Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Darlington Race Recap

The Key Moment: On lap 285, Kyle Busch blew by Jeff Gordon and drove off into the night with the afterburners lit.

In a Nutshell: New asphalt, same old racetrack; Darlington is still the meanest mother on the circuit.

Dramatic Moment: When it became obvious nobody had anything for Busch, the leader had to manufacture his own excitement, frequently running his car into the wall or getting it sideways battling with traffic.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Well that’s odd. A dominating win didn’t seem to endear Busch to the fans. In fact prior to the race and after the race, Busch seemed to be enjoying taunting those fans who booed him. Give the kid this much, he still doesn’t like these new cars even though he’s winning races in them.

What’s all this bizarre talk about Busch being the reincarnation of Dale Earnhardt, the Intimidator? Earnhardt’s legendary popularity was a cult of personality. To have a cult of personality you have to have a personality, unlike Busch. It might be closer to the truth to call Kyle “The Irritator.” Perhaps he should tape Earnhardt’s old motto, “Never complain, never explain,” on the dash of the No. 18 car.

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You think Harold Brassington ever envisioned cars hitting 200 mph at Darlington when he first built the track? Oh, and as for the story of the track’s odd configuration being designed to save that minnow pond, as charming as it is, the myth simply isn’t true.

There was a lot of talk this week about Carl Edwards‘s No. 99 cars having the bodies mounted askew on the frame to gain speed with the new car. Apparently the Joe Gibbs teams weren’t complaining about the No. 99 car, they were trying the same thing. Those three Camrys looked decidedly odd coming down the straights, almost like early ’70s Novas that had taken a severe hit to the rear and been repaired by the dumbest kids at the Vo-tech. We used to call it the “Wounded Dog” look.

The soda wars were ridiculous enough but add in all these new oddly-colored energy drinks various drivers are promoting by gulping them down after a race and it makes me long for the good old days when the drivers downed a couple brews in Victory Lane.

OK, hit the panic button. Gordon sounds beyond frustrated and confused as to why he can no longer win races. If Jimmie Johnson doesn’t win at Charlotte next week like he normally does, the panic will ratchet up another notch. It can’t be the cars, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running up front nearly every week. Some astute fans seem to have figured out the problems with the Nos. 48 and 24 teams. I got two emails this week telling me it’s obvious Junior is getting all the good stuff. Yeah, all right.

Right now the concept of parity in stock car racing seems more like a parody. Toyotas have won eight of 12 Nationwide races this season, including the last six in a row by the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20. Toyotas have won three of this season’s five truck races and they’ve now won four of 11 Cup races, including two of the last three. I can accept Busch and his team dominating this race, that happens from time to time. But at the end of the race the second-fastest car on the track was the badly wounded No. 20 car with Tony Stewart at the wheel, and Darlington is far from Stewart’s best track. Something’s wrong with this picture.

Why on earth did NASCAR not throw the caution flag as Casey Mears crept around the track in his badly-damaged car with cars moving twice as fast roaring by inches from his right side? It seems that NASCAR is a lot slower to throw cautions or make up debris cautions during the night races so the network can get the race over in time for the local news to air before the anchors are asleep in their chairs drooling out the corners of their mouths.

I must say though the debris caution for the hot dog wrapper when Busch first started stinking up the show was a classic. I guess somebody might have suffered a paper cut if it was allowed to remain on the track and it could have gotten infected.

I think I’ve figured out what’s causing the lugnut problems with the JGR cars. They must have let Jeff Hammond glue them in place. Talk about a demonstration gone horribly awry. I bet they’re still trying to pry that lugnut off his thumb.

Maybe it’s time to add blinking red lights to the roofs of the Dodges just so fans can remember what they look like?

Maybe it’s also time that NASCAR stops being so complacent and addresses the challenges it faces. I’m noting that interest in this year’s Indy 500 is the highest it’s been in many years. A combination of reunification, the Danica factor and other compelling storylines seems to have reminded race fans there is an event on the Sunday of the Memorial Day weekend prior to the Coca-Cola 600.

I don’t often interject personal stuff in these recaps, you’re here to talk about the race not me, but because Sunday would have been my Mom’s birthday as well as Mother’s Day, I’ll offer a suggestion to those of you whose moms are still living as I cope with the first Mother’s Day without mine. You don’t need a special day to remember how special your Mom is. Call her frequently and tell her you love her.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Greg Biffle started the race from the pole and led 95 laps early but mechanical gremlins sent him to the garage 2/3rds of the way into the race.

Stewart’s chances at winning lasted two laps. Elliott Sadler’s out of control racecar put Stewart hard into the wall to draw the first caution.

Johnson wrecked twice in practice and about wore out the right side of the No. 48 car en route to a 13th-place finish.

Denny Hamlin won the last two Darlington Nationwide Series races but wrecked in qualifying for that event and missed the show this year.

Ryan Newman isn’t having a great season (other than winning the Daytona 500 of course) but getting wrecked trying to enter the pits under caution might have been a new lowlight of the year.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Busch had to survive numerous up close and personal encounters with the wall, several slow stops and a penalty for a missing lugnut all in one night… and he still dominated the race.

Hamlin left Darlington with a seventh-place finish despite getting spun out in traffic.

Travis Kvapil finished eighth and gets the nod for the best-looking retro paint scheme as well.

After struggling most of the night, Jeff Burton left Darlington with a 10th-place finish. Burton also survived a near-miss in the pits with the No. 1 car and still has completed every lap of every race this season.

Whoever has the white paint concession in Darlington isn’t going to have to worry about gas prices.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers at Darlington drove three Toyotas, four Fords and three Chevys. Kurt Busch (12th) was the best finishing Dodge pilot.
  • Darlington doesn’t suffer rookies lightly and she was particularly harsh with the freshman class this year. Michael McDowell (28th) was the top-finishing rookie Saturday night. Who, you’re asking? Remember the guy who flipped his car at Texas?
  • Kyle Busch has finished first or second in the last three Cup races.
  • Edwards has top-10 finishes in five of the last six races.
  • Gordon managed his first top-five finish since Martinsville.
  • Earnhardt Jr. has top-10 finishes in eight of this season’s 11 races and has led laps in the last six Cup events.
  • David Ragan has top-five finishes in two of the last three Cup races.
  • Matt Kenseth managed his best finish since Fontana (sixth).
  • Hamlin has top-10 finishes in six of the last seven Cup races. He led 381 laps in that other race.
  • Dave Blaney enjoyed his first top-10 result since Charlotte last fall.
  • Burton hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last 10 Cup races.
  • Biffle was the first Ford driver to start from the pole this season.
  • Jamie McMurray earned his best finish since Martinsville (11th).
  • Kurt Busch finished on the lead lap for the first time since Bristol (12th). He still has just one top-10 finish this season as the good ship Dodge seems headed to the bottom of the deep blue sea with all hands on deck.

What’s the Points?

The top-three drivers in the points hold serve. Kyle Busch is now 79 points ahead of Burton and 134 points ahead of Earnhardt.

There was a shakeup towards the bottom of the top 12. Gordon enters the top 12, moving up three spots to 10th and Ragan moved up two spots to 12th. Newman fell two spots to 13th and Kasey Kahne fell two spots to 14th. Fans of the No. 12 and No. 9 cars need not panic. Both drivers are just two points out of the top 12 right now.

Several drivers made forward progress in the points at Darlington. Edwards moved up three spots to seventh while Hamlin moved up two spots to fourth. Despite a lackluster run, Johnson moved up a spot to sixth.

Kevin Harvick’s hard crash dropped him four spots in the standings to ninth. Biffle’s last-place finish dropped him two positions in the standings to 11th. Clint Bowyer fell a spot to fifth.

Kenseth and Kurt Busch both advanced two spots. They are now 20th and 22nd in the standings. Both drivers and teams have engineered late-season runs to make the Chase in previous years but they need to get up on the wheel. Kenseth is 153 points out of the top 12.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): I’ll give it four cans, a relatively low rating for a Darlington race. The track is just a bit too fast right now. But keep the faith. In the sandy, abrasive environment of the area the new asphalt is going to wear quickly.

Next Up: The Cup circuit heads to Charlotte for a pointless weekend, the running of the race formerly known as the Winston. Who knows what they’re calling it this year.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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