The Southern 500, while no longer held on Labor Day is still looked at as one of NASCAR’s biggest races. Darlington remains the place where, in 1950, an egg-shaped, awkward-looking asphalt track gave birth to superspeedway competition. Thirty-five years later, a million-dollar Chase by a man named Awesome Bill was another notch in the sport’s belt that wrapped the racetrack into our national consciousness. Like golf’s Masters, purists regard it as one of the sport’s crown jewels.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a win that feels bigger than this at this moment,” said Matt Kenseth on Saturday night. Keep in mind, the former Sprint Cup champ has had plenty of ‘em; well over two dozen, including two of the last five Daytona 500s. “There’s a lot of tradition here. This is one of the most storied and historic races anywhere, not just in NASCAR.”
To those Kenseth’s age and older, that will always ring true. The key is getting a new generation to embrace it. Overnight ratings at Darlington, for the 18-to-49 crowd according to zap2it.com lost out to the NBA Playoffs on ABC. “The Lady In Black” can tear a Chevrolet apart, but the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony? He slam dunks right in her face.
It’s a shame, as an initial marketing push for Darlington’s May date designed to keep the seats filled has faded through the years, leaving the “Track Too Tough To Tame” a “Track Too Easy To Forget.” For one of the most important races on the schedule, getting tucked into Mother’s Day weekend on a Saturday night makes the race now seem lost, not loved. The importance of the Chase has diminished its overall worth on the schedule; right now, it’s just another event, with no Winston Millions or even an extra $100 bill attached to the trophy. Having a track-position yawner of a race Saturday didn’t help, either, as Goodyear seems like it’s missing the mark here more often than not.
People say NASCAR has been losing its place on the national sports landscape for several years. Perhaps it’s because of simple decisions like this one, making a race its most dedicated supporters love just another notch on a long, monotonous conveyor belt. While Kasey Kahne feels like he deserves an apology this Monday, Darlington is looking for something much more simple: attention.
FIRST GEAR: Gibbs vs. Hendrick, anyone?
The brief moment sparks flew at Darlington between Hendrick’s Kahne and Gibbs’ Kyle Busch could be a sign of things to come down the road. In virtually every category you could come up with, their two organizations — totaling seven cars — have put a whooping on the 2013 Sprint Cup field. Kenseth’s win, earned when Busch had a right-rear tire go bad down the stretch, was his third in 11 races, a series high. Busch has tacked on two additional victories for JGR, as the teammates have combined for a series-leading 1,521 laps led – more than the next eight drivers on the list combined. Kenseth has been especially impressive, seizing opportunities (Las Vegas, Darlington) late in the race where others have dominated. And he did it this time with a temporary crew chief in Wally Brown, as Jason Ratcliff serves out a downgraded NASCAR penalty after an appeals court turned his Kansas engine issue into a blip on the radar screen.
Hendrick has countered with Jimmie Johnson, fourth on Saturday night and on virtual cruise control on top of the point standings. Winning twice, Johnson has just one result outside the top 20, remains a contender at every type of track and, this season, has avoided the sting of NASCAR’s inspection process. Teammates Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all look strong enough to make the Chase on points meaning 50 percent of the postseason field, at minimum, will be comprised of these two multi-car giants.
How dominant have these teams been? Just three of 11 races this season have been won by other organizations, and each can easily be explained away. Carl Edwards took Phoenix for Roush Fenway Racing in the second Gen-6 race, where rock hard tires meant no passing and track position roulette. Kevin Harvick captured Richmond for Richard Childress Racing, but he led just three laps in a bizarre, roll-the-dice green-white-checker ending. And David Ragan’s Talladega triumph last week? We know how much that race acts like your state’s lottery number machine.
So it’s clear that on the Chase tracks where handling, horsepower and head wrenches actually make the difference, HMS and JGR stand head and shoulders above the rest. With the season nearly halfway complete, it’s time for everyone else to start stepping up.
SECOND GEAR: All-Star Race reuds coming?
While we’re at it, the Kahne-Busch battle is simply the latest in a long line that may need to be settled on Saturday night. While going for the lead late at Darlington, Kahne slid up in front of Busch only for the No. 18 to dive hard entering Turn 1. Whether there was contact or not is up for debate; the bottom line is it was too close for comfort. Kahne spun around, his chances to win went poof and the normally mild-mannered driver had the M&M’s Toyota to blame for a second week in a row.
“He’s got to just race me,” said Kahne about Busch. “I mean, I’ve never touched the guy in my life as far as on the race track. Three times this year, there have been other times in other years. I don’t really know what his deal is with me.”
Neither driver finished strong, as Kahne was 11th and Busch sixth to add fuel to their tempers going forward. So let’s see: that’s Kahne-Busch, Joey Logano-Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart-Kurt Busch … just the tip of the iceberg. If Charlotte’s amenable, this All-Star Race could finally see the types of settled scores that used to make it “must watch” event back in the day.
THIRD GEAR: Denny Hamlin is healthy
Perhaps the most understated run in a clean race that Gibbs dominated came from its driver of the No. 11 car. Darlington is one of the sport’s most physical tracks, as drivers take a beating on both mind and body. For Hamlin to return from an injury suffered in late May there, and not only come out of it feeling fine but running second shows that L1 Compression Fracture isn’t going to slow him much going forward.
“Really, it's like starting your season over,” he said, completing this distance for the first time since Fontana on March 24th. “It feels good to be competitive again. (But) I got to get back in racing shape. It will take time to get back to where I need to be.”
If that’s Hamlin in “out of shape” mode, drivers better beware. Clearly, the speed of JGR combined with a track position race helped his case. But second’s an A-plus baseline to start from when the task ahead is certainly brutal: Two-three wins, plus top 10s nearly every week to become Chase eligible by September.
FOURTH GEAR: Kurt Busch will put it together
It’s been a frustrating last few weeks for Busch, who’s been in position to win the last three races. At Richmond, he had a top-5 car down the stretch only to have circumstances and a bad last set of tires cost him. Then, at Talladega, he was in the lead pack of six cars, in position to make a run when a late caution bunched the field, jumbled up the draft and led to him being the bullseye in “The Big One.” Finally, at Darlington he won the pole at a track the No. 78 team has won at in the past, then led 69 laps only for his car to deteriorate on every pit stop once the green flag dropped. Busch stayed on the lead lap in the end, but wound up a disappointing 14th. No wonder why the driver’s been testing IndyCars, rumored to run a limited schedule in a crossover stunt later this year with Michael Andretti’s team after topping 218 mph in an Indy 500 rookie test (he won’t run that race this year).
But what’s been notable about this whole stretch in NASCAR land is how relatively calm the elder Busch has remained, even keeping his cool during a war of words post-race with Stewart at Richmond. The speed seems to be there from this team, and its presence up front makes it clear wins could come in the summer, whether at an intermediate (Charlotte? Michigan?) the road course at Sonoma or Daytona in July. Maturity finally may be making its mark. The question now may become where Busch feels his racing future should be, long-term.
Kyle Busch might be mad at what happened Saturday night, having left the track without comment, but Monday will offer the benefit of hindsight. With 265 laps led, he dominated and only bad luck kept him from Victory Lane, a curse that will change with time. Eleven times in his career he’s led 200-plus circuits in a race but scored the win in only three of them. ... As expected, the momentum for the two Davids’ thrilling one-two finish at Talladega came back to reality at a track where they just don’t have the horsepower to contend. The Front Row Motorsports cars were 29th and 39th Saturday night, with David Ragan blowing an engine and bowing out early. … What’s going on with Mark Martin? He hasn’t had a top-5 finish now with the No. 55 car since Daytona (third). The driver’s been involved in several on-track scuffles, some of his making and never so much as sniffed the top 20 at Darlington, a track right in his wheelhouse. Perhaps another indication this year will be his last in the series?
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles