Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Darlington Race Recap

The Key Moment: Brad Keselowski gave Regan Smith just enough of a shove on the final restart to keep him ahead of Carl Edwards on two fresher tires for the final two laps.

In a Nutshell: Smith, driving for an underfunded single-car team based out of Colorado, scored the second big upset win of the season.

Dramatic Moment: You knew those final two restarts were going to produce some bent fenders and frayed tempers, but I don’t think anyone expected the fireworks that ensued at the end of the race.

Waiting to see if Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were actually going to come to blows after the race. It looked like the two of them were there to kick ass and chew gum. My money would have been on the one without the gum sponsorship.

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

Let me go on the record despite knowing a few of you are going to try to tear me a new one. I’m all for the “Boys Have At It” attitude. This sport has been sadly lacking in emotion and rivalries for over a decade. But there’s a line I think should never be crossed. If Harvick and Busch had leapt out of their cars and pounded each other half-comatose I’d have been OK with that. But it wasn’t acceptable for Busch to drive into the back of Harvick’s Chevy once the No. 29 driver had exited the vehicle.

Crew members and officials were rushing to the area to intervene and the media was scrambling to that same area to get comments and pictures. One of these non-coms with no dog in the fight could easily have gotten run over or crushed between the No. 29 car and the wall.

Fortunately the incident took place at the fourth corner end of pit road, so few people had made it to the area, yet though from his vantage point I doubt Busch knew that or cared much apparently. If Busch decided discretion was the better part of valor, reversed and fled the area before another punch was thrown that’s his prerogative. Take care of issues you have with another driver on the track or in the garage area (outside of their cars), not on pit road.

Also on the record I can understand Harvick’s level of annoyance. Busch swept down two lanes to hook Harvick and wreck him. It clearly wasn’t accidental. I predicted months ago when the kinder gentler Kyle Busch finally reignited it was going to be volcanic and Busch’s actions Saturday night (May 7) made Pompeii look like a firecracker. Kudos to Busch’s PR person for being able to spin Busch’s post-race comments to look like he was being reasonable so quickly.

See also
Kyle Busch Can't Run From Himself At Darlington

One last note on that pit-road fracas. Some folks seem to think that Harvick left his car in neutral while climbing out. Even I won’t climb out of a stick shift car with the vehicle in neutral and I ain’t got the sense God gave a goose. Given the audio of the incident the No. 29 car was in gear. Yeah, it’s possible to push a car ahead of yours even while it is in gear and set it to rolling. How do you think they start sprint cars? And no, Cup cars don’t have parking brakes.

You know Juan Pablo Montoya had to be exhaling a huge sigh of relief after the race. Montoya, who had what could be politely termed an “eventful” evening, was off the hook after the Harvick/Busch war erupted at the end of the race.

Let me ask again. There was a great crowd on hand Saturday night despite the race’s awkward race date and the event featured some of the best racing of the season. How is it Darlington lost a race date to some McTrack out there in the Land of Fruits, Nuts and Flakes?

It was hard not to notice the SPEED crew’s post-race team loudly applauding Smith’s win as he joined them on set. Wait a second, didn’t I hear earlier this year that applauding a race winner was unprofessional conduct for a media member? No, I don’t think the SPEED guys did anything wrong. I just think it’s further evidence some old-school members of the media need to get the sticks out of their respective asses and lighten up a bit. Whatever media rulebook you pledged to as a journalism major at Faber College is just gone, baby, gone.

First it was Trevor Bayne at Daytona. Saturday night it was Smith at Darlington (with his mother missing the event to help victims of the tornados in Alabama on Mothers’ Day Eve for goodness sake). If this sort of racing doesn’t sell some tickets and improve the TV ratings, what will?

Smith isn’t going to win the Most Popular driver award as voted by the fans this year. That honor will almost certainly go to Dale Earnhardt Jr. again. But I think it’s a pretty telling tribute to who he is as a man and a racer that so many of his competitors were flat out thrilled he’d won the race even if it meant they weren’t holding the trophy aloft.

Even second-place Carl Edwards rushed over to the No. 78 car to offer congratulations to the journeyman winner after the race. Popularity is something your PR people garner for you by and large these days. Respect from your peers after enduring hard times is something you earn.

Was it just me or did Kasey Kahne sound a little off kilter in his post-race interview? Yes, he hit the wall, but not all that hard and yes it was a four-hour race. And he is in fact still recovering from knee surgery which I can attest is no picnic. But Kahne sounded like someone who’d gotten a good dose of carbon monoxide during the race.

To everyone who emailed me on the topic, yes Darrell Waltrip sounded more than a little off his game Saturday night, constantly repeating and even contradicting himself and sounding badly confused at times. At times even Mike Joy seemed a little concerned about his broadcast partner.

And for the record Waltrip’s eldest daughter Jessica was born on Sept. 17, 1987. The next NASCAR race was at Dover and Ricky Rudd won the race not DW. Waltrip finished 10th that day, five laps off the pace, and never even led a lap. Yeah, it’d have been a great story if a driver won the next race after both his children were born but it just didn’t happen. Like the tale of the minnow pond at Darlington, it’s a great yarn but it simply ain’t true.

OK, did Ryan Newman actually haul off and slug Juan Pablo Montoya during a NASCAR moderated sit-down to cool off the differences between both drivers? Neither Newman or Montoya were saying much about the incident and NASCAR officials were only saying that “the meeting didn’t go as well as we hoped…” (Sort of like the Chase, huh?) Could this be the first real test of “Boys Have At It”? NASCAR officials should frisk Montoya and Newman for weapons then let them go behind a trailer outside of public and media scrutiny and let them settle this feud that has been festering for all these years once and for all.

It does seem that old animosities can be laid aside eventually. Jimmy Spencer of SPEEDTV this week opined in his column that everyone should give Kurt Busch a little slack for his profane and pointed comments about his team over the radio last week at Richmond.

This from a fellow driver who once poked Busch one right in the yap for mouthing off to him after a race? Spencer agrees with Busch that the team hasn’t been giving Kurt competitive equipment this year. If I recall Busch was the only driver to score top-10 finishes in this season’s first four races and he led the points at one point during that stretch before donning his role as martyr.

Much has been made about Brian France’s PR blitz earlier this week both on this site and others. Yeah, I watched it all just like you can’t turn away from a train wreck especially when you’re riding in the caboose of the train. (Waving red lanterns in my case.) Yes, France’s handlers got him to wear a tie, comb his hair and stop waving his hands around in the wind like his fingernails were on fire.

But he still got that same pissed off look in his eyes every time he was asked a question he didn’t care for. What I found most telling was on several occasions he referred to NASCAR’s top division as “Cup” racing. So what, right? I do it every week. But notably lacking was the usual term France has insisted on for years, “Sprint Cup racing.” Trouble in paradise?

During a slow news week one of the press releases that caught my attention had to do with Jeff Gordon’s wreck at Richmond when the No. 24 car hit a section of wall not protected by the SAFER barrier. The impact measured 40 Gs, a potentially fatal amount of energy fortunately largely dissipated by the car before it reached the four time champion. In light of the force of impact NASCAR recommends that section of wall should have a SAFER barrier installed. No, really. You think?

NASCAR also recommends that if your head is ablaze you consider dousing it. If it’s nice one day later this week maybe I’ll take the bike for a run up to Pocono to see what the track did with that section on the back straight where Elliott Sadler hit with such devastating force last summer.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

It was a tough final few laps for Richard Childress Racing with Jeff Burton blowing up and Harvick and Clint Bowyer getting wrecked in that incident on the subsequent restart. All three drivers had posted strong showings throughout the night but came up short when the pay window opened.

The contact between Brian Vickers and David Ragan was typical Darlington but the results were bizarre. Because of the angle the two cars hit, the left side of Vickers’ Toyota was pretty much totally peeled away.

Kyle Busch clearly had a shot at winning until his team once again left a wheel loose during a pit stop forcing Busch to pit again. While Busch made a determined drive back to the front, it was clearly his annoyance at the incident that triggered the melee that ended the race.

Jimmie Johnson’s crew also made an uncharacteristic error leaving a wheel loose on a late-race stop. Earlier Johnson had to reverse out of his pit box after Paul Menard spun into the pit box directly ahead of the No. 48 team’s.

Earnhardt Jr. drove from a 30th-place starting position to flirting with the top five until a costly commitment cone violation entering the pits ended his chances at a decent result.

Martin Truex Jr. wanted his whole pit crew fired after last week’s debacle at Richmond. I wonder if that crew wants a new driver after Truex spun while trying to enter pit road.

Bobby Labonte was en route to a solid 11th-place finish when he got caught up in that last lap wreck. I’m still curious why NASCAR didn’t throw the caution for that wreck. Yeah, it’s better to have the races finish under green but not at the cost of safety.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Smith won his second Cup race… and gets to keep the trophy this time. (Not to mention how close Smith came to wrecking when none other than Kyle Busch chop blocked him late in the race.)

See also
Bowles-Eye View: How to Shed a Label & Gain NASCAR Immortality

It looked like polesitter Kahne’s evening was over when he slapped the wall hard early in the race. Kahne rallied back to a solid fourth-place finish.

Edwards had a great week with a second-place finish Saturday and the birth of his second child earlier this week.

As badly as he’s been running lately a competitive seventh-place finish with an outside chance at the win late had to be sweet vindication for owner/driver Tony Stewart.

Worth Noting

  • Smith’s win was not only his first career Cup victory (nod-nod, wink-wink… except for Talladega) but his first top-five result ever in the Big Leagues.
  • Edwards has top-10 finishes in eight of this season’s first 10 races. His averaging finishing position to date is 7.3.
  • Keselowski’s third-place finish was his first top 10 of the year.
  • Ryan Newman’s fifth-place finish matches his best of the 2011 season. Oddly enough Newman has finished fifth four times this season.
  • Stewart’s seventh-place finish was his best since Las Vegas.
  • Greg Biffle (eighth) has top-10 finishes in three of the last four races.
  • Jamie McMurray’s ninth-place finish was just his second top-10 result of 2010.
  • Truex’s 10th-place finish was his best since Vegas.
  • Kyle Busch has run seven different paint schemes in this season’s 10 races. No wonder none of the other drivers can recognize the imminent threat of the No. 18 car behind them and get out of the way.
  • Gordon’s average finish this season is about 18th.
  • Johnson’s 15th-place finish was his worst since Las Vegas.
  • Burton is still looking for his first top-10 result of 2010. Who’d have thunk?
  • Parity at last? The four automakers competing in NASCAR each grabbed one of the top-four finishing positions at Darlington. Overall the top-10 finishers drove four Chevys, three Toyotas, a pair of Fords and a Dodge.

What’s the Points?

The top five in the points, Edwards, Johnson, Busch, Earnhardt and Harvick held their positions. Johnson is now 23 points behind Edwards. Harvick is 50 points, more than a full race worth of markers, out of the lead. But in the big picture Harvick is sitting plush with a royal flush, aces back to back. (In plain English he’s won two races.)

The Stewart-Haas Racing duo had a good points night with Newman advancing two spots to sixth and Stewart advancing three spots to seventh.

Kurt Busch and Bowyer had bad points nights each falling two spots in the standings. They are now are now eighth and ninth respectively.

Biffle advanced two spots to that coveted final 12th position in the run up to the Chase. The honor is nebulous in that if the Chase field were to be determined right, now Gordon would claim that final spot because he won at Phoenix.

There seems to be some confusion among some fans about the import of Smith’s win at Darlington. No, he isn’t in position to make the Chase quite yet. To win a wildcard berth a driver must not only win a race but be within the top 20 in regular-season points. Smith is currently 27th in the points, 29 points out of the top 20.

It’s still too early to panic about points but some big name drivers are probably beginning to sweat a bit. Drivers like Denny Hamlin (16th), McMurray (21st), Burton (24th) and Joey Logano (25th) really need to win a race or two to solidify their Chase hopes. Any one of those drivers is capable of winning multiple races soon, but might need that back door into the Chase if their performance doesn’t improve dramatically.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): We’ll give this one five bottles of icy cold Corona served up with a shot of Gentleman Jack and a fried bologna sandwich. Yes, the action dragged a bit in the center of the race costing Darlington another full six-pack, but the ending was all you could ask for and then some.

Next Up: The circuit heads off to Dover but oddly enough, I am heading off to watch my beloved niece Hayley graduate from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Bryan Davis Keith will fill in). I’ll be back for Charlotte. Meanwhile, I urge you to check out the latest column written by Frontstretch’s newest columnist, Dr. Mark Howell, this Thursday; he’s a longtime friend of mine and a great addition to a great site.

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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