Going Three Wide: A Look Back at the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway
As race fans wake up from the Saturday night spectacle that was the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, it's a time to pay honor and show love for our mothers. First of all, Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there that have been are true support systems (along with our dads of course!) since day one. Much love to all of you.
For a majority of Saturday night's race at "The Lady in Black," it appeared as if it would be an atypical Darlington event. With only one caution for a major bulk of the race, it appeared as if it would be a race that would boil down to that final green flag pit stop as well as the best pace on a track that absolutely eats up those Goodyear radial tires.
It was truly a marathon that pitted Toyota's Joe Gibbs Racing's trio of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Denny Hamlin alongside Chevrolet's Hendrick Motorsports' quartet of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Arguably, they were the dominant cars when the track turned from dusk to nighttime conditions.
Pole sitter Kurt Busch paced the field for 69 circuits in his No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy SS, looking about as stout as ever before mid to late-race handling issues befell the 2004 series champion to a 14th-place finish. Still, it was an encouraging run for the single car operation, with both driver and team clicking and looking so close to breaking their way into Victory Lane.
Then there was the case of younger brother Kyle Busch, who was arguably behind the wheel of the best car all night. Leading 265 laps, Busch's No. 18 Doublemint Toyota was on a rail until late race troubles with a hotly contested battle for the lead with Kahne in turn one that was either a case of dirty air for both drivers or late race contact. Either way, Kahne's bid for the win was arguably over, falling to 17th while Busch's Camry had a deflating tire that halted an otherwise perfect evening, finishing sixth.
Once the checkered flag unfurled, it was Matt Kenseth who took home his third win of 2013, a special win as it was without his regular crew chief Jason Ratcliff. Suspended as a result of the reduced one event infraction from the Kansas post-race inspection, interim crew chief Wally Brown helped Kenseth and the No. 20 Husky/Dollar General Toyota take home the trophy.
Hamlin, marking his first full flag-to-flag start since Fontana in March (he did start Talladega but climbed out early in that race), took home the second position, an impressive feat considering that he deemed himself "rusty."
And then there's Gordon, who started his 700th Cup race of his career. Although he fell short of his 88th victory in the series, he made a mark in the history books by becoming the second youngest driver to tally 300 top-five finishes by way of a third-place finish. All in all, it was a solid race for the No. 24 Cromax Pro Chevy SS team, who just needed a bit of speed and track position to truly contend for the win.
Let's now start "Going Three Wide" and look back at Saturday night's Bojangles Southern 500, hopefully without too much chicken grease in your fingers....unless you're a Clint Bowyer fan who had some KFC Boneless Chicken with some 5-Hour Energy at your disposal.
The High Line
Joe Gibbs Racing - About the only thing that would've made car owner Joe Gibbs' night was a 1-2-3 sweep at Darlington. Such an impressive feat nearly happened until Kyle Busch dropped back with a tire that lost lots of air pressure during the final green flag run.
Still, what a year they're having with five wins through 11 races. Clearly, Toyota Racing Development's worked out their mechanical issues and it's showing up with dominant victories and fast Camrys right off the truck for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth. Can anybody stop them? Well history shows that the Hendrick Chevrolet teams pick it up in the summer, so we'll see.
Hendrick Motorsports - Before any fan thinks this is becoming a power ranking for multi-car teams, reconsider because it's focusing on both the drivers and teams. It's just easier to group the top two groups as such in this piece. Jeff Gordon led the Hendrick quartet with a strong third-place finish, which left a "great but not good enough" feeling in the minds of the No. 24 team. Jimmie Johnson wasn't quite dominant, but considering that a "decent" day is a fourth-place result is amazing all things considered.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his No. 88 crew are continuing their top-10 runs once more with a ninth-place effort, heading into Charlotte Speedweeks with some quiet confidence. Meanwhile, Kasey Kahne and his No. 5 team are mired in a mini-slump with their third consecutive finish of 17th or worse. Still, there's reason to believe that Kahne will be strong this coming summer.
Juan Pablo Montoya - Two out of three isn't so bad, eh? By that, how about the fact that JPM has scored two top-10's in a three race stretch. While Montoya and his No. 42 Target Chevy team are mired in the 22nd points spot, just imagine how fun it'd be having them in the Chase if he wins a few races and scores a top-20 spot after Richmond in September. This will be an exciting bunch to follow during the long hot summer.
Ryan Newman - A fine effort by the No. 39 team, and a major good comeback considering that Newman was battling for the "lucky dog" position all evening long. Once they got back on the lead lap, there was no denying "Rocket Ryan" from the top-10. As the sole bright spot for the struggling Stewart-Haas Racing efforts, perhaps top-fives will be in the offing starting with Charlotte.
Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick - Strong top-10 runs for both highly talented and aggressive drivers and teams, who will have even better days. Darlington wasn't totally welcoming to both, but when you can load up the car with perhaps a few nicks and a top-10 finish, that's like winning a race for most teams.
The Middle Line
Clint Bowyer - I definitely wasn't trying to give flack to No. 15 team fans on Twitter but c'mon, one has to admit it's a hilarious but gross thought imaging people having some boneless chicken and drinking some 5-Hour Energy on Saturday night. It was a decent finish for the 2012 points runner-up, but clearly, somebody ate the bone - or not.
Martin Truex, Jr. - Maybe those races finishing in the top-five will suit the pride of New Jersey, but considering they lost the handle once the skies darkened, a 12th wasn't too bad. Can they muster enough of a push to make the Chase in 2013?
Kurt Busch - He was probably the envy of most young drivers across the country, as he was able to make the highlight reel with one spectacular crash at Talladega, then test an Andretti Autosport prepared IZOD IndyCar at The Brickyard, and then break the track record at Darlington in his regular Cup ride. Perhaps his 14th-place finish isn't one that warranted the headlines, but considering how they're sitting 18th in points, this could be a wild card threat for the Chase....as yours truly predicted last winter!
Tony Stewart - Almost cracked the top-10 but instead of kissing the wall, Stewart and his No. 14 Chevy SS about made out with Darlington's backstretch outside retaining barrier. Next time, Smoke will make sure his cars control themselves when a lustful racetrack wall is around, which will be Charlotte Motor Speedway - it's tough being an owner-driver in NASCAR, eh?
Travis Kvapil - I'll give the '03 Truck champ some credit here. BK Racing isn't exactly Toyota's number one team, as they're more like the younger sibling getting the hand me downs for a while. Surviving the night and attrition late in the race, a 23rd-place effort is something to build on for the No. 93 team.
The Low Line
Mark Martin - Yes, he's a part-time driver and I get it, everyone's prone to having a bad day on the track. But it was odd seeing Martin, a previous Darlington race winner, just struggle mightily in his No. 55 ride. Still, the Batesville, AR native has got the makings to contend for wins, but it's just weird that this ageless driver was off on a track he's typically strong at in the Cup ranks.
Brad Keselowski - Gotta be a frustrating time for the defending series champion, with yet another finish outside the top-10. Keselowski and his No. 2 team just need to regroup and they will be back to being that scary but consistently amazing group that won the title last year.
Marcos Ambrose - Great driver, awesome personality, but really, you forgot Mother's Day? Oh well, but the No. 9 team really need to get back on track here. A somewhat tough day in the office, just not getting the handle right all weekend long. Is it perhaps due to the beard? Who knows but come Sonoma next month, he'll be the most mentioned driver leading up to and during that race. And perhaps Michigan too.
Not many drivers could really be on "The Low Line" list as it was a fairly good race for a variety of teams. Last week's top team Front Row Motorsports didn't fare as well as last week's race at Talladega but once they get some sponsors, they'll look to be a team getting solid finishes with top-15's and 20's.
Simply put, the usual suspects were at the front of the field, the midpackers hovered in the top to mid 20's and only a few really had off-nights at Darlington. Is it a product of the Gen-6 cars or just the typical ebbs and tides with NASCAR Sprint Cup racing? Time will tell for sure.
Author's Notes: The text you just read indeed are of the personal opinions of said writer of this article, who may have either gained or lost friends. Either way, it's all for fun and debate, so please discuss in the comments section below and share with your family and friends? Don't have any friends? Well, perhaps social networking would help...or not - so stop poking around and start talking NASCAR on TPF!