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Darlington sets stage for title race to come

May 15, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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Cream rises to the top in 500-mile test of survival

There was nowhere to hide. As the green-flag runs went on longer and longer, the lights shining down on the old race track exposed weaknesses that became more evident with each passing lap. Darlington Raceway has always been a place that separates great from good, and no question it did that Saturday night, when one event provided a snapshot of the facility’s long and proud history.

It was mesmerizing to watch it unfold -- one car after another going a lap down, helpless without cautions to stem the onslaught, Darlington becoming that merciless arbiter between the best and everyone else just as it has been for decades. No single race is a barometer for an entire season, but if anything comes close, it’s 500 miles on the one track that most delineates the differences between one competitor and another. And Saturday night, those differences were harsh.

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The attrition took a heavy toll, at one point leaving only nine cars on the lead lap before a spate of cautions toward the end of the race granted some a reprieve. By that time, though, the hierarchy had been set. One week after David Ragan and his little Front Row Motorsports team shocked the world, order was restored in resounding fashion. Darlington in the end pitted the cars of Joe Gibbs Racing against those from Hendrick Motorsports, in a clash of titans that may come to define this season as much as it did one night.

As mentioned in this space a few weeks ago, judging the state of the 2013 Sprint Cup season solely by the standings can be an exercise in deception. Drivers who haven’t shown the ability to challenge for race wins linger in playoff position, more powerful programs lag behind because of penalties or other factors, Jimmie Johnson’s gaping lead on everyone else may be larger on paper than it is in actuality. Sometimes the race track provides a more accurate representation, particularly when it’s the kind of race track that can blow the field apart.

That’s just what happened Saturday, when only the strong survived. We may see it again in two weeks, in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another arduous event known for producing long green-flag runs that -- the occasional fuel-mileage finish not withstanding -- can force teams to subsist solely on merit. But in the meantime we have Darlington, where not even field-leveling mechanisms like double-file restarts, free passes and wave-arounds could stop the sport’s two top teams from running roughshod over everyone else.

None of this should come as a surprise, of course, given that Hendrick has been the class of the NASCAR field for more than a decade, and Gibbs substantially upgraded its driver roster at both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide levels prior to this season. But Saturday night, it all crystalized. There was Kyle Busch, leading 265 laps and dominating the race until a tire went down. There was Kasey Kahne, the only driver who could challenge Busch on restarts until the latest in a series of run-ins between the two put the No. 5 car into the wall.

There was Johnson, in the mix to win until a slow pit stop late in the race put him behind. There was Denny Hamlin, using a little strategy and a whole lot of grit to finish as runner-up in his first full race back after fracturing a lumbar vertebra in a crash two months ago. There was Jeff Gordon, notching yet another top-five in his 700th career start. And there was Matt Kenseth, with a substitute crew chief on the pit box yet freed from the most oppressive weight of a recent penalty, doing that vintage Matt Kenseth thing -- lurking, lurking, lurking, and then making his move late to win the race.

If there was ever a consolidation of power, this was it. Now, that’s not to completely rule out others -- Carl Edwards again showed the consistency he lacked a year ago, Brad Keselowski again battled issues rather than battling to the front. Beleaguered Stewart-Haas put two cars in the top 15 on a night when that meant something, and Juan Pablo Montoya showed more signs of life. But it when it came to trying to win, under perhaps the most difficult conditions this season, two teams rose to the top. And not even those teams were infallible; Busch’s incident with Kahne was very likely the effect of the JGR driver breaking Darlington’s cardinal rule -- racing another competitor instead of the track.

Beyond that one misstep, though, the Gibbs gang was scary. Busch’s tire problem in the waning laps of the Southern 500, and a decision not to pit by Jeremy Bullins, crew chief of Joey Logano’s Nationwide Series car, were perhaps all that prevented JGR from sweeping the top four spots on Friday night and the top three on Saturday. As it turned out, the organization still went 1-2-3-5 and 1-2-6, an impressive feat at a track like Darlington. And then there’s Kenseth, who led 140 laps at Richmond and 142 more at Talladega in between victories at Kansas and Darlington, and came perhaps closer than we realize to ripping off four in a row.

As it is, Gibbs has won five of 11 races this season, had arguably the best car in at least two others it didn’t win, and done it all with its top championship contender entering the year -- Hamlin -- out five weeks with an injury. Kenseth has never won this much this early in the year. And yet they’re all still chasing Johnson, whose lead in the standings has mushroomed to 44 points over Edwards. No question, if not for a hang-up on the left rear on a late pit stop, it might have been Johnson and not Kenseth surging to the front. His car certainly looked capable of it.

Yes, these are a lot of conclusions to draw out of one night. But we hadn’t quite seen a race like that this year, one where less-perfect cars were granted no quarter, and even a reigning Sprint Cup champion risked being left in the dust. When the caution flag stays furled and the drivers are left to pick their way along that red-and-white-striped outside wall, Darlington becomes NASCAR at its most unforgiving. Under such conditions, it took an awful lot to stay up front, even more to contend for the victory, and the Gibbs and Hendrick drivers made it look easy while so many others struggled just to stay one lap down.

That should tell you something. This has been an unusual season, one where penalties and Hamlin’s injury have made a mess of the standings, and top contenders beyond Johnson have been difficult to define. The Lady in Black at last provided some clarity, like those bright lights shining down on that old egg-shaped race track. There are many more miles to go before the title picture comes into complete focus, 600 of them at Charlotte, and then a summertime stretch where the asphalt gets hot and slick and puts a premium on car control. But when the battle for that silver trophy reaches its apex, Darlington -- like the superspeedway era itself -- may prove the place where it all began.

READ MORE:

READ: Kenseth wins
Southern 500

READ: Gordon happy
with 700th start

WATCH: Denny Hamlin
Press Pass

READ: Kahne, Busch
battle again

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