Parks Pit Report: Southern 500

It was in 2004 that NASCAR decided to realign the Sprint Cup Series schedule that moved the Southern 500 away from it’s normal Labor Day weekend date at Darlington Raceway to late in the season.  The following year, it was classified as the “55th and Final” Southern 500 as the schedule changed once again, leaving the famed speedway one race in the season on Mother’s Day weekend.  With the Dodge brand sponsoring the event, it seemed as if the tradition of the longest-running race in NASCAR would fade away as a memory.

Then, at the end of 2008, the contract with Dodge expired and they elected to not renew their sponsorship of the race, leaving the executives with a decision on what to name the race.  In a major announcement, the Darlington staff decided to bring back the name and the history, so for 2009 the Southern 500 returned.  The walls were painted red and white, just as they were for many years, and a trophy was named in honor of the first winner of the race.  The prestige of the oldest speedway in NASCAR was rekindled in one weekend as 43 of the best drivers came to do battle at the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

I was personally privileged to be at the race track for this race, and it couldn’t be a more perfect setting.  Bright sunshine, a slight breeze, and a near sold-out crowd made this an awesome race to attend.  After seeing all the tailgating, buying the souvenirs, and sampling the local food, it was time to go racing.  Matt Kenseth was on the pole, setting a new track record, and led the field to the green flag alongside the current points leader, Jeff Gordon.

Kenseth got a great jump on the start and quickly pulled away, but his lead was short lived as the first caution flag of the night came out on lap 4 as Scott Speed and Max Papis got together in turn one.  No one came down pit road, and on the restart Kenseth got the better jump and began pulling away.  However, Gordon wanted his chance to be out front and got his chance as he passed Kenseth in turn one.  He would lead until the second caution flag came out as Michael Waltrip spun out of the fourth turn.

The caution gave teams the first opportunity to work on their race cars as nearly every car came down pit road for service.  Normally, at the old Darlington, this would mean four tires for each car since the racing surface chewed up the tires like a cheese grater.  However, the track was resurfaced last year, and teams saw that the cars can now run well on only two new tires.  The same can be said this year as some drivers elected for only right-side Goodyear Eagles.  Ryan Newman took advantage of this as he won the race off pit road.

Jimmie Johnson had assumed the lead and led the field to the green flag, but just as quickly he lost it as Newman made the pass down the back stretch.  Newman would hold the lead through the third caution of the night up until lap 71 when Kasey Kahne took the lead while Newman was negotiating lapped traffic.  Kahne would not enjoy his lead for very long as the fourth caution flag came out four laps later.  Heading into turn three, Waltrip’s NAPA Toyota suddenly erupted in flames.  He was able to pull the car to pit road so the fire could be extinguished and escape from harm.  It was definitely the scary moment of the night.

The pit stops that followed did not jumble the field much as Kahne held his lead and brought the field back up to full speed.  Kahne would extend his lead to nearly two seconds at one point, but as he caught the tail end of the field, the gap shrank and second-place runner Martin Truex Jr. was able to catch up, finally getting the lead on lap 116.

Another yellow flag slowed the field two laps later as Sam Hornish Jr. spun his car around, but avoided the wall and other cars.  Pit stops shook up the leaders as Greg Biffle, who last year missed out on a sure victory when his transmission blew up, took the lead.

Even though the race was just one-third of the way complete, many drivers had already gotten their “Darlington Stripe.”  The fast way around the Darlington Raceway is right up against the wall, however if the drivers get too close, they then bounce off the wall, but keep on going, yielding scrapes and bumps all across the right side of the car.  Since the walls were red and white this year, it made it easier to see who had gotten into the wall.

Biffle had gotten his stripe as he was getting around some lapped cars, but he continued to maintain a solid lead as he pulled away from Kahne, Truex Jr. and Newman.  He held his lead up through three caution periods, but lost his lead on pit road during the ninth caution of the event when Kurt Busch spun his car coming out of turn four.

It was once again Truex Jr. leading the field as he won the race off pit road.  He would hold the point for the following 33 laps.  He would not lose the lead until the 11th caution flag of the night came out for debris, as he lost the lead to Biffle on pit road.  Biffle once again showed he had a car that would be tough to beat as he led another 25 laps.  When the caution flag came out again on lap 275 for Jamie McMurray blowing a tire, the field came down pit road for service.  Much like earlier in the event, some drivers elected to go with only two tires, as was evident when rookie contender Joey Logano put the Home Depot Toyota out front for the first time.

Logano would begin pulling away from the field, but Biffle was the driver on the move as he restarted seventh but was able to move into fifth in a matter of laps.  However, all the effort soon became useless as he got very loose at the exit of the fourth turn, spinning the car down the front straightaway and barely into the inside retaining wall.  Pit stops again jumbled the field as both Truex and Kenseth decided to stay out and get track position.  On pit road, it was Tony Stewart who won the race off by taking only two tires.

Truex Jr. once again held the lead and was pulling away from the field, but the caution came out again on lap 315 for debris on the race track, which was the 15th of the event, tying the track record.  Truex Jr. led the field down pit road, but seven cars decided to gamble and stayed out on the track, led by Mark Martin.

Late in the event, everyone who was near the front was racing for everything they had, and nearly everyone was bouncing off another car or the wall.  With just under 50 laps left in the event, every car on the track had some red paint on the right side of their car and the walls surrounding the speedway were covered in black stripes showing where the cars made contact with the outside wall.  This kind of contact led to the record-breaking 16th caution of the race on lap 335 as McMurray and Brian Vickers made contact.

The final caution flag of the evening came out seven laps later as Dale Earnhardt Jr. made hard contact with the outside wall, flattening the entire right side of his Mountain Dew Chevrolet.  His car started out the evening painted black and gray, but by this point his car was mostly black and heavily scraped..

Despite the two quick cautions, one man held the point through out it all, which was Martin.  Having taken the lead on lap 322 for track position, he was able to pull away from his closest contenders, who were mostly his Hendrick Motorsports teammates of Johnson and Gordon along with Stewart and Newman, who are both powered by Hendrick engines.

Martin had not been on pit road since lap 297 for fuel and tires, but a great call by his crew chief Alan Gustafson gave him the lead as he anticipated more cautions before the night ended.  He made the right call as Martin was able to hold on to lead the final 45 laps in route to taking the checkered flag in the Southern 500.

It was Martin’s second win of the season and his second win in the Southern 500, and his joy was seen in victory lane as he gave great praise to his crew chief.

“Alan Gustafson is absolutely the best. I may have been his childhood hero, but I\’m living a second childhood now — and he\’s my childhood hero,” Martin said.

In all, the experience at the Darlington Raceway was awesome.  The hospitality, the guides, the citizens and everyone involved in making the event happen did a great job.  If fans get the opportunity to go to this track, do take it.  The experience and the history is well worth the investment.

Next weekend begins the first of two weeks at the Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.  This Saturday night is the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.  There are no points on the line in this event, as it is an exhibition race for the race winners of 2008 and the first part of 2009.  The race will be 100 laps and will be split into four segments.  The first will be 50 laps, with a mandatory pit stop midway through.  Both segment two and three will be 20 laps, with a ten minute break following.  The last segment will be ten laps, all of which will be under green-flag conditions, with the winner of that segment getting $1 million.

In an event like this, I’ve got to favor the young drivers because of their driving style.  My favorites in this event are going to be Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne.  Kyle had an awesome race car last year, but because the team elected to experiment with the engine during the race, he fell out early.  He’ll definitely be a guy to watch.  Kasey won this race last year when he got voted in by the fans.  This time, he earned his way into the race and will definitely be a factor.  He has won at this track four times, and will be one to keep an eye on.

I cannot pick an underdog for this event because everyone will be driving as if they all are underdogs.  It will be all about desire and who wants to win the money the most.  However, the true underdog in this event has to be Brad Keselowski because he really wasn’t supposed to be in this race.  However, he does have the driving ability and the tough attitude to win.  He may surprise a few people..

Coverage begins at 7 p.m. on SPEED with the Sprint Showdown, in which the top two drivers will transfer to the All-Star Race along with the driver voted in by the fans.  In all, 21 drivers will be in the All-Star race.  This will definitely be an exciting event to watch, and with $1 million on the line, anything can happen.

TOP 10:  1-Martin  2-Johnson  3-Stewart  4-Newman  5-Gordon  6-Truex Jr.  7-Keselowski  8-Biffle  9-Logano (R)  10-Kenseth

NOTABLE FINISHES:  11-Harvick  12-Burton  13-Hamlin  16-Kurt Busch  23-Kahne  27-Earnhardt Jr.  32-Edwards  36-Kyle Busch

CAUTIONS:  17 for 84 laps.  Lap 4-6, 21-23, 30-36, 75-84, 118-122, 160-164, 185-188, 196-200, 214-218, 222-225, 249-253, 275-280, 283-286, 295-299, 319-324, 335-337, 342-345

LEADERS:  19 lead changes 12 drivers.  Kenseth 1-16, Gordon 17-22, Johnson 23-24, Newman 25-70, Kahne 71-82, Sadler 83, Kahne 84-115, Truex Jr. 116-120, Labonte 121, Biffle 122-161, Kahne 162, Biffle 163-215, Kenseth 216, Truex Jr. 217-250, Biffle 251-276, Newman 277, Logano 278-296, Truex Jr. 297-320, Stewart 321, Martin 322-367

POINTS:  1-Gordon, 1601 points  2-Stewart, -29  3-Kurt Busch, -55  4-Johnson, -136  5-Hamlin, -156  6-Burton, -217  7-Kyle Busch, -221  8-Newman, -238  9-Biffle, -256  10-Kenseth, -275  11-Martin, -285  12-Edwards, -330

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