Cup Series Drops Green Flag on Playoffs at Darlington
Dating back to the race in Atlanta, there has been rumblings about how NASCAR can fix things and what they have gotten right as far as what they have made a conscientious effort to fix. We have come to find that repaving Atlanta is close to the top of the list of things they have done right. As much as NASCAR traditionalists (which in this case, includes myself) may hate it, moving the Summer Daytona race from 4th of July weekend to the last race of the regular season is one of them.
After tonight, I am thoroughly convinced that, while it probably has never been in question, having Darlington as the playoff opener is most definitely at the top of the list.
The Southern 500 is a crown jewel event in the sport that has been run for all but 2 of NASCAR’s 75-year existence. It is a Labor Day weekend tradition unlike any other in motorsports – perhaps even in sports in general. It is a fan favorite, and it draws a massive crowd every year. As a matter of fact, departing Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp announced prior to the start of Sunday night’s event that both the infield and the grandstands were sold out for the 3rd consecutive year.
This race and this track have a certain chaotic magic about them and combining that with being the playoff opener is an absolute grand slam for NASCAR.
The chaos of the Lady in Black was most certainly on full display Sunday night in what was quite possibly the wildest race of the season to date.
Christopher Bell started on the pole after being the fastest by a long shot in both practice and qualifying. But, just being the fastest car doesn’t guarantee a win. Particularly in as grueling of a race as the Southern 500.
Bell led the first 30 laps of the race, having jumped out to a fairly considerable margin – something that happened on every restart Sunday night. Denny Hamlin reminded everyone in the media center after winning the Xfinity series race that the NextGen car’s “track position is always P1. The fastest car will always be the one up front for the most part, especially with clean air.” Clean air – air that is undisturbed by cars in front of you, thus helping its benefactor be faster – is king. It has been since the previous generation of stock car bodies. If you are able to execute restarts flawlessly, it’s a huge advantage.
Back to Bell – teams began making green flag pit stops at lap 31, and when Christopher made his stop, the jack fell while changing the tires on the right side of the car, allowing Tyler Reddick to beat him off pit road and become the new leader.
Reddick led up until lap 62 when Denny Hamlin overtook him going into the backstretch with a strong run on the inside off turn 2. Hamlin would lead up until the next green flag pit stop cycle when Reddick was able to retake the lead by pitting a lap ahead of Hamlin on lap 75.
The back and forth between the 2 ended for good 15 laps later as Hamlin reclaimed the lead in exactly the same way as the first time. Hamlin would go on to win stage one, which was cut short due to a late caution when Christopher Bell hit the wall hard in 4 and Bubba Wallace spun out at the same time. The contact with the wall was enough to end the pole sitter’s chances of a win, although it did not end his night altogether.
The green flag for stage 2 flew at lap 122, and saw Denny Hamlin check out to a stage sweep, and well, from a racing standpoint, made for an uneventful middle stanza to this race. The saving grace for stage 2 was found in how chaotic it turned out to be for the playoff drivers.
During green flag pit stops at lap 149, Martin Truex Jr, a favorite to be in the championship 4 come Phoenix, had to come in for a 2nd stop due to a loose wheel. This mishap cost him 2 laps, albeit he managed to salvage things and get back on the lead lap by not pitting on the next 2 yellows so as to take the free pass. All in all, Truex would go on to finish 18th.
Michael McDowell’s car was loose all night long, and they never could get the setup right for him. He ended up having to pit twice as well during the fateful cycle that plagued Martin Truex. That plus already having been lapped by Denny Hamlin landed Michael 3 down, and that was not the end of his troubles. In the middle laps of the final stage, Todd Gilliland got loose in the middle of the front straightaway and bounced off the wall. As he came back down the track, he was clipped by Christopher Bell. As he turned sideways after that, he went into Denny Hamlin, sending him up the track trying to miss the collision. In that chaotic move, McDowell was left with nowhere to go and plowed into the back of Denny Hamlin, which would end the night for the 34 team.
Think that was enough to deem this race chaotic?
There is more!
We saw a strange caution and red flag tonight – one that in 31 years of following this sport, I have never seen. At lap 179, race control threw a caution for a lack of lighting in turns 3 and 4. As it turns out, the lights that are located behind the inside wall did not come on, resulting in that corner of the track getting dark enough to be a problem as the sun set. They would end up red flagging the race for about 7 minutes while the lighting was repaired.
Denny Hamlin, after leading a whopping 174 laps in this race and holding as much of and advantage as at least half a second for a great deal of them, saw his hopes fade quickly when he had to return to pit road on green flag pit stops after just barely edging Tyler Reddick in the race off due to a loose wheel. That was compounded when he was caught up with Todd Gilliland and Michael McDowell. Denny went on to finish 25th.
We saw what seems to be the basis for a budding new rivalry between 2 drivers that are not in the playoffs going forward. Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez were racing each other hard on the front stretch when Suarez went to the bottom to try and get an edge going into turn 1. Bowman went way low to block him and went all the way back up the track across his nose. That ended up being both of their demise as they both crashed and had to exit the race, collecting Harrison Burton in the process.
Asked about the incident, Bowman said “Any time I race the 99, he always does something dumb, whether it’s his crew chief flipping me off on the way to the airport or just any time I’m around him, he blocks me really aggressively. That’s just part of it. Obviously that block didn’t work out and I probably shouldn’t have done it.”
Last, but not least, there was a controversy. Because that’s all we are missing at this point..
Kevin Harvick was contending with Tyler Reddick for the lead when it came time for green flag pit stops at lap 308. It came time for Harvick to pit, and they committed to do so. However as soon as Harvick turned to come down, Ryan Newman spun out to bring out the caution, which closed pit road. Harvick continued on with service, and after reviewing the situation, NASCAR determined that he did indeed receive service on a closed pit road and was penalized. In that same instance, Tyler Reddick had to have an issue with his digital dashboard computer not showing what gear he is in fixed, which allowed Kyle Larson to take the lead – which he did not relinquish the rest of the way.
Kyle Larson despite several brushes with the wall while running loose, which caused him to fall from 2nd to 5th at what seemed a crucial juncture in the race, picked up his first win at Darlington as well as his 22nd career cup series win, making him the first driver to be locked into the round of 12 in the playoffs. The win was also a huge milestone for Hendrick Motorsports. It was their 299th Cup Series win and the 500th win for Hendrick Engines.
Asked what it means to finally get a win at Darlington – a track he has led over 700 laps at in his career with no win to show for it prior to tonight – Larson had this to say.
“It feels really good to finally get a win. This is a track I really enjoy and it really suits my style. I just hadn’t had a win here yet. I knew we were gonna have a good car. We just didn’t qualify like we had hoped. They (the pit crew/Crew Chief Cliff Daniels) did a good job of cycling us out in front of people (on green flag stops). From there, you just have to manage the race.”
Larson summed up the race pretty well with this.
“Denny (Hamlin) was really good, too, and he was gonna be hard to beat without his mishap. But, once it happened, it opened the door for a few more guys to possibly win. We kept ourselves in the game enough to get it done. Then, I hit the wall at some point in the 3rd stage and we had to nurse it to the next pit stop. Then, things just worked out. The team executed when they needed to.”
After Larson’s brush with the wall and loss of position, he, like you would expect from a talented young driver trying to win another championship, got upset with himself. If you have ever seen the movie “Days of Thunder”, Tom Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, is a hot headed talented young driver who loses his temper easily. His Crew Chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) assumes the role of calming coach/psychiatrist so well he is able to talk Cole off the ledge.
That is the same dynamic Kyle Larson shares with his crew chief Cliff Daniels.
After hitting the wall, Daniels assumed the role of calming presence. When asked about why he does it and the relationship he has built with Kyle, he had this to say.
“Our relationship has grown a lot over the last handful of years as it should. The way our year has gone, it’s been easy to get discouraged at times. I’ve tried to be there to help keep him accountable when we need to and be his biggest supporter and biggest cheerleader because we all know he has the talent and when he gets out front and he executes a good restart and does all the things that we know he can do, he’s dynamite. We had to build our relationship and build our trust. Trust is obviously the foundation for any relationship. There’s nobody else that I would trust more than him behind the wheel of our car. He’s learned to trust me and the way that our team operates, and the way we communicate and work together. So that’s definitely a special relationship that we have and really that our whole team has.”
It is difficult to argue that having a good crew chief is important when it comes to strategizing, but sometimes, it takes a calm yet stern almost father-like figure to really make something special happen. Chad Knaus was that way with Jimmie Johnson, and it seems all the Hendrick crew chiefs have adopted that same approach/model. Cliff just excels at it most, which makes the duo of himself and Kyle Larson effective and dangerous in these playoffs moving forward.
Speaking of moving forward, the Cup Series playoffs will move on to Kansas next week, with Kyle Larson, William Byron, and Chase Elliott all vying for the chance to be the next big Hendrick milestone- cup win number 300. Green flag drops for the Hollywood Casino 400 at 3:00 next week on USA network.
Labor Day Weekend at Darlington Raceway is a racing tradition like no other, and with playoff spots on the line, one of the most stacked Xfinity Series fields in a while, and plenty of cup veterans driving in Saturday’s SportClips Haircuts VFW Help a Hero 200, it was bound to live up to the chaotic reputation that only the track ‘Too Tough to Tame’ could bring.
Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, and Ross Chastain ran this event as “Buschwackers” – the former nickname given to cup series regulars coming down to race against the younger competition in the sport’s middle circuit back when it was called the Busch Series. I am not sure what you’d call them with the series now being called Xfinity. But, one thing I do know is that their presence in the field is not helpful to some of the smaller 1-2 car teams such as Spartanburg’s own Jeremy Clements Racing, JD Motorsports, or Josh Williams’ DGM racing team.
Speaking of Jeremy Clements, the #51 Booze Pops Chevrolet did not have as much speed as they would have liked today. They were 16th fastest in final practice, and though they initially qualified 7th, they dropped all the way to 26th, starting on row 13.
In the early going, the 51 car carried some speed, moving up 4 spots over the first 5 laps to the 22nd position despite the car being so loose Jeremy described it as feeling like the back end of the car was “not under him” when going through the exit of the turns into the straightaways. Asked to give a scale of 1 to 5 over the team’s radio, Jeremy said the handling/”looseness meter” went from 2 to 5.
As the opening stage went on, it became a driving clinic for one of the Xfinity Series championship favorites, as John Hunter Nemechek did just that – he checked out – to an advantage as big as 8 tenths of a second over Denny Hamlin before Josh Williams’ right front tire blew, tearing his fender completely off and bringing out the race’s 2nd caution, subsequently ending the first stage, with the playoff points for the stage win going to Nemechek. Jeremy Clements managed to bring it home in 19th despite the lack of handling in the car.
Under the stage break, the 51 team opted to come take 4 tires and fuel as well as make a slight wedge adjustment and an air pressure adjustment. The stop took unusually long, albeit not to Jeremy’s detriment as he only ended up losing 3 spots in spite of the 20+ second stop.
Stage 2 went green at lap 50, and saw John Hunter Nemechek pick up another stage sweep (winning both stages, but not necessarily the race itself), but not before a strange caution.
On lap 55, the 78 car of Anthony Alfredo cut across the nose of the 1 of Sam Mayer and ended up brushing the wall. He came down to the apron of the track and slowed, but was not dropping debris, leaking, or endangering anyone. Yet race control threw the yellow. He did end up going on the damaged vehicle policy during the caution, but recovered and made minimum speed.
By the end of stage 2 at lap 90, Nemechek had caught the tail end of the field and Jeremy had dropped back to 20th, a position he held until he used up his tires racing hard on the inside to try and take the 19th spot, falling back to 23rd when the green and white checker flew.
Once again, Jeremy had a slow stop in excess of 20 seconds, causing him to once again fall back in traffic, which ended up leading to the story of the season playing out for him.
“If it weren’t for bad luck, you’d have no luck at all.” That is about the most accurate description of the 2023 season for the 51 team. And it happened again. You could count the bad pit stops as part of the lack of good fortune. But, the worst happened on lap 102 when Kyle Sieg and Jeremy got together coming off turn 4.
Jeremy was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jeremy was racing Brett Moffitt and ended up getting him in his blind spot, turning into a 2 car accident that flattened all 4 of Jeremy’s tires and tore his right front fender. The ensuing repair job led to Jeremy restarting as the first car a lap down (meaning he was in position to be the free pass (‘Lucky dog” should another caution come out to get him back on the lead lap.
“I had a bad stop, and got back there in deeper traffic where everybody’s racing extremely hard and nobody gives an inch. I was below the 28 (Sieg) and I think (Brett) Moffitt was in front of him. Moffitt hit the wall and then the 28 hit him, and I hit the 28 and it spun both of us out. From there, it became a battle just to get our lap back”, said Jeremy about the incident.
The timely (yet very untimely if you are Jeremy) caution made the race to the finish much more intriguing. Under the yellow, the leaders pitted to get fresh tires and fuel to make it to the end. The 9 drivers that did not all restarted at the front, and for the most part stayed there.
Austin Hill took the lead with 36 to go, before eventually being overtaken with 20 to go by Denny Hamlin, who would go on to win the race in a green-white-checker finish, which was setup by Parker Kligerman spinning out at the exit of turn 4 with 4 to go.
Before that, another timely caution for a solo spin by Ryan Sieg got Jeremy, who was in 31st, back on the lead lap. During the caution, crew chief Mark Setzer and company decided to pit from 18th for 4 tires and fuel to try and salvage the best finish possible. But, once again, bad luck would rear its head as Jeremy ended up having to pit twice to avoid losing his lap – taking right side tires the first time and left side the 2nd.
He restarted in 29th position, and fought all the way back to salvage a 21st place finish on the lead lap, a result that while not ideal, Jeremy will take given how tough the day was at the “Lady in Black”.
“At the last two restarts, we were able to restart with the people we were racing and then we finished 21st. We didn’t have much of a shot there, but we definitely had a better car than that.
We just needed more time there to make it (the ground lost) up”, said Jeremy.
As an aside, asked about his troubles on pit road, Jeremy was quick to point out that they had made a couple of last minute changes on his pit crew, having 2 new guys this week that had been switched around.
With the win, Denny Hamlin picked up his 6th Xfinity Series W at Darlington and the 18th victory of his career in the series. Asked if the win will do anything to help bolster confidence with the cup race on Sunday, especially when he is starting on the front row, Denny said this.
“The next gen track position is always P1. Uh, the fastest car will always be the one that’s up front, uh, for the most part. And so, we’re starting in a good spot. for me to keep the car straight. In the spring here, I did some damage to my car pretty early and it just messed it up for the rest of the race. We ran 15th all day. So it’s certainly the worst race that I’ve had here and no doubt my whole career. When you’re in the middle of the pack, you just can’t tell the team what truly is going on with the car because you’ve got so much dirty air. When you start up front, like we are, it allows me and the team to get ahead on our adjustments pretty early so we’re more dialed in by the end of the day. So that’s certainly an advantage. But, as different as the next gen car is, maybe it gives you a little self confidence, but you definitely can’t take anything away from this. It has nothing to do with tomorrow.”
Denny will look for the weekend sweep and an automatic berth in the round of 12 in the Cup Series Playoffs tomorrow night in the Cookout Southern 500.
The Xfinity Series will be back in action next week at Kansas for the regular season finale. Twelve drivers will be moving on after the Kansas Lottery 300 next week for a shot at the championship.