The Top Five: Breaking down the Southern 500 at Darlington

Five thoughts after Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway…

1. Denny’s Drive

Denny Hamlin sometimes seems like the forgotten Joe Gibbs Racing driver when compared to teammate Kyle Busch, who is constantly in the spotlight.

But Hamlin’s impressive weekend at Darlington might have been the best of his NASCAR career, and it reminded everyone how good he can be.

It looked like Hamlin had choked away a chance to win the Southern 500 when he missed pit road under the green flag late in the race — a mistake that cost him more than 10 seconds (he was 23 seconds behind the leaders when he came out of the pits).

From that point, though, the rally was on. Hamlin charged through the field and retook the lead with three laps to go when Martin Truex Jr. blew a tire.

The win will go down as one of Hamlin’s signature moments, and deservedly so. As good as he is at Darlington — his average finish here was the best among active drivers entering the race — Hamlin still had to execute an incredible comeback after his mistake.

“Denny is obviously a wheel man here,” crew chief Mike Wheeler said. “If you don’t win here with Denny, you probably didn’t have a good enough car.  Seeing him coming from 10 seconds back in one stint, I was really happy with that effort, and I knew we probably had the fastest car.”

2. Asphalt’s fault

Goodyear did a great job with the Darlington tire and deserves praise, but the tire wear that allowed Hamlin to tear his way up through the field — as others fell off the pace — was due to the track surface more than anything.

That’s really what it comes down to: Does the track surface wear and get abrasive after a repave, or does it act like Charlotte?

Darlington, despite being the closest track in proximity to Charlotte, has certainly aged much differently since being repaved. As such, tires make a massive difference — which truly makes it a throwback race to the times there were comers and goers throughout the course of a run.

Hamlin’s charge was the shining example, but don’t forget the end of Stage 1, either.

Truex tracked down Kyle Larson and caught him from several seconds back — something that never happens on 1.5-mile tracks where the tires don’t wear as quickly (if anything, clean air just allows the leader to drive away at those places).

But with tires making a difference, Truex made the pass at the line.

Great stuff. And it’s because of the surface — yet another reminder these tracks should hold off on repaves as long as possible.

3. Hot take?

I don’t share in the belief regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. is a lock for Homestead, even though he obviously has a great chance to get there after going into the playoffs with at least 52 points for each round.

Here’s the thing: Sure, he has a massive advantage over a driver like Jamie McMurray, who has zero playoff points. But the top contenders for the title — Truex’s primary competition like Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson — will enter the playoffs with well over 20 points.

So by the time Round 3 rolls around, Truex might have a 30-something point advantage on Busch and Larson — half a race — but not a full-race lead.

In that case, he’s a virtual guarantee to make Round 3. But after that, anything can happen, like if three different winners left only one spot on points, which could be a battle if Truex has problems.

Truex will be in my final four picks, of course. But let’s just pump the brakes on acting like he’s unstoppable or can’t get caught up in someone else’s wreck at Martinsville.

4. Come back, throwback!

Prior to the green flag, Motor Racing Network announcer Mike Bagley said I really should check out the view from the Earnhardt Towers suites in Turn 3 if I’d never seen that perspective before.

So I stood alongside Bagley as the field rode around behind a pace car and Richard Petty’s old No. 43 car — driven by Petty himself — on the parade laps. The pace car turned off its lights (the signal the race was about to go green), but then a funny thing happened: Petty didn’t get off the track.

I’m not sure if Petty just forgot when he was supposed to come to pit road or just chose to stay out for fun, but the result was NASCAR trying to communicate with The King — and methods included a black flag (how hilarious is that?) followed by pace car driver Brett Bodine emphatically waving Petty by, with his hand outside the window.

Finally, Petty got the hint.

On the team radios, drivers sounded tickled as spotters relayed why the race would be delayed one lap. NASCAR’s original seven-time champion wouldn’t get off the track to start Darlington’s throwback race. Ha!

I absolutely loved it and am still smiling about that as I type this. What else could sum up the throwback weekend so well than a Hall of Famer taking an extra moment in the spotlight after he and his colleagues were celebrated?

The “reunion” part of the throwback concept continues to build. It’s really turned into a Homecoming for old drivers — not just Hall of Famers, but anyone who used to be involved with NASCAR — and that’s a beautiful thing.

Although the throwback concept is planned out for upcoming years, the theme will change each time (the next two years are open to all years of NASCAR history). That should do enough to keep the weekend fresh, and I hope it becomes a permanent fixture that people won’t tire of.

5. Delusional Dale Jr. fans

Crew chief Greg Ives will be likely suspended for one race after the No. 88 team left two lug nuts loose on the right rear wheel during the final pit stop.

NASCAR pulled Earnhardt out of line at the end of pit road after spotting the loose lugs (Earnhardt was initially told there were four, not two) and the driver spent some time peering at the wheel with his crew.

“There was a real bad vibration on the last run, and there was a bunch of them loose on the right rear,” he told me. “They must have just had a screw-up. It’s nothing intentional. You wouldn’t want to leave four loose like that. I mean, they’re not even up on the wheel.”

Either way, two or more lug nuts means at least a one-race suspension (three or more is a three-race suspension), which means Ives won’t be at Richmond next week unless Hendrick Motorsports appeals the upcoming penalty.

Here’s the thing: Earnhardt fans on Twitter responded to this with not disappointment, but much rejoicing because they don’t like Ives. I don’t want to call out individuals and embed their tweets here, but more than a few fans seemed to think this would give Earnhardt a chance to turn things around next week.

Damn! Are you people serious?

Ives isn’t the problem — at least not the sole problem. It’s all of Hendrick Motorsports right now. Look at Darlington: After a glimmer of hope in practice, none of the team’s drivers ran very well all night or finished in the top 10 (Chase Elliott was 11th).

So you really think just because an engineer gets to be crew chief for a week that Earnhardt will suddenly find speed that the rest of the team doesn’t have?

C’mon. There will be no Richmond miracle, with or without Ives. It’s not the crew chief, it’s the cars in general.

14 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Southern 500 at Darlington”

  1. Not that I think Ives is a problem (he’s definitely not) or that him being gone will change Jr’s chances next week (He’s not too shabby at Richmond last I checked….) but yeah… I agree that based on the cars, it’s unlikely that any miracles happen next week 😕

    1. Don’t know how you can say that! Just look at the season as a whole! How many bad calls, pit road issues, broken shift levers, vibrations, etc gas he gone through that the other 3 have had to deal with? I have NOT been impressed with Greg Ives from day one and still not! I know he is not the Jack man, tire changer or Even engineer, but he is the ONE IN CHARGE!

  2. ^^^ I think I had more to say, but drunk and forgot lmao 😂😂😂
    It happens sometimes, don’t judge 😆

  3. Not a Denny fan but the way he won the Daytona 500 was pretty spectacular too.

    And as far as Dale Jr. we can all dream can’t we. 😉

  4. I hope someone at Darlington is having a ‘formal’ reunion with all the greats and is taping it all. It’s a great chance to record the history of the sport from those who made it. They won’t be around much longer, you know.

  5. The King not leaving the track was the best! Richard Petty can do what he wants…he is the King, after all:) I was half expecting him to start from the pole and lead the first few laps.

  6. Does anyone really think that Greg Ives and the team don’t want Jr to get a win? The same with Mr. H! They are working hard with what they have, but something is missing with all teams in the organization! Hopefully, between now and Homestead they find the missing piece of the puzzle!

  7. “Here’s the thing: Earnhardt fans on Twitter responded to this with not disappointment, but much rejoicing because they don’t like Ives.”

    I know Jeff was going for alliteration when he wrote “Delusional Dale Jr. Fans” but I would respectfully suggest replacing delusional with “desperate”. Dale Jr. fans are desperate, for a sign, a change, some kind of signal that this season can be turned around. I don’t think it’s a personal vendetta against Greg, but when you spend 3-3.5 hours a week listening to the frustration and same complaints (no front grip, sitting on the splitter, the car feels “edgy”) fans will empathize with the person behind the wheel, not on war wagon.

    “It’s not the crew chief, it’s the cars in general.”

    It’s easy to forget that though HMS is, “off” this season, they still have three of four cars in the Chase (Jimmie with three wins, Kasey with one win, Chase on points).

    No one would argue that Greg and HMS aren’t working hard, but “working hard” shouldn’t be a pass for lack of results. That said, I do agree, there will be no Richmond miracle.

  8. Hamlin didn’t win because of great driving. He won because he had fresher tires. His gap over Kyle Busch, who had tires with same amount of laps on them, didn’t increase.

    So anybody saying Hamlin did an incredible comeback was ignoring context.

    1. Hamlin was wheeling that thing probably as hard as you could. Truex had really old tires but at Darlington, 10 lap tires are likely a handful.

    2. To get fresher tires, he had to stretch the previous run 15 laps farther than anyone else (along with the 18), he wasn’t handed this advantage it was earned through discipline and tire management. Failing to see that is also ignoring context. Fresher tires or not, making up 14 positions (not including lapped cars) and over 20 seconds on track is an achievement…if you can’t acknowledge that this was an impressive feat you are extremely hard to impress

  9. Thats the kind of race that keeps me watching every week, totally old school. Loved every bit of it. That crowd was great as well. Can you imagine if NASCAR was like Darlington every weekend. I bet a lot of Virginians will be buying tickets because of that show last night. Poor Truex but LOVED his interview after. Who wouldn’t want him driving your car.

  10. You know Jeff, what you probably could not see from your tower above the track, but we at home could see watching TV — when The King took that extra lap, he had the biggest grin on his face!

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