Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Darlington: Chaos Leaves No One Safe In Championship Chase

What happened?

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Erik Jones held off Denny Hamlin on the way to his first NASCAR Cup Series win of 2022 and third of his career during the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, Sept. 4. Behind Hamlin were Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano and Christopher Bell rounding out the top five; all four are contenders for this year’s NASCAR Cup championship.

Jones, however, is not, just the second driver outside the Round of 16 to win since the elimination-style format debuted in 2014. The victory marks the first for a race team owned by Richard Petty (No. 43) since the summer race at Daytona International Speedway in 2014. It’s also Jones’ second career Southern 500 victory.

How did it happen?

Right from the beginning of Darlington’s final stage, it appeared to be either Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr.‘s race to lose. Heck, it was practically that way the whole event. The Joe Gibbs Racing duo appeared to be gatekeepers for the crown jewel race win, switching off the lead amongst themselves.

Busch led from the beginning of the final stage on lap 237 while Truex followed suit. However, on lap 294, the No. 19 was able to get by his teammate for the lead and pulled away. Even after the field visited pit road for the final round of green flag pit stops, Truex stayed far enough ahead to where it appeared a non-playoff driver was going to spoil the postseason party already in its first round.

In the end, one of those upsets did happen.

It just wasn’t Truex.

Suddenly, the temperature gauges in Truex’s JGR Toyota began to display higher-than-optimal numbers and the No. 19 began to slow. Busch saw his moment to pounce for the lead and took it only a few laps before Truex was forced to visit pit road with less than 30 to go.

While Truex’s car went behind the wall, Busch inherited the lead. The caution flag waved shortly after for a Cody Ware spin, sending the field to pit road for what would be the final time. Rowdy’s crew had a solid stop, winning the race off pit lane, and it looked as though a Southern 500 win was all but secure.

Then, under the caution flag, Busch’s engine failed too.

Jones took the lead from the wounded Busch under the yellow flag and restarted as the control car.

Despite a challenge from another JGR Toyota (Hamlin), Jones was able to hold off the Virginian to secure his third career Cup win and first since 2019 (in this very event).

Who stood out?

Despite where they ended up, at one point Joe Gibbs Racing had all four of its cars inside the top five. Two of them still finished there in Hamlin and Bell.

As for Truex and Busch, they didn’t finish the race but still led a combined 203 laps out of the 367-lap event. That’s the closest to domination anyone got to on Sunday.

No, it didn’t end well for the two, and surely the folks in the Toyota TRD engine group have some work to do when it comes to engine durability. But there’s no denying they were the class of the field on Sunday night, making a statement for the 10-race playoff to come.

It’s a heck of a time to peak, too. Busch still captured some valuable postseason bonus points, including a stage two win during the event, which has helped him keep a sturdy position inside the playoff top 12. He’s eight points above 13th place Austin Cindric despite his engine failure.

For Bell and Hamlin, the two each racked off a top-five finish and earned a combined 21 points between them during the two stages. The duo sit third and fourth in the standings, both at least 25 points above the cut line.

What’s more, the three now head to Kansas Speedway next weekend, which is the same track where all six Camrys in the Cup field finished inside the top 10 back in May.

Their Southern 500 may have ended in the dark in Darlington, but the Toyotas’ future looks bright.

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Who fell flat?

Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson entered the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoff season within the top four seeds.

After one race at Darlington Raceway, however, they’re both now much closer to playoff elimination.

Larson’s night started to go wrong first.

On lap 79, the driver of the No. 5 reported his engine was blowing up and that he was bringing the Chevrolet to pit road. As the team inspected under the hood, the Californian went three laps down.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels instructed his driver to return to the track. As he did, Larson’s Chevrolet appeared to return to normal, which was good news.

The bad news was the No. 5 team was as many as four laps down at one point, putting them in a near impossible position to get back on the lead lap. Along the way, Larson tip-toed his way through the field until he finally reached the free pass spot.

That doesn’t mean he did it cleanly, though.

Despite his troubles, Larson was able to rally back to a 12th-place result and still sits comfortably in seventh in the playoff standings, 17 points ahead of Cindric.

The same, however, cannot be said of his teammate.

Shortly after Larson’s issue, Elliott found himself spinning as a result of a broken toe link that sent him into the apron of turn 1.

Elliott crab-walked his No. 9 back to pit lane as a result. Unlike Larson, the HMS team could not repair the broken piece of equipment within the 10-minute Damaged Vehicle Policy clock time. That left NASCAR’s mild-mannered Most Popular Driver more publicly frustrated than we typically see.

The regular season champion would finish in dead last, 36th place with only 14 points separating he and playoff elimination.

Before Darlington, the duo appeared to be safe within the top four in the standings. Now, they’ll have to spend their next two weeks repairing a playoff fall from grace.

But they aren’t the only ones.

See also
Multiple Mechanical Failures Put Top NASCAR Playoff Drivers on the Postseason Back Foot

What did this race prove?

It doesn’t matter what the final four in your playoff bracket looked like, at least one of your drivers had issues costing them dearly in the playoffs on Sunday night.

But that should have been expected, right?

With the way this year has been in terms of competition, it should come as no surprise that the postseason field was not as spread out as one might think. Going into Darlington, Elliott and Larson appeared to be safe while heading into the playoffs. But that edge proved to be more like a mirage in a year no one racked up enough playoff points for a cushion.

Elliott’s lead was 33 points ahead of 13th place after he had earned four wins throughout the regular season on his way to the championship. That’s enough points to be easily overtaken should there be an issue for the 2020 series champion to arise.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

Now, Elliott is dangerously close to being eliminated should he have another rough day in Kansas. Despite seemingly being the only driver to “break away” from the rest of the pack in both the standings and in win count, here we are with the No. 9 team facing a risky next couple of weekends.

So, if he’s that vulnerable, everyone else is, too.

Especially Kevin Harvick.

The driver of the No. 4 had won two races and was the ninth seed heading into playoff season. However, despite being four spots above 13th in the standings, the gap between Happy and the cut line was only five points.

As a result, a DNF for Harvick after a fiery end to his night now puts him last in the standings, 13 points below the top 12. The worst part? It really wasn’t even his fault, a rocker panel catching on fire similar to what happened to Chris Buescher at Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in July.

Parity has manifested its side effects in the 2022 playoffs. Now, despite having 16 teams (50% of the 32 full-time drivers), the field is far closer than one might think.

More vulnerable, too.

Better than last time?

Despite its longer distance, there was a downturn in competition on Sunday.

In May, during a shorter 400-mile race, the field saw 23 lead changes among 13 different leaders, which is a little bit more than what we saw on Sunday.

Despite the extra 73 laps, there were 21 lead changes among 11 drivers in this Southern 500. Not to mention, the finish was somewhat lacking compared to what we saw in May.

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That doesn’t mean Sunday’s version of the Track Too Tough to Tame wasn’t interesting or fun to watch. After all, we saw a new winner in 2022 – our 17th – after what was a wild turn of events in the final 30 laps. On top of that, there were tons of playoff storylines to follow, which can, albeit artificially, spice up any race.

Overall, seeing drivers bang into one another in certain spots while fighting an ill-handling race car is really what stock car racing is all about. We have seen that practically every time the field comes to Darlington.

So, while the Fall race may not have been an improvement, Darlington seems to always produce quality competition.

As long as we don’t change the rules package again…

Paint scheme of the race

Every Fall Darlington race, Elliott brings on a special design for his No. 9 Chevrolet. 2022 was no different.

This year’s design was made by a cancer patient of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as a part of its DESI9N TO DRIVE program. It featured a crayon-drawn color livery similar to what we have seen in the past on the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

The color and contrast not only stood out amongst the rest of the field, but it also brought attention to the charity that had endorsed it in the first place.

It’s not often a driver will match their car’s charity design with their fire suit, too. In this case, however, Elliott’s threads matched the paint.

The artist in question, 16-year-old Dani Cuevas, should be proud.

What’s next?

Round two of the Cup Series playoffs will take shape in the Midwest.

The Cup Series travels to Kansas Speedway for the second race of the 2022 playoffs Round of 16. Cup qualifying begins on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 12:50 p.m. ET with the Hollywood Casino 400 televised live on USA Network on Sunday, Sept. 11 at 3 p.m. ET.

Follow @PitLaneLT


About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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