NASCAR: Round 11 – Southern 500, Darlington – 9 May

Darlington’s always a strange, tough beast of a track. Combine it with tonight’s full moon and it went even weirder than usual, with a truck load of incidents and a record number of cautions. But in the end, the full moon antics were conquered by the calm, smooth assurance of the oldest man on track – the one with all the assurance and experience you could ever ask for to tame the beast.

With the sun already setting in South Carolina, the race got underway in a deceptively calm and orderly fashion, although Scott Speed brought out the first yellow as early as lap 4 by tapping Max Papis into a slow spin that crumpled the rear of the number 13 and meant Papis had to depart to the garage.

Robby Gordon got the first Darlington stripe of the evening on lap 9 but no yellow was required and Gordon was able to carry on. Up front, Matt Kenseth led the first 17 laps whereupon Jeff Gordon took over. Kyle Busch was moving smoothly up to the top 5 from 14th, while Joey Logano was staying in the lead pack despite his rookie status. Drivers less happy with their cars included Jeff Burton (who fell from 6th to 12 in the first 12 laps) and Kurt Busch, who was down to 16th by lap 21.

The second yellow came out on lap 21 for a solo spin by Michael Waltrip whose car got incredibly loose coming out of the last turn. Unlike the first yellow, this time most of the field were eager to come on in for adjustments and new tyres, Dale Earnhardt Jr screwing up by overshooting his pit box and having to back up. But Jimmie Johnson stayed out and took the green flag for the restart ahead of Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Newman quickly took over lead duties, but Johnson happily stayed in second for more than twenty laps.

Marcus Ambrose had heavy contact with the wall on lap 27 when the car simply refused to grip and drifted across the track. Despite the heavy impact, Ambrose was able to carry on without bringing out a yellow. No such luck on lap 30, though, when Casey Mears made contact with Brian Vickers and half-spun up into the wall, setting off a series of minor incidents behind him in a crowded field, inflicting varying damage of the likes of Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger. Pit stops were minimal under this caution, although Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya and Dale Earnhardt Jr all made appearances; and Carl Edwards made a series of stops for adjustments while managing to juggle the stops with staying on the lead lap.

The floodlights were coming on strong by the time the race restarted on lap 38, running green for almost 37 laps – the longest stint of caution-free racing so far. Kasey Kahne was getting stronger as the laps wore on, and he took the lead from Newman on lap 71, just before Jimmie Johnson was finally forced to come in on lap 75 for a green flag pit stop.

But as he did, all of a sudden Michael Waltrip’s car went up in flames, a literal fireball as it coasted into a spin to the wall after something went wrong big time with the engine on the number 55. That resulted in a lengthy caution as the oil he’d put down on track was cleared up, and at the restart Johnson was left at the head of the field – but a lap down and needing a free pass once Kasey Kahne went past him shortly after the restart, followed by Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman.

Newman however was not looking as strong as earlier and soon slipped a couple of spots, getting overtaken in quick succession by Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin. Kyle Busch was also slipping back, fearing a flat tyre, but it proved to be marbles of rubber picked up by straying off line. Not so lucky was Jeff Gordon, who really did have a problem with a loose wheel and was forced to pit under green, dropping him off the lead lap. Thanks to the number of yellows to come, he would get a free pass later on in the race to challenge again.

Truex Jr took the lead on lap 116 when Kasey Kahne got stuck behind traffic (Regan Smith) and scraped the car against the wall, damaging the nose. A lap later and the 5th caution flew: Sam Hornish got up into the wall and collected an impressive Darlington stripe before spinning down the track. All the leaders pitted in the ensuing yellow, while Jimmie Johnson had kept in the free pass position and was promoted back onto the lead lap, allowing him to work his way back into the top twenty.

At the restart on lap 123, with a third of the race distance gone, Greg Biffle shot off to take a huge lead over Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. Biffle’s car was taking to the cooler after-dark conditions a treat, while others – like his team mate Matt Kenseth – were reacting very poorly, and for this mid-race extended green flag stint everyone was content to just take things steady and monitor the change in conditions and performance.

The caution came out on lap 160 after a slight tap from David Ragan spun the 11 of Denny Hamlin. That allowed everyone to pit and act on what they had learned about their handling – Greg Biffle, unsurprisingly, couldn’t be happier with his car and just wanted fresh tyres, but Truex Jr had a wedge adjustment and Kahne made changes to his track bar. Mark Martin hadn’t needed much in the way of a change, having run steadily in the top ten all night, but unfortunately had to return to pit lane for a missing lugnut which dropped him all the way back to 22nd.

Biffle led the restart ahead of Stewart, Kahne, Truex Jr and McMurray on lap 165, and it nearly went yellow again very quickly when Paul Menard got loose in turn 2 the next lap; he saved it, while other momentary three- and four-wide racing moments were just about pulled off without incident too, but eventually it was David Ragan who brought out the 6th caution on lap 185 when he mistimed a run on Jimmie Johnson, bumped him twice and got hit on his own rear by Juan Montoya, until eventually he lost the back end of the car and went for a spin. All this was just after the race leader Biffle had been shown the crossed flags signifying half distance.

Mark Martin made best use of the pit stops, bouncing back into the top ten after his earlier lugnut issues, as many drivers opted for two tyres only. Biffle was still in the lead, with Truex Jr., McMurray, Kyle Busch and David Reutimann rounding out the top five during the next short stint of green flag racing before the luckless David Ragan brought out the 8th caution as well, with a tyre going down resulting in a heavy impact into the wall and then clipping the back of Marcus Ambrose to well and truly finish off the number 6 car for the evening.

We lost Kasey Kahne from the top ten on lap 205 after contact with David Stremme resulted in a tyre going down and a green flag pit stop, as no caution was thrown. But a yellow did come out on lap 214 when Kurt Busch rubbed the wall and then went for a full spin across the track, sending out clouds of tyre smoke that made it little short of miraculous that no one hit him while unsighted. The leaders all came in for pits stops, during which Kevin Harvick hit Jimmie Johnson as the two came into their pit boxes, spinning the 48 and giving Johnson all kinds of problems lining the car up again for his eventual pit stop.

Martin Truex Jr won the race off pit road ahead of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and a still-impressive Joey Logano. Unlike those cars, Greg Biffle opted for four tyres and dropped back to 8th, relying on his dominant pace to quickly propel him up the order again at the restart on lap 219. It was another short green stint: Clint Bowyer was quickly up into the wall in turn 2 and was struggling to hold on to the 33, but lost the battle with a collision into AJ Allmendinger into turn 4: Bowyer was shot into the infield wall, and then ricochetted back to the outside wall and almost bounced back for a third impact on the inside again before coming to a halt in a very battered and twisted piece of metal.

Only a few cars pitted this time: Dale Earnhardt Jr was one of them – and promptly wished he hadn’t, after a tyre got away from the crew resulting in the 88 getting sent to the back of the field; Jeff Burton also ended up a lap down after having to remain in the pits for extended work on his left front shock absorber. Another yellow was narrowly avoided just a few laps later when David Reutimann got a tap that sent him into a long contact with the wall: it caused a compression back through the rest of the field that almost triggered a big accident, but everyone reacted well and saved their cars. However, Reutimann plummeted back through the field and was quickly at risk of getting lapped.

The 11th caution on lap 249 was for a sizeable bit of debris on the track at turn 4. Everyone pitted, with Joey Logano getting the best pit lane bounce – up to second behind new leader Greg Biffle, and ahead of Ryan Newman, Matt kenseth and Mark Martin. The leading pack were all gambling on two tyres only, while Kyle Busch – who opted to take four – dropped to 7th.

The new tyres Kyle keep out of the wall a couple of laps after the restart, however, and worse was to come for Busch: on lap 273 he suddenly had a tyre go down and he went up hard into the wall. While it could have been a result of that earlier impact, it could also have been a case of debris on track as Jamie McMurray also promptly blew a tyre. Both drivers also reported a complete lack of brakes, and as a result Kyle headed direct for the garage – no win tonight for last year’s Darlington victor.

Before the yellow, Greg Biffle had pulled out his now-familiar impressive lead. But Joey Logano had stayed in touch, and during the pit stops Logano opted for two tyres only and as a result ended up taking the lead for the next restart on lap 281. Jeff Burton almost-miraculously saved a huge slide at the green flag, but Carl Edwards hit the wall once, then twice – harder this time and with assistance from his own team mate Greg Biffle. Edwards was not amused; unable to get to the inside line and make it into the pits, he waited for the traffic to pass … and then did a u-turn to get to the pit entry, a distinct no-no as far as NASCAR were concerned who promptly dished out a one lap penalty to the 99. Not that it mattered – Edwards was headed to the garage.

After the restart, Sam Hornish went for a wild spin for half the length of the infield area of the front straightaway; amazingly, there was no caution, with NASCAR perhaps acutely aware that the cautions were really stacking up and causing the race to become annoyingly fragmented and elongated. But there was no choice except to bring out the 14th caution when Greg Biffle spun out on turn 4 of lap 295, disappearing in a cloud of tyre smoke but fortunately not hitting any other cars.

Martin Truex Jr and Matt Kenseth stayed out, gambling on there being more cautions to come, but it didn’t work for Kenseth who fell back through the field over the next green flag stint; Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick opted for two tyres and restarted 3rd and 4th. Logano ended up back in 8th, while the award for most innovative pit stop went to AJ Allmendinger who ended up in his pit box sideways after getting spun around by Kurt Busch on pit road in a reprise of the earlier Johnson/Harvick clash.

After an already eventful evening, Hornish finally hit the wall hard on the backstretch on lap 318 that meant a visit to the garage could no longer be avoided; he had been lucky not to take Brad Keselowski with him. There was no direct yellow for Hornish’s accident, but there was enough debris on track to force NASCAR to throw the 15th yellow of the evening.

Mark Martin now took the lead, gambling on stretching his fuel and tyres till the end: his car looked pristine, not a mark on it, a rare feat at Darlington so he was certainly showing the racing smarts to pull it off, if the fuel would be made to work. Behind Martin came Johnson, Newman, Keselowski and Hamlin, with the first car on new tyres all the way back in 8th, belonging to Tony Stewart. Would the new tyres trump track position in the remaining 42 laps? Stewart moved up to 3rd place over the next ten laps, but team mates Martin and Johnson were looking strong at the front and easily held off Stewart’s charge.

Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Brian Vickers all had visits to the wall without bringing out a caution, but on lap 335 Vickers’ car suddenly moved up track and trapped Jamie McMurray against the wall. This time a caution was inevitable, the 16th and a record for Darlington (the previous highest being 15 in 1995.)

The restart came on lap 338 with Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart nose-to-tail and Martin concentrating to keeping the lead but also stretching his fuel, which was right on the limit. He needed still more caution periods, and sure enough the 17th caution came on lap 342 when Dale Earnhardt Jr spun on the straightaway after contact with Reed Sorenson and crossed the start/finish line in reverse. Once again, amazingly, everyone managed to avoid running into the 88.

The green flag came on lap 346 meaning there were just 21 laps to go, and fortunately this time they were all caution-free. Fuel concerns or no, Martin and Johnson pulled out an impressive 2s lead over Tony Stewart who himself was comfortably ahead of the fight between Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon for 4th, while further back Greg Biffle quickly won the battle for 8th against Joey Logano – but everyone agreed, this had been a mighty performance from the rookie.

After trying to overtake Martin, Johnson finally had to back off and concede that he didn’t have anything left to throw at the veteran. Now the only concern was whether any of them would run out of fuel: but there had been enough yellow flag laps to get them to the chequered flag, and Martin cruised across looking incredibly smooth, calm and collected – as if he did this every day, and that winning a Sprint Cup race was an everyday affair for the 50-year-old.

Johnson did amazingly well to finish 2nd after starting from the back of the grid, going a lap down after pitting just seconds before a crucial yellow, and later getting turned around in the pit lane. Compared to these antics, Martin’s race was … Well, rather dull – but in a good way. He simply went out, drove a perfect race, stayed out of trouble – and, oh, won the whole damn shooting match. And kudos to him for doing it with such style.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  367
 2.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  367
 3.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  367
 4.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  367
 5.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  367
 6.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  367
 7.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  367
 8.  Greg Biffle        Ford       367
 9.  Joey Logano        Toyota     367
10.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       367
11.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  367
12.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  367
13.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     367
14.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      367
15.  Paul Menard        Ford       367
16.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      367
17.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      367
18.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       367
19.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      367
20.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  367
21.  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  367
22.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       367
23.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      366
24.  David Stremme      Dodge      366
25.  Tony Raines        Chevrolet  364
26.  Scott Speed        Toyota     362
27.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  360
28.  Robby Gordon       Toyota     353
29.  David Reutimann    Toyota     347
30.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      344
31.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     333
32.  Carl Edwards       Ford       314
33.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     312
34.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     303
35.  Max Papis          Toyota     302
36.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  238
37.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  221
38.  David Ragan        Ford       199
39.  Scott Riggs        Toyota     101
40.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     73
41.  Dave Blaney        Toyota     56
42.  Sterling Marlin    Dodge      38
43.  David Gilliland    Chevrolet  27

Sprint Cup standings

Tony Stewart moves up into second spot in the Sprint Cup standings, and Jimmie Johnson’s feat of making racing gold from what had looked like a leaden start means he’s up to 4th. Kyle Busch drops a place, but the night’s winner Mark Martin gets boosted into the all-important top twelve (at the cost of Clint Bowyer, who drops out of the Chase.)

Pos Driver  Points
1   Jeff Gordon         1601
2   Tony Stewart        1572
3   Kurt Busch          1546
4   Jimmie Johnson      1465
5   Denny Hamlin        1445
6   Jeff Burton         1384
7   Kyle Busch          1380
8   Ryan Newman         1363
9   Greg Biffle         1345
10  Matt Kenseth        1326
11  Mark Martin         1316
12  Carl Edwards        1271
13  Clint Bowyer        1264
14  Juan Pablo Montoya  1255
15  David Reutimann     1232
16  Kasey Kahne         1205
17  Brian Vickers       1188
18  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1182
19  Martin Truex Jr.    1144
20  Marcos Ambrose      1131
21  Kevin Harvick       1109
22  Casey Mears         1104
23  Reed Sorenson       1090
24  Jamie McMurray      1068
25  A.J. Allmendinger   1059
26  Elliott Sadler      1059
27  David Stremme       1039
28  Michael Waltrip     1017
29  Bobby Labonte       1007
30  Joey Logano         1002
31  Sam Hornish Jr.      998
32  David Ragan          998
33  Paul Menard          957
34  Robby Gordon         847
35  Scott Speed          756
36  John Andretti        743
37  David Gilliland      649
38  Regan Smith          573
39  Brad Keselowski      479
40  Aric Almirola        451
41  Joe Nemechek         414
42  Scott Riggs          394
43  Dave Blaney          298
44  Travis Kvapil        292
45  Jeremy Mayfield      288
Pos Constructor Points
1   Chevrolet   81
2   Toyota      59
3   Ford        54
4   Dodge       48

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