DARLINGTON, S.C. – Kyle Larson outran Tyler Reddick to win his first career NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, Sept. 3. Chris Buescher, William Byron and Ross Chastain rounded out the top five for the 500-mile event.
Larson’s third win this season came from an 18th starting position to earn the victory, which is the lowest for a Cup Darlington winner since Regan Smith in 2011.
But What Really Happened?
But after making mistake after mistake on Sunday, they didn’t look like they belonged there.
They weren’t alone, either. In fact, there were plenty of individuals making mistakes all night in Darlington – and it doesn’t end with drivers.
For example, perhaps the most bizarre culprit was whoever forgot to pay the track’s electric bill.
But even delaying the race for a few minutes or wrecking yourself couldn’t completely overshadow the collection of bumbles from the JGR playoff teams.
After winning the pole with Christopher Bell, followed by Hamlin sweeping both stages one and two, JGR was on poise to beat the field to victory lane at The Track Too Tough to Tame.
Not shocking at all considering the team’s history at the facility – that of 11 wins with 10 of them being the only victories for Toyota at the 1.33-mile circuit.
But what was shocking is that despite their dominance, all three JGR teams fumbled what was to be a great points day in the very least, opening the door wide open for championship rival teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and RFK Racing to swoop in and earn a nice cushion for themselves.
Bell smacked the wall early on in the race after leading 40 laps. The resulting damage and his team’s pit road mistakes cost him track position and the No. 20 Toyota never recovered and spent most of the 367-lap race outside of the top 15.
He finished 23rd and is now only one point above the playoff cut line.
Truex started 31st after smacking the wall in qualifying and had the difficult task of climbing through the field from so far back in the field.
But his woes also began early. Truex felt a loose wheel and had to return to pit road during green flag pit stops, a fate that sent him two laps off of the lead pace. A mistake on the No. 19 team to be sure.
Then, shortly after he started to make some ground back up on the lead lap, even he made contact with the wall that knocked a toe link loose resulting in the same fate as his teammate Bell.
He recovered to finished only in 18th.
But the most tragic showing of the bunch was none other than that of Hamlin.
Who Stood Out?
On the road of winning both stages, the No. 11 Toyota led the way for 177 laps on Sunday night – a whopping 48.2% of the entire 500-mile race.
Indeed, Hamlin was the class of the field on the egg-shaped oval.
And he was three laps away from surpassing his own record that he set at Darlington in 2007. All he had to do was not have any issues in the incoming green flag cycle of pit stops.
But when he did eventually return to the racing surface after pit road service, Hamlin felt the car becoming increasingly off balance and feared a loose wheel. He returned to pit road again and went two laps down.
It was already bad enough, but what made things worse for Hamlin was when the team told him they couldn’t find anything wrong with the wheels. Ouch.
The Virginian racer could only finish 25th in the end – his fourth worse result of the season.
Now, hitting walls, slow pit stops and phantom loose wheels all sound bad for JGR – and don’t get me wrong, they are.
But Hamlin was, without a doubt, the fastest car on the track for a majority of the race. If it weren’t for that one mishap, there’s a very good chance he would have finished in at least the top three.
And really, that could be said for the whole of JGR on Sunday.
Bell, Truex and, in fact, all of the Toyotas showed speed on Sunday night. A total of 307 of 367 laps completed at Darlington this weekend was led by one of them – 217 of which were by JGR.
So, they certainly have the speed to compete for a championship, but there still leaves something to be desired in execution.
Thankfully for them, they have a couple weeks to work on it.
Who Fell Flat?
Despite everything, however, perhaps the biggest mistake of the night didn’t come from a JGR team or Bowman or even Darlington’s electric company.
Instead, it came from a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driven by Kevin Harvick.
It was lap 311, and Harvick was reeling in the race leader Reddick before what was supposed to be the likely final green flag pit stops of the night.
But before he reached the No. 45, the Ford elected to make his pit stop early and started making the long left-hand turn into the pit entrance in between turns 3 and 4.
Right in front of him, however, spun the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing car of Ryan Newman. The spin caused the yellow flag to be waved, and, right before Harvick crossed the commitment line, the pit road lights flashed indicating it was closed. With no time to steer out of the way, Harvick continued down pit road.
That’s fine. NASCAR allows it as long as Harvick does not do any service to his car.
But instead, Harvick did pit.
That’s a penalty.
It was arguably the best chance the No. 4 of Harvick has had at winning in his final season since leading at the end of the race at Phoenix Raceway in March, and how special would it have been if he earned a crown jewel win like the Southern 500 in his swan-song season?
Instead, because he and his crew decided to continue with the pit stop, Harvick was penalized and had no time to make his way back through the field.
He finished 19th and is now two points below the playoff cut line.
For now, it’s a missed opportunity for the No. 4 team, but in two weeks that pit stop could be the difference between keeping a NASCAR legend in the hunt for a championship and the disappointing end of a legacy.
Better Than Last Time?
Last year’s Southern 500 featured a multitude of different storylines and one very surprising and feel-good winner in Erik Jones (who also had a great night by finishing 10th this weekend).
While this year also had quite a bit of storylines – many featuring a few hurt feelings – it was an unsurprising winner in the end with Larson taking his first Darlington race win.
But despite that, there was a good spanking done by NASCAR fans’ newest sweetheart Hamlin.
Of course, that hurt the lead change count in the end. Last year’s 500-miler ended with 21 lead changes – the most for the crown jewel event since 2015.
By comparison, this year’s resulted in only 13 – the lowest amount since 2018.
That said, those long green flag runs bring out an interesting pit strategy element at a track where it arguably shines best. Darlington shreds tires so fast that it adds that extra element to pit strategy. Unfortunately, those stage breaks ultimately nullify much of that strategy we’d like to see play out.
In the end, Darlington still provides some of the best racing of the year regardless of winner.
Paint Scheme of the Race
It’s only fitting that a blacked-out scheme stood out at the Lady in Black.
It isn’t the first time the black primary High Point scheme was used on Chase Briscoe‘s No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, but it makes even more sense this weekend.
Not to mention, it’s a good-looking design. Instead of the plain mixture of colors that we see featured on most NASCAR liveries, Briscoe’s Ford has that digital microchip pattern that stands out on those door panels, and with the black background, it’s even more noticeable than its blue primary counterpart.
One more trip down the yellow-brick road.
The Cup Series returns to Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400 for round two of this year’s postseason. Qualifying for the 400-mile event will be live on Saturday, Sept. 9, at 12:45 p.m. ET with the race being televised live on Sunday, Sept. 10, at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.
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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