There was a 61-lap green flag run in the middle of the final stage of the Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday (May 14), and the field looked to be set up for a quick run to the finish after the conclusion of green flag pit stops on lap 263.
Kyle Larson cycled to the lead after the end of pit stops with 31 laps to go and had set sail with a two-second lead over Christopher Bell with just under 20 to go. At that moment, it looked like no one would be able to run down the No. 5 car.
Everything changed when Ryan Newman spun with 18 laps to go to bring out the yellow flag. Cautions breed cautions, and by the time the checkered flag waved, all the dominant cars of the afternoon had crashed each other out of contention.
Had the remainder of the race stayed green, the finishing order would’ve been reflective of what had happened in the first 275 laps, with a little variation here and there. Instead, three restarts (and two crashes) in the final 15 laps shuffled the finishing order as if the drivers were a deck of cards.
Martin Truex Jr., Ross Chastain, Larson, Joey Logano and Tyler Reddick all finished in the back half of the field after crash damage. Bell had a loose lug nut and dropped to the rear before the first restart, while winner William Byron, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch were able to avoid most of the calamity to score top-10 finishes.
When looking at the drivers in the top 10 before the cautions, it looks like a random number generator from 1 to 36 was used to determine their fates at the checkered flag.
|Driver||Position at 18 to go||Finish|
|Martin Truex Jr.||9th||31st|
It’s almost as if Darlington was two races: one in the first 275 laps and a second in the final 20.
It’s been a common theme for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season. Of the 13 races in the history books, eight of them either ended under caution or had a final green-flag run shorter than 10 laps.
The last year to more have more short sprints to the finish was 2014, which had nine in the first 13 races. The number had declined in the second half of the 2010s decade, but that number seems to be trending upward in the 2020s.
|Season||Race with a <10-lap green flag run to finish or finish under caution|
(first 13 races)
Is the influx of short sprints to the finish good or bad? That’s up to interpretation. But what’s not up to interpretation is that the driver leading at the start of the late restarts has, more often than not, failed to win the race this season.
All eight races this season that either ended under caution or with a short sprint to the finish had:
- An initial caution within the final 20 laps that ended a prior green-flag run of at least 10 laps. For Phoenix Raceway and Dover Motor Speedway, a late caution interrupted green-flag runs longer than 100 laps.
- In the case of endings with multiple restarts, all the restarts had to be separated by green-flag runs of five (or fewer) laps to be considered a continuous set of restarts.
|Race||Green Flag Run Before Cautions||Start of Restart(s)||# of Restarts||Driver Leading Before Late Cautions||Winner|
|Daytona||11 laps||Overtime||2||Kyle Busch||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
|Las Vegas||75 laps||Overtime||1||Kyle Larson||William Byron|
|Phoenix||108 laps||3 laps to go||2||Kevin Harvick||William Byron|
|COTA||14 laps||9 laps to go||5||Tyler Reddick||Tyler Reddick|
|Bristol Dirt||28 laps||8 laps to go||1||Christopher Bell||Christopher Bell|
|Talladega||37 laps||Overtime||2||Ryan Blaney||Kyle Busch|
|Dover||129 laps||7 laps to go||1||Martin Truex Jr.||Martin Truex Jr.|
|Darlington||61 laps||15 laps to go||3||Kyle Larson||William Byron|
Five of the eight races saw the leader before the late restarts go on to lose. Having just one restart with a handful of laps left (Dover and Bristol Motor Speedway dirt) appeared to give the leader a better chance at sealing the deal.
The one exception was Reddick at Circuit of the Americas, who inexplicably held off the competition for five restarts while just about every other car in the field spun.
Someone that’s loved the influx of late restarts though? Byron. All three of his wins this season have come from late restarts. That’s not to say he’s been absent in front of the field however. In addition to leading the series wins, Byron also leads all drivers with 596 laps led this season.
Martin Truex Jr.’s first two stages were a display of what could’ve been.
Someone that wasn’t present at the end of the race, however, was Truex. The No. 19 looked to be the car to beat, and Truex started off the weekend with a pole on Saturday (May 13). Bubba Wallace led lap 1, but Truex then powered ahead on lap 2 and left everyone in the dust by leading 137 consecutive laps — the fourth-largest streak of consecutive laps led by a single driver at Darlington since 1980.
|Driver||Darlington Race||Streak of Consecutive Laps Led||Win Race?|
|Jeff Gordon||Spring 2002||157||No (9th)|
|Kyle Busch||2013 Southern 500 (May)||153||No (6th)|
|Harry Gant||Spring 1989||149||Yes|
|Martin Truex Jr.||Spring 2023||137||No (31st)|
Truex was only two years removed from leading 248 of the 293 laps en route to a win at Darlington in May 2021, and everything in the first two stages pointed to him repeating the performance.
Truex’s consecutive laps led streak ended at 137 as green-flag pit stops began in the second stage. He then led another eight laps before getting passed by Chastain on track. Truex began to run down the No. 1 car, however, and on the final lap of stage 2, Truex got side-by-side with Chastain in turn 3 before spinning out in the corner.
Truex fell to 10th after the spin, and he hovered in the back half of the top 10 for most of the final stage. He restarted fourth (after a great pit stop) with 14 laps to go, but his day ended on the spot after crashing in turn 1.
Sunday was a bad time to be the race leader.
Truex (145), Chastain (93) and Larson (29) were the only drivers at Darlington to lead double-digit laps, and together they combined to lead 267 of the 295 laps (90.5%).
All three of them finished 20th or worse. In the cases of Truex and Chastain, more than 81% of the laps were led by cars that crashed out of the race.
Leading hasn’t always correlated to winning this season either. Of the 13 Cup races in 2023, the driver that led the most laps went on to win just four of them.
Ross Chastain has done everything but win, and that drought is growing larger by the week.
Chastain is the current points leader, and between the Hail Melon, hundreds of laps led and an onslaught of top-five finishes, one would think that he’s taken a checkered flag in recent months.
Instead, it’s been 39 races since Chastain last visited victory lane, more than a full season. In his 39-race drought, Chastain has:
- Led 882 laps
- Led the most laps four times
- Finished in the top-five 14 times, with four runner-up finishes
- Finished runner-up in points last season and leads the points this season
Given the above info, the fact that Chastain hasn’t won in over a year is absurd. One would think that he would return to victory lane soon, and Darlington looked to be one of his best chances. Instead, he and the No. 1 team haven’t been able to put everything together.
What’s also growing is the number of incidents Kyle Larson has been involved in this season.
After crashing with Chastain, Larson has had either a mechanical failure or an incident in nine of the 13 Cup races, the majority of which weren’t his fault.
He’s brought home a damaged car in four straight races (Talladega Superspeedway, Dover, Kansas Speedway and Darlington), and all of the incidents in the last month have occurred while Larson was running in the top five.
The No. 5 team still has the two wins at Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway, but their patience has been put through the ringer in the past month.
By winning at Darlington, Hendrick Motorsports snapped its longest skid.
Byron’s Darlington triumph was Cup win No. 296 for Hendrick Motorsports, and more importantly, it was Hendrick’s first win at Darlington since May 2012.
Hendrick has not scored a win at three tracks on the 2023 Cup schedule: the Bristol dirt track (three total races), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (two races) and World Wide Technology Raceway (one race).
Excluding those tracks, the 11-year drought made it to where Hendrick had won at every track on the schedule since their last win at Darlington.
That ended on Sunday. The new longest drought for Hendrick is at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as the team’s most recent win came with Kasey Kahne in July 2012.
Up Next: North Wilkesboro
For the first time since 1996, North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. For one week, the Cup Series will take a break from the season in progress for a chance to win $1 million dollars in the series’ highly anticipated return to a fan-favorite blast from the past.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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