By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
It has been an entire season of frustration and missed opportunities for Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton… That trend continued in Saturday night’s Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. Both Gordon and Burton were the two strongest cars going into the final restart, but each had unfortunate circumstances take them out of the running for the win.
Gordon, who led 111 laps on the night, missed the pit road entrance under green flag conditions on his final pit stop. This effectively sent him to the back of the pack then the caution flag came out. Under the caution Jeff Burton, who had just passed Denny Hamlin for the lead got a penalty for running over an airhose on pit road, this sent Burton to the back of the pack and effectively ruined his night as well.
Denny Hamlin would get a great restart with less than 20 laps to go, and he would soldier on to his third win of the season, and his third win since the inception of the spoiler. This is also Hamlin’s second victory since having surgery on his knee. One has to wonder if that “mystery” medicine he took following the surgery was performance enhancing in some way… whatever the case Hamlin is now being dubbed “The Bionic Man”. Hamlin with this win also completed the weekend sweep at Darlington, and he is unquestionably the hottest driver in all of NASCAR right now.
Hamlin explained how he kind of conserved his equipment all day which put him in position at the end.
“We had just a really good car. I knew right from the first run of the day we had a very strong racecar. At that point it’s just all about conserving your equipment for the end of the race.” Hamlin said, “We chose to take four tires more than a lot of guys did during the course of the day, so you saw us kind of go back to 10th, 8th at times, but we always kept good tires on the racecar all the time. That set us up for a charge to the front. I think we got to fourth or so. Then I think we took the two tires. Other guys kept taking two tires over and over again. Their lefts were so old, I knew if we could get the jump on that last restart, we should have no problem.”
Hamlin went on to weigh in on Jeff Gordon coming up short yet again.
“Well, during the course of my career I felt like I missed out on a lot of wins the first. Probably two to three years of my career, probably 10 of them I should not have lost had I had the mindset that I have right now, what it takes to win.” Hamlin said, “I think the only difference before when we weren’t winning as much to what we’re doing right now is just my mindset and knowing what I need to do to win the race at the end. So, you know, this is the kind of winning pace that I felt like we should have been on right from the get-go of my career, now we’re just hitting that stride. It’s just taken me a while to understand how these races play out, what it takes to win. Now I feel like I have a better understanding of that, I think it’s gonna continue to go on a roll the way it is.”
Gordon would drive like a man possessed at the end of the race, but could only rebound to finish fourth.
Following the race Gordon said, “I think we just missed the set up a little bit… track position is so important here.”
“I don’t think we would have gotten ahead of the 11 (If there was a green-white-checkered), but it would have been interesting.” Gordon said.
Jeff Burton would finish a disappointing eighth. For both Gordon and Burton you have to wonder just how many opportunities they can possibly have left to win a race? They have been so close, so many times, but can they actually seal the deal? One thing is for sure they have by far led the most laps on the season between the two of them, but they just can’t seem to lead the most important of laps… The last lap.
Jamie McMurray, who has been having a career revival this season finished second. McMurray explained that winning the pole, and having a great crew chief went a long way towards his second place finish.
“We had a good car, but Bono called a really good race. Qualifying first, getting to have that pit stall, it made a huge difference. We beat three or four cars out of the pits each time. Most of the times we would come out in the lead and could lead 15 or 20 laps. We had a really good car, good pit stops all night, Bono called a good race. It kind of went all our way.” McMurray Said.
“At the end I didn’t have anything for the 11. Couldn’t get our car tight enough. Kind of creeped up on it all night long, could never get the car tight enough to where I could really hustle it. It was always sort of on edge.” McMurray Explained, “All in all, it was a great night for us, great weekend for us.”
McMurray was followed by Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Juan Montoya rounded out the top-five.
Kevin Harvick, came into this race with a 10-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, well Harvick finished sixth which was good enough to extend his point lead to 110 points over Johnson.
Jimmie Johnson may still be second in the point standings, but he took a big points hit Saturday. We have documented Johnson’s struggles since the wing was ditched in favor of the new rear spoiler, well Johnson had another disaster of a race. Johnson got caught up in an accident with Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. early in the race, but he would fight back from that to get the lucky dog. It appeared Johnson was back in contention, but just a few laps later A.J. Allmendinger, who was without brakes, slammed hard into Johnson in the turn. This caused a very vicious accident, but Johnson and Allmendinger would walk away.
Allmendinger explained the cause of the accident, ““The brake rotor exploded. The last 40 or 50 laps we were struggling with brake problems and just no brakes. We took all the brake cooling off and thought maybe we were gonna fix it, and when that yellow came out I went to hit the brakes to slow down and the brake rotors exploded. I’m not sure which one, but I was just trying to aim for the bottom and try to miss everybody. I’m sorry to Jimmie. It wasn’t his fault, but I had no brakes and couldn’t do anything about it.”
Interesting fact is that Johnson DNF (Did Not Finish) in 36th, and this is his third DNF of 2010. In the past two seasons combined Johnson has only had a total of two DNF’s.
Another story going into this race was which Kyle Busch would we see? Would it be the new one or the old one? Busch was running near the front until the final restart, where Busch fell far back. Busch would come home seventh, but the story for him was that he remained composed through the event, so I’d say despite the less than desirable finish, this race has to be considered a success for the driver and the team… especially after starting shotgun on the field. Busch got another top-ten finish as a result of diligence.
Speaking of top-ten finishes congratulations to Brian Vickers. He finished tenth, which marks his first career top-ten at Darlington in his Sprint Cup Series career. Vickers had a great car all night, in fact he led nine laps in the race.
The real surprise of the evening was Regan Smith, who drives the No. 78 car for Furniture Row Racing. Smith was able to drive to his car to a very impressive 17th-place finish.