There is no question that the popularity of NASCAR has dropped off significantly over the past decade. There is no question that it also became something of a fad the decade prior to that. It went from a regional sport with limited coverage to one with a national presence and everyone and his dog could answer “how bad have you got it.” Then the fad ended, and while a number of fans and the hoopla drifted away, you have to admit that it remains higher in the sport’s conscientiousness than it was before that.
History and tradition. Often NASCAR sells it out for a corporate buck, but the Southern 500 was a race to win long before they went round and round at Daytona, Talladega, or all those generic races on cookie cutter 1.5-mile tracks across the country. It was the race a driver wanted to win. That legacy continued in Darlington, South Carolina on Sunday night at the track too tough to tame, the famed Lady in Black.
Of course, we had the Chase situation to keep a look out for. Thirteen had won themselves in, with 20 more mathematically still having a shot at those final three berths. Once again, for everyone, it was a story of victory or nothing. Ryan Blaney has his win, and he had a part of the fence in the opening segment. Trevor Bayne and A.J. Allmendinger needed a win but wound up with each other to see their hopes go flying away in the wind. Clint Bowyer needed a win, but he needed his car to re-start as he stalled and went to the garage for the night. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. already had two wins to go with his new nose full of fence and his chances got terminated. As for Martin Truex Jr., he beat Kyle Larson by a hair at the line to take the opening stage. Of the leading eight coming into Darlington, only Stenhouse and Jimmie Johnson were outside the Top Ten after the opening round.
Daniel Suarez needed a win, but when he got more than just a Darlington stripe, he reached the end of his hope rope in the second segment. Allmendinger was still running, and when he collected Matt DiBenedetto no amount of math was going to work for either of them on this night. The segment ended under caution, with Truex again taking it. His amount of bonus points pretty much gives him a free pass into the second round of the Chase. Once again, with the exception of Johnson and Stenhouse, six of our Top Eight in the standings were among our Top Ten to this point in Darlington. A Cinderella finish was not likely, but somebody was still to make history by winning the Southern 500. Who would it be?
David Ragan needed a win but got a spin instead early in the final run. He was 25th, so not a threat to win. I would like to tell you how far back time wise or lap wise he was from the leader, but NBC did not bother to inform us of such trivial things as of yet. Not once. I am guessing they took the 1980’s theme for the night to heart and said to hell with the modern technology.
Bitch and ye shall receive. At least for the final 40 percent of the race, they presented the intervals. That made me happy, but it told us that Danica Patrick was two laps down and out of it. I know, that came as a big surprise. Shortly after, the names of Michael McDowell, Chris Buescher, Kasey Kahne, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be added to that list. If only Junior’s crew could add those lug nuts that appeared to be missing in post-race inspection.
The winless seemed pretty likely to remain that way on Sunday night. It appeared it would be Denny Hamlin soaking in the suds, then he decided to spruce things up with a bit of drama. Under green, he missed the pits and had to go around, dropping him from first to 11th. Truex took advantage and returned to the front, but on much older tires than the guy he replaced. Time was not Marty’s friend. When one of his old worn moccasins went down, he slapped the wall, and with three laps to go Hamlin rode the fresher rubber to victory.
For Denny, it was his second Southern 500 triumph and the 31st victory of his career. Truex, meanwhile, claimed the regular season title and the additional bonus points that earned him. As before, we were left with 13 drivers in on wins and three are in as long as one of 20 other boys and girl do not win this Saturday night at Richmond. Three past two-time winners remain winless this season, including Earnhardt and Bowyer, while Matt Kenseth would love to do it again if only to seal the deal.
For the sixth season sponsored by Federated Auto Parts, the former Capital City 400 has been run since 1958. Richard Petty won the fall event seven times, Bobby Allison had a handful, with Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace each with four apiece. Hamlin is the defending event champion and is just a win away from joining their number. Something tells me the name of the winner for the 60th running of this event might not come as a big surprise.