Editor's note: Brad Parrott, a 19-time winner in NASCAR national series competition -- including three at Darlington Raceway -- has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis after Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Darlington Raceway:
Even the "Lady in Black" couldn't derail Kevin Harvick from being the first driver to win twice this season in a performance that had big implications for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Leading 238 laps, Harvick had a dominant car from the time he showed up at Darlington Raceway on Friday morning for practice. He won the first practice, sat on the pole and just dominated the whole Bojangles' Southern 500 for his very first win at Darlington.
Harvick won with a late pass of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. But I'm going to go back to Lap 59 as the turning point for the No. 4 team. Crew chief Rodney Childers asked Harvick if he wanted two tires when they came in to pit. Kevin said no, and that he thought four tires would be the bigger benefit.
Rodney stuck with that game plan the rest of the night and got him four tires all night long. They put on 11 sets during the race, which is a lot, even for a 500-mile race. Then the crew worked on the car all night long. It went back and forth on the handling of being loose off, which you fight at Darlington because you're tight in the center. At the end of the night, they had the car where they wanted it.
With eight laps to go and the caution flag out, Harvick was the only car that eventually finished in the top five to take four tires. Dale Jr., Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson all took two tires and gained top-five finishes because of that.
There were also good calls tonight by Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers. They all made two-tire calls with 15 green-flag laps on their tires to gain them track position. I really thought two tires would be the calls for track position more often after seeing those guys, but most crew chiefs stuck to their game plans with four tires.
Earnhardt Jr. ran in the top five all night to lead his Hendrick Motorsports teammate in Johnson, who struggled with the handling at the beginning of the race. They finished 2-3. Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, made extra pit stops on the first round of pits on Lap 40 and brought home a top-three finish. Kudos to them.
It was a big finish for Tony Stewart, too, coming back through the pack to finish ninth. He was a lap down for a long portion of the race and with that finish, he has four top-10s in the past five races. And rookie Austin Dillon finished 11th after banging up the wall yesterday during practice, and then banging with AJ Allmendinger's car during the race. It was a good finish for that 3 team.
On the flip side, there were some cars that didn't do so well. I was really shocked by the finishes that Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had. They didn't have the great cars that we've seen this year, surprisingly, and they didn't come out the way they should have. Keselowski finished 17th and Logano finished 35th. Logano led 37 laps, but fell back even before his late tire issue caused his night to end.
You also saw the No. 43 of Aric Almirola that was strong all practice and in qualifying, and he was strong at the beginning of the race. Then the sun went down, the track cooled and gained grip and the car got way loose. The other main car that I saw struggle was Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota. He's great at Darlington, but he didn't have the car to his liking -- and also had another late pit-road speeding penalty -- and finished 19th.
This night was all about Harvick, though. Overall, it took 374 laps -- the longest race in Darlington history -- to keep the car clean and to stay off the "Lady in Black." The track they say is "Too Tough to Tame" couldn't hold him back.