She may only host one race per season, but “The Lady in Black” did not disappoint once again.
For 367 laps, all 43 cars were slipping and sliding while rim-riding right next to the walls of the famous egg-shaped oval. Throughout the 500-mile race, the best drivers in the world were tested by this old lady to stay off her famous walls. And yet, drivers from rookie, Kyle Larson to seven-time winner, Jeff Gordon could not resist getting a Darlington Stripe.
For most of the night, it looked like this was Harvick’s race to lose.
This all changed with 10 laps to go when NASCAR called a caution after smoke from Joey Logano’s car drew their attention.
With tire wear a major concern at Darlington, all the leaders pitted but not everyone changed four tires. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and few others rolled the dice and changed just two tires. Meanwhile, Harvick left in 5th after taking four tires.
Initially, it seemed as if the two-tire call would win the race, but it was not to be as two Green-White-Checkered (GWC) restarts gave Harvick enough time to charge from 5th to lead by the time the white flag waved.
The win was Harvick’s second of the season which makes him the first automatic lock into NASCAR’s Chase come September.
In the first eight races of the season, Harvick and his team have shown to have the most brute speed in the garage.But it’s been mechanical issues that have been their Achilles’ Heel. If they can get those bugs sorted out the rest of the season, this team might be nearly unstoppable.
But let’s not think too far ahead just yet.
It’s time to see where Harvick and the others will stand in this week’s Power Rankings.
1. Jeff Gordon — +/-0
For most of the race, Gordon seemed to have the only car that could run with Harvick. Gordon charged from 9th at the start to lead before lap 40. Gordon ran in the top 2 for most of the race before he faded in the final 50 laps from 2nd to 7th at the finish. The top 10 was Gordon’s sixth in eight races which leads the series. While he has not won yet, Gordon does lead the standings and has shown speed at every track so far this year. He might be one of the few drivers that could run with Harvick and Jimmie Johnson come playoff time.
2. Matt Kenseth — +/-0
For most of the race, Kenseth carried the banner for Toyota. He ran in the top 7 almost all night and came home with a solid 4th place finish. Like Gordon, Kenseth has not won yet but he has shown great consistency and decent speed thus far. It shouldn’t be too long before last year’s runner up breaks through with a victory.
3. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — +4
Darlington was a terrific rebound race for Earnhardt, Jr. after the mental lapse at Texas. After qualifying in 15th, Earnhardt, Jr. showed he had one of the best cars all night. He charged into the top 5 in the first 100 miles of the race and remained there the rest of the way. He took the lead shortly after the first GWC restart, but lost the lead on the final lap of second GWC restart to Harvick. The 2nd place finish is a career best for Earnhardt, Jr. at Darlington and helped move him up to 4th in the standings.
4. Jimmie Johnson — +/-0
During the first 100 miles of the Bojangles’ Southern 500, no one, not even Johnson himself, would have thought that he had a top 5 racecar. But after serious adjustments in the early going, that’s what Johnson had by the end of the night. Johnson nearly won the race as well after inheriting the lead on a two-tire pit call. Unfortunately for Johnson, he lost the lead during the first GWC after picking the outside lane for the restart. Still, Johnson came with an impressive 3rd place finish.
5. Kevin Harvick — NEW
Harvick’s performance at Darlington could only be described in one word — Dominant. After starting on pole, Harvick led 238 laps, by far the most of the race. His car was so fast that not even pit strategy in the late laps could prevent him from winning. It’s obvious now that he and Rodney Childers have clicked immediately and if they are not having mechanical issues they are threats almost every weekend. At the moment, this team is the favorite for the title.
6. Kyle Busch — -1
After struggling with an ill-handling car on long runs which caused him hit the wall more than once, Busch was able to use solid strategy in the final 100 laps to get track position and steal a 6th place finish. A great finish for Busch considering he didn’t have a top 10 car most of the night.
7. Joey Logano — 4
After a dominating victory at Texas, it looked early on at Darlington that Logano had a car capable of winning the race. Logano started in 2nd and led the opening 37 laps, but his team lost the handle of the car after the sun went down. He ran between 9th and 15th for the final 350 miles with an ill-handling racecar. Logano was running in the top 10 when the motor went sour on him with about 10 laps to go — he went on to finish 35th. So much for momentum.
8. Carl Edwards — -2
Edwards was almost invisible during the Bojangles’ Southern 500. After starting 21st, Edwards struggled with the handling most of the night and was never a factor for a top 10 finish. Edwards came home in 13th place, which seemed to be his high-water mark of the race. Since the victory at Bristol, the No.99 team has not looked very stout. They must improve on that if they want to win a title.
9. Brad Keselowski — +/0
After running in the top 10 most of the race, Keselowski faded to 17th at the finish with an ill-handling car. Disappointing end to what had been a strong night for the 2012 champion.
10. Kyle Larson — +1
The rookie continues to impress. After starting 17th, Larson ran in the top 15 all night and kept his nose clean most of the evening. The reward for his hard work was a solid 8th place finish at “The Lady in Black.” Great job by the rookie.
11. Tony Stewart — +1
“Smoke” turned into “Where did he come from?” at Darlington. After struggling with the handling most of the night and going a lap down in the mid stages of the race, Stewart made a remarkable comeback. He made up his lost lap in the late laps and then charged on four tires to 9th place during NASCAR’s two GWC restarts. An incredible rally by “Smoke” after having a car that was not worthy of a top 20.
12. Brian Vickers — -4
After leading 30 laps in the mid stages of the race, Vickers became a late victim of “The Lady in Black.” Vickers cut down a left rear tire with about 50 laps to go as he entered turn 3. The flat caused Vickers to smack the wall and to make matters worse, he made a last-ditch effort to make it pit road. Unfortunately for Vickers, he spun out at the entrance and stalled the car. Vickers lost three laps during the ordeal and fell to 26th at the finish. A promising run ruined in the late going.
13. Paul Menard — -3
Paul Menard entered Darlington with a lot of momentum. Unfortunately for him, the momentum didn’t last very long after he crashed mid race and lost more than 100 laps making repairs. Menard finished 41st. Ouch.
14. Austin Dillon — +/-0
Like Larson, Dillon continues to impress. After starting 20th, the rookie kept his car clean most of the night (with the exception of altercation with AJ Allmendinger mid race) and it paid off as he came home with a solid 11th place result. Nice job.
15. Greg Biffle — +3
After struggling in the first six races of the season, Biffle has begun to show life. After a strong 6th place showing at Texas, Biffle finished 5th at Darlington after good pit strategy and some bold driving in the final laps. Let’s see if the No. 16 team can keep it up.
16. Jamie McMurray — 1
After qualifying in 6th and running in the top 5 in the first 100 miles, McMurray and crew lost the handle on the car when the sun went down. They could never get the car good and McMurray had to settle for 16th, a decent result but it should have been much better.
17. Ryan Newman — +2
Ryan Newman and the No.31 team continue to impress. After qualifying in 7th, Newman ran with the leaders almost all night and kept his car clean. The result for Newman was a solid 10th place finish which helped him continue his quiet success at “The Lady in Black.”
18. Clint Bowyer — -1
After qualifying 16th, Bowyer was having a quiet night for the first 490 miles. That changed when he got into Kurt Busch off turn 2 during the first GWC. The contact sent Busch towards the inside wall where it destroyed his car. Bowyer was able to continue and finish a decent 13th, but not before receiving some hand gestures from Busch.
19. Denny Hamlin — 6
The biggest disappointment at Darlington was Hamlin. After qualifying 10th, Hamlin struggled with his car almost all night and got into an accident on the backstretch in the finals laps. Hamlin never had a top 10 car and limped home to a poor 19th place finish.
20. Kurt Busch — -1
After qualifying in 13th, that’s where it seemed that Busch was going to finish. He ran in the top 15 most of the night and was having a quiet evening like Bowyer. That all changed when Bowyer got in the back of Busch while exiting turn 2 during the first GWC. Busch would ultimately finish in 31st place. Since his win at Martinsville, Busch’s last two finishes have been 39th and 31st — not good.
Notables: Dropped Out — Kasey Kahne.