have it happen, but it’s never a good time. Doug Yates and all the guys over at his shop do such a good of bringing us reliable, good horsepower and it was just my time. It was my turn and there isn’t much you can do about it. Obviously, the way the Playoffs look right now, we’re not out of this thing. We’ve still got a good race track coming up for us. We’ll just go there and do the best we can and put all the cards on the table over there.”
With one race to go, Chase Elliott (+94), Matt Kenseth (+92), and Jamie McMurray (+91) are the only drivers that can make the playoffs on points, but should a driver outside of the top-16 (Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, etc.) win, the tight margins between those three will be crucial to see who makes it in and who doesn’t.