In the Rearview: Recapping Darlington
May 13, 2013, George Winkler, NASCAR.com
The cars aren’t the only thing in NASCAR moving at a dizzying pace. Time has a way of doing just the same. Did Jeff Gordon really just make his 700th consecutive start on Saturday night, at Darlington Raceway of all places?
Of course he did, but it’s still amazing if you slow down and think about it. Seven hundred straight times Gordon has suited up and given his best.
NASCAR is comprised of many dedicated people who make the sport work, but it’s still incredible that an illness, an emergency of some sort, or even a hangnail didn’t pop up from time-to-time to cause Gordon to miss a race.
It’s that type of consistent effort that is the mark of a champion, and Gordon’s third-place finish in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 jumped him to 12th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. In other words, it’s enough to put him into contention for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and a sign to all those young pups that this gracefully aging dog still has some bite.
Gordon got off to a slow start this season, but he now has three top-10 finishes and has been in the top 10 or just outside of it in six of the past seven races. He’ll need to continue that consistency to stay in contention.
Another driver who knows a thing or two about consistency is Matt Kenseth, and to say he’s on a roll would be an understatement. After making a late move to win Saturday night’s race in Darlington, Kenseth has finished in the top 10 in four straight races, including two wins. He has three wins and seven top-10s this season.
And if it weren’t for a couple of blown engines that led to a 37th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a 35th-place showing at Bristol, the 59-point gap between Kenseth and points leader Jimmie Johnson would be smaller. Of course, the gap could be bigger, too, if it weren’t for the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel reducing a 50-point penalty against Kenseth to 12 points last week.
As it stands, Kenseth, if he continues this run, might be the driver Johnson is keeping an eye on the most. And since Kenseth does some of his best work on the intermediate tracks and superspeedways, one figures he’ll continue to roll next week in Charlotte, followed by Dover and Michigan.
As for Gordon, he got his first Sprint Cup win back in 1994 in Charlotte. Hundreds of starts later, he’s still going.
• Kenseth’s win capped a big week for Joe Gibbs Racing. First came the good news of reduced penalties. Instead of losing 50 points, Kenseth was docked only 12 -- moving him up to fourth place in the standings. After Saturday’s win, Kenseth now sits third behind Carl Edwards and Johnson.
Crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s suspension was reduced from six races to one, and Wally Brown got his first Cup win as Ratcliff’s one-week replacement. Gibbs’ owner points penalty was reduced from 50 to 12, and the suspension of his car owner’s license was rescinded.
Then, the JGR drivers put on quite a show at Darlington. First in the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 on Friday night, JGR drivers finished 1-2-3 with Kyle Busch winning for the fifth time this season, followed by Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers. Joey Logano broke up the Gibbs party by finishing fourth, but Kenseth, in effect, handed out the goodie bags at the door with a fifth-place showing.
On Saturday, Kenseth got the win in the Bojangles’ Southern 500, followed by teammate Denny Hamlin in second. Kyle Busch dropped to sixth after a cut tire but led 265 of the 367 laps. Joe Gibbs Racing has five wins, 10 top-fives and 17 top-10s in 11 Sprint Cup races this season and five wins, 15 top-fives and 20 top-10s in nine Nationwide races this year.
• Speaking of Hamlin, his second-place finish Saturday came in his first full-time race since injuring his back in a last-lap crash with Logano on March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. Hamlin did a planned part-time gig last week at Talladega where he drove until the first caution, when Vickers replaced him.
Hamlin’s second-place finish at Darlington pushed him up four spots to 27th in the standings, so immediately the debate heats up as to whether he can make the Chase. He needs to be inside the top 20 to be eligible for a Wild Card berth, and probably needs two or three victories on top of that to make it.
Certainly doable for a driver who has had four-plus wins in three of the past four seasons, provided he avoids setbacks with his back. A real test for Hamlin’s health and stamina will be the 600 miles next week in Charlotte.
Denny Hamlin finished second at Darlington in his full-time return, but the No. 11 team will needs wins -- likely at least two of them -- to contend for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
172: The number of laps between the first and second cautions of the Bojangles’ Southern 500 -- a green-flag run that had the video editors at NASCAR.com feeling antsy.
150: A perfect driver rating for Kyle Busch following the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200. Busch has a 134.8 rating for the Nationwide season.
118.6: Matt Kenseth’s 2013 driver rating, which is tops in Sprint Cup this year and slightly better than Jimmie Johnson’s (114.9).
Still rolling: What else can we say about Jimmie Johnson? With yet another top-10 finish at Darlington (his eighth in 11 races this season), he enjoys a 44-point lead over second-place Carl Edwards. In other words, he has a one-race lead over everyone else, which in the standings is like being a lap ahead.
Backslide: Greg Biffle has gone four weeks without a top-10 finish and dropped two spots to 13th in the standings after a 13th-place run at Darlington. That was better than his 36th-place showing a week ago at Talladega when he wrecked. However, he has struggled this year on tracks where he historically does well. At Kansas, where he had an average finish of 7.2 entering this season, Biffle was 36th during this four-race stretch.
On the rise: Besides Hamlin moving up four spots in the standings, the next biggest gainer was Juan Pablo Montoya, who went up three places after Darlington. Still, Montoya is sitting only 22nd in the standings. But his fourth-place finish at Richmond and eighth-place showing at Darlington have Montoya looking up heading into the summer, when some road courses should help him.
The time has come: Paul Menard and Aric Almirola were beginning to gain notice for their consistency this season, but doubts about their Chase-worthiness might start to creep in after last week’s showing at Darlington. Both drivers were off the lead lap for much of the night and finished 19th and 20th, respectively. They get two weeks to try to regroup before the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte.
For the first time all season, Greg Biffle is outside the top 12 in the points standings. His last top-10 finish was at Texas Motor Speedway on April 13.
• “He screwed up again. It was his third time this year he’s screwed up.”
-- Kasey Kahne on Kyle Busch after the two bumped with 33 laps remaining Saturday night in Darlington, sending Kahne fishtailing into the wall.
• "I wanted the 700th to be a memorable one, and I'm glad it wasn't like last year's memory where we blew two left-rear tires back‑to‑back. This was much better than that."
-- Jeff Gordon on his third-place finish at Darlington in his 700th consecutive start.
• “I told Matt, ‘Why didn’t you let Denny win?’ ”
-- JGR team president J.D. Gibbs joked after Kenseth’s Darlington victory over teammate Hamlin.
The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race gives fans a chance to enjoy the best of the best on Saturday night in Charlotte (7:30 p.m. ET, SPEED). It also allows fans to be a part of the action by participating in the Sprint Fan Vote, which will determine the final driver to make the field.
Related: Cast your vote today
So let’s get familiar with some of the rules for the Sprint All-Star Race, because there is one major change from last year. The running order at the completion of the fourth segment will be repositioned based on average finish for the first four segments, setting the cars up for a mandatory four-tire pit stop. Pit road will be opened, and the order of the cars returning to the track will determine the order for the fifth and final segment.
In other words, drivers have to compete in all segments to boost their average finish and be in a good position for the all-important pit stop. It puts a lot of pressure on those pit crews, but it should be fun to watch.
Speaking of the segments, the race is broken up into four 20-lap segments leading up to the fifth segment, which is a 10-lap dash for the cash (a $1 million check from Sprint). Between the first three segments teams have the option to pit. All laps will count in segments 1-4; only green-flag laps will count in the fifth segment.
To be eligible for the Sprint All-Star Race a driver must have done one of the following: win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this season or the previous season, be a former Sprint Cup Series champion over the past 10 years, be a former All-Star Race champion over the past 10 years, finish in the top two in the Sprint Showdown (40-lap race before the Sprint All-Star Race) or win the Fan Vote.
Jimmie Johnson is the defending Sprint All-Star Race champion.