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On a night when Hendrick Motorsports celebrated its 200th victory, the man who scored 85 of those wins was left assessing a season which has quickly spiraled out of control.
Whether you want to call it bad luck or simple misfortune, Jeff Gordon has had more than his fair share of it in 2012, and the bad news for him is he suffered more of it during the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Running solidly in the top 10 on lap 194, slight contact with Denny Hamlin resulted in a cut left-rear tire for Gordon. As he came down pit road, the yellow flag waved for the debris he had left behind on the track – but in a development typical of how his season has gone, NASCAR threw the caution just as Gordon hit pit road (thus he ended up a lap down).
With a fast car underneath him and plenty of time left in the 500-mile race, it appeared all was not lost for Gordon. There was certainly more than enough time for him to get his lap back and to race his way back into the top 10 – or at the very least, still leave Darlington with a respectable finish.
But that's not how Gordon's year has gone and just as quickly – five laps to be exact – another tire went down and it was obvious there were deeper issues with the No. 24 car. Gordon limped to the pits, then the garage to diagnose and address the problem.
Finally, 28 laps down and without his team being able to find a trace of what forced him to the garage, Gordon returned to the track and all he could say to his crew over the radio was "crazy."
This not only sums up his night, but his season as a whole.
"It's the same old story," Gordon told the Associated Press. "We're running good. We have fast race cars. We're doing everything we can as a team and just having things like that happen to us."
It has been a season in which Gordon has been hampered by mechanical failures, accidents not of his own doing and really, anything that can go wrong going wrong. All together, in 11 races he has finished 20th or worse seven times and has just twice finished a race inside the top 10.
Gordon's luck is so bad even his team owner, Rick Hendrick, joked after the race that he wouldn't share a plane ride home with his driver for fear of something bad happening.
In any case, with his 35th-place finish Saturday night, Gordon fell to 24th in the standings and sits an astonishing 96 points back of 10th-place Carl Edwards heading into next week's non-points All-Star Race.
And with just 15 races to go in the regular season, there's only one way Gordon is going to qualify for the Chase for the eighth time in nine years and it's apparent to everyone associated with the 24 team.
"He's got to win," Hendrick said in the Darlington media center in the midst of celebrating his 200th victory as an owner. "I mean, he and Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) know that. As good as he runs, as good as that car has been this year at different places, we can do it. I mean, it's an uphill battle. But I am confident Jeff will put everything he's got in it and we'll win some races with him."
Matt Kenseth is now just two points behind Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle following a sixth-place finish at Saturday night's NASCAR race at Darlington Raceway.
But another Roush driver made the biggest news when it comes to a Chase spot: Carl Edwards jumped into the top 10 and Clint Bowyer fell out.
Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson were the biggest gainers after Darlington, moving up three spots apiece.
Jamie McMurray had the single biggest drop, moving down four positions to 20th. Kevin Harvick also lost three spots.
From now until the Chase cutoff, we're going to be giving you the standings in regard to how they stack up to the Chase (since that's what really matters in the end).
Here are the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after Darlington (in relation to the Chase):
Danica Patrick's second career Sprint Cup Series start was as uneventful as she hoped it would be, and the driver accomplished what she set out to do – stay out of trouble and finish Saturday night's NASCAR race at Darlington Raceway with her car in one piece.
"I know I didn't have a great result," Patrick said. "But I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish. Things went good on the Nationwide side. Here on the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own alright. And the other one was to finish, and both of those things happened.
"So, overall, good night. I will be much less worried coming back to this place."
In what was her first Cup start on the track nicknamed "Too Tough to Tame" – a track that is widely regarded as one of the toughest in all of NASCAR – Patrick didn't embarrass herself even though she wasn't terribly competitive, as she finished 31st, six laps behind the leaders.
"This is a step in the right direction," Patrick said. "I can finally thank Tony (Stewart) for putting this one of the schedule. Last night's race helped me for tonight. It was great running out there with those guys.
"I was just most disappointed that the two times I hit the fence and got the stripes on my car, Jeff Gordon was right behind me. I'm like 'Really? I look stupid now in front of Jeff Gordon.'"
It was a performance that made her car owner, Tony Stewart, "ecstatic" with how the night turned out for his much-publicized driver.
"This is a long weekend," said Stewart, who finished the night in third place. "What she did in these two days is hard to do. ... This is a hard place to learn.
"First time I came here, about the fourth time I crashed, I finally was glad they couldn't fix it because I'd had enough for the night. I'm pretty proud as a car owner of what she did both nights."
Patrick's next Sprint Cup start will be in two weeks in NASCAR's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"It's really good to do a nice long race at a challenging track where it is about car control and feeling things out because the Coke 600 is going to be a big weekend," Patrick said. "Double duty again on obviously a real high-profile weekend. It will be nice to have gotten one like this out of the way. Then we just tack on another 100 miles and we are there."
Like Darlington, success at Charlotte won't be measured on where Patrick finishes. Instead it's about making small, incremental steps towards being a competent and hopefully one day, winning stock car driver.
For now though, Patrick will have to take solace in having nights like the one she just had.
"Yes, I think that is a solid word," Patrick said when asked if it was a "successful" weekend. "Things went generally well all weekend. That first Cup practice was a little dismal, but we didn't do any qualifying runs either. I think that overall, I and we as teams accomplished all the things we wanted to."
After months of frustration, Jimmie Johnson gave Rick Hendrick his 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, running away from the rest of the field on a green-white-checkered-flag restart that took the Bojangles' Southern 500 one lap past its scheduled distance.
On Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, Johnson ended his own winless streak of 16 races, a drought of relative epic proportions for the five-time champion. The victory was Johnson's 56th, breaking a tie with Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time list.
RELATED: NASCAR Results 2012 -- Darlington
Hamlin ran second, followed by Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Johnson won the 199th race for Hendrick, outdueling Kasey Kahne in last year's Oct. 9 Chase race at Kansas Speedway. In subsequent months, the organization has been tantalizingly close to No. 200 -- notably at Martinsville, where Hendrick drivers were running 1-2-3 before a late caution.
On Saturday night, in winning for the third time at the Lady in Black, Johnson finally put the question of the 200th win to rest. After pitting for the final time on Lap 299 of 368, however, Johnson had to save fuel to make it to the checkered flag.
All of Johnson's 56 victories have come under the Hendrick banner.
"You've got to love that man," Johnson said of his car owner during a celebration in Victory Lane. "He said, 'Two hundred is great, but let's go get 250.' So that tells you where his head is. I love it. Oh, man, what a day!"
In the closing laps, with the outcome in the balance, Hendrick left the pit box and paced up and down pit road.
"I had to get away," Hendrick said. "They said that we were going to make it (on fuel), but I don't believe them, you know? Everything has happened backward for us. We've run so good this year and then had such bad luck...
"I'm kind of numb, but I'm glad it's over. I think we're going to win a few more now."
Matt Kenseth finished sixth and trimmed the series lead of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who came home 12th, to two points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained third in the standings, 14 points back, after a 17th-place result. Hamlin is fourth in points, 17 behind Biffle.
Stewart, himself a car owner, had the highest praise for Hendrick, who picked up his first victory on a shoestring budget when Geoff Bodine won the April 29, 1984 event at Martinsville.
"I think it's phenomenal, especially with the competition over here getting tougher and tougher," said Stewart, who lost second position to Hamlin when his car temporarily lost fuel pressure coming to the final restart. "It's getting harder and harder to win these races.
"Especially for it to happen in the Southern 500 -- it's such a historic race. It's a pretty cool milestone."
The co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing -- which gets engines, chassis and technical support from Hendrick Motorsports -- chased Johnson in the late stages of the race before the final caution, but Johnson's Chevrolet was simply too strong.
"I was trying to postpone (No. 200) for another week by trying to get to Jimmie, but I just couldn't do it," the reigning Cup champion said. "The closer I got to him, the tighter I got. That was one of the best runs we'd had, but still I wasn't strong enough.
"He had plenty of car left. He was just riding, trying to save fuel. They won it in dominating fashion. To win a 200th race, you don't want to back into it. They dominated and took it the way they should."
Stewart also fields the No. 10 car for Danica Patrick, who started 38th and finished 31st, six laps down in her Darlington Cup debut. The night before, Patrick ran 12th in her first Nationwide Series race at the 1.366-mile track.
"She ran good lap times tonight," Stewart said. "There was a period in the race when she set her balances at her best -- they said she was within a tenth (of a second) of the leaders at that point in the race. So I'm really, really proud of her."
Johnson, who led a race-high 134 laps, held an advantage of .8 seconds and was saving fuel, when Kurt Busch hit the wall on Lap 361. Ryan Newman checked up behind Busch, only to be turned into the wall by Aric Almirola. Caution flew for the eighth time to set up the two-lap sprint to the finish.
After the race, Newman parked his Chevy near Busch's and exchanged words with the 2004 champion. Several of Newman's crew members tried to confront their counterparts on Busch's team, and the driver himself, but NASCAR officials restrained them.
The hard feelings stemmed from the aftermath of the wreck, when Busch brought his car to pit road for repairs.
"The 39 (Newman's) guys were mad because Kurt burned out of our pit stall, and I don't know if they were still there working or whatnot," said Nick Harrison, Busch's crew chief. "Their gas man came down there raising hell and wanting to fight Kurt."
"It's crazy, pit road," said Tony Gibson, Newman's crew chief. "Things happen, and everybody's emotions run high. It's a hot night. Everybody settles down and talks about it. We're all good. We can't control drivers. Nothing against the team -- none of those guys. They didn't do anything wrong."
The race was an anomaly. In a track known for wild action, this year's Southern 500 ran caution-free for the first 172 laps, through three cycles of green-flag pit stops.
By the time NASCAR called the first caution, for debris in Turn 2, Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet had emerged as the dominant car, having opened a lead of more than five seconds over Kyle Busch, who was running second when the yellow flag was finally displayed.
Lined up next to race leader Jimmie Johnson with three laps to go in the Southern 500 and coming to the green flag, Tony Stewart was in excellent shape to finally do something he had never done before: Win at Darlington Raceway.
In 19 previous attempts, Stewart had failed to go to Victory Lane at Darlington – one of just two tracks on the circuit where the driver/owner was without a Sprint Cup Series win (the other is Kentucky).
But as the green flag waved, Stewart's car ran out of fuel and he wasn't able to keep pace with the 48 car of Johnson. Gone into the night was his chance to get that ever-elusive victory on the track referred to as the "Lady in Black."
Instead, for the 20th time in his career, Stewart was shut out of the winner's circle as he finished third behind Johnson and second-place finisher Denny Hamlin, who powered by the sputtering Stewart heading into Turn 1.
Afterward, Stewart was in a far different mood than he was a week ago at Talladega when he voiced his displeasure with the style of racing that had just taken place.
This time, the defending Sprint Cup champion was far more positive, focusing his attention on the many hurdles he and his team had to overcome to what was Stewart's fourth career top-five finish at Darlington.
"It's why we won a championship last year," Stewart said. "We never give up. Steve (Addington, crew chief) kept me positive. He was calm the whole time. He kept saying, 'I'll work on it, I'll get it fixed.' It just kept me calm. Sure enough, we finally got it to do one thing and then we could work on it from there and try to get it the rest of the way."
All around, it was an eventful night for the Stewart-Haas Racing team he co-owns, as the crew for Ryan Newman got into a post-race shoving match on pit road with the crew for Kurt Busch. And of course, there was Danica Patrick making her Sprint Cup debut on the track "Too Tough to Tame."
Stewart wasn't sure what transpired to instigate the scuffle on pit road, but he did have high praise for his other driver.
"Yeah, I got to watch a lot tonight, even if it was from afar," Stewart said. "I'm ecstatic with the results. Don't know where she finished; don't know how many laps down she was. She ran good lap times tonight. There was a period of the race where she said her balance was at her best, she was within a one-tenth (of a second) of the leaders at that point in the race.
"Really, really proud of her."
Several of Ryan Newman's crewmen confronted Kurt Busch on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway following an ill-advised decision by Busch to do a burnout through Newman's pit box.
After Busch had a flat tire and crashed with six laps remaining – an incident which also collected Newman – the Phoenix Racing driver lost his cool and began yelling on the team radio.
When Busch completed his pit stop to fix damage shortly after the wreck, he slammed his foot down on the throttle and did a loud, angry burnout while leaving his pit box. The burnout startled fans in the stands and put up a huge plume of smoke, an expression of Busch's frustration at a promising night gone bad.
But while doing the burnout, Busch drove through Newman's pit box as well – and several Newman crew members were still over the wall after recently completing service on the No. 39 car.
The crewmen were infuriated by Busch coming so close to them with his burnout, and several began yelling at Busch's crew to convey their outrage.
"When you come ripping through somebody's pit box like that, he could have took out five or six guys plus the officials pretty easy," Newman's crew chief Tony Gibson said. "I don't know how somebody didn't get run over, to be honest with you. It was a miracle nobody got hit."
Newman told SI.com's Dustin Long he suspected Busch's actions were due to a "chemical imbalance."
"It's easy to see and it's easy to say that Kurt blew a fuse again," Newman said. "I'm not sure why he did it and tried to run over our guys and NASCAR officials. And nobody is."
Among the angry crewmen was Newman's gas man, Andy Rueger, who went to the No. 51 hauler to await Busch's arrival. Rueger planned to confront Busch immediately after the race.
But Busch's team knew Newman's crew was upset, and so crew chief Nick Harrison instructed Busch to stop at the entrance of pit road and leave the car there instead. The driver was livid on the radio and had been screaming obscenities during the final few laps, and the team felt it would be a good idea for him just to get off the track.
Somehow, though, Busch then made contact with Newman's car on pit road. Busch contended he accidentally ran into Newman while taking off his helmet, but Newman told SI.com he thought Busch did it intentionally.
"Circumstances I think are that he lied and was so frustrated that he doesn't know how to deal with his anger," Newman said.
While all that was happening, Newman's crew got word that Busch was on pit road. Rueger and others ran back out to where the cars were stopped and tried to confront Busch.
"The gas man, he come in there wanting to fight Kurt, raising hell," Harrison said. "I knew it was going to happen. ... After the race, the boys wanted to come down there and raise Cain with Kurt, and that's what they did."
Words were exchanged between the crewmen and Busch (see video below), and a NASCAR official fell onto Busch's hood in the process. Though contact with Rueger sparked the official's tumble, NASCAR's Robin Pemberton said the official just lost his footing.
"There was a lot of stuff going on down there," Pemberton said. "Nobody said anything other than he fell back on the hood. We didn't see anything that was aggressive toward one of our officials."
Harrison said he and his team felt they had to defend their driver regardless of the circumstances and would do the same thing every time.
"We're here racing with Kurt Busch, we're going to defend Kurt Busch and that's our job," he said. "If you go anywhere racing in any part of America and you don't back your driver up, you don't deserve to be there racing with that driver."
It's unclear whether NASCAR will issue any penalties in this situation. If NASCAR feels its official tumbled onto the hood on his own, then Newman's gas man could go unpunished.
But NASCAR also said it's still in the process of gathering facts, and officials have yet to speak to Busch.
Either way, the incident is certain to get everyone talking.
"They came down there with a bunch of drama," Harrison said. "It's just part of racing. I think that's what great for our sport. If they're mad and want to fight, that's what it is."
Jimmie Johnson had a sizable late lead cut down by a caution and a green-white-checkered finish, but was still able to outlast the other frontrunners on Saturday night to win the Southern 500 at Darlington. The victory is Johnson's first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the year.
Johnson took the lead on Lap 324 and never relinquished it, holding on through the final lap of the race on Lap 368. Fuel was a concern for everyone at the end of the race, but Johnson managed his fuel situation well and had no problem out-pacing Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin for the victory. A crash involving Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman brought out a yellow flag on Lap 361, eliminating the advantage that Johnson had built up, but he opened it up again on the restart.
The victory was the 200th in NASCAR's top series for car owner Rick Hendrick, and it takes Johnson to fifth place in the Sprint Cup standings.
Here are the complete results from Saturday night's race.
1. Jimmie Johnson
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Tony Stewart
4. Kyle Busch
5. Martin Truex Jr.
6. Matt Kenseth
7. Carl Edwards
8. Kasey Kahne
9. Marcos Ambrose
10. Joey Logano
11. Clint Bowyer
12. Greg Biffle
13. Paul Menard
14. Regan Smith
15. Brad Keselowski
16. Kevin Harvick
17. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
18. Jeff Burton
19. Aric Almirola
20. Mark Martin
21. Kurt Busch
22. Casey Mears
23. Ryan Newman
24. Juan Montoya
25. David Gilliland
26. Landon Cassill
27. Dave Blaney
28. David Ragan
29. Bobby Labonte
30. Reed Sorenson
31. Danica Patrick
32. Travis Kvapil
33. A.J. Allmendinger
34. Jamie McMurray
35. Jeff Gordon
26. David Reutimann
37. J.J. Yeley
38. Cole Whitt
39. David Stremme
40. Joe Nemecheck
41. Mike Skinner
42. Scott Speed
43. Jose Wise
On the way home from Darlington Raceway on Friday night, I was listening to Claire B. Lang's show on Sirius/XM's NASCAR channel. A man called in and praised Danica Patrick's performance in the Nationwide Series race – and deservedly so.
But when Lang asked him to predict how the No. 10 car would fare in tonight's Southern 500, the guy said he could see Patrick finishing in the top 10!
What the hell is wrong with people? Patrick has as much chance of finishing in the top 10 tonight as Tony Stewart does going a day without sarcasm.
That's an honest assessment of her chances. A prominent driver told me recently that the step up from Nationwide to Sprint Cup is like going from high school to the pros. There's a big difference, and for a driver without much stock car experience? Forget it.
But to her credit, Patrick is extremely realistic about her chances in tonight's race. It's just her fans who aren't.
"I just want to finish, which is going to be a challenge, I think," she said. "... Just getting to the end of the Cup race is going to be the accomplishment for me."
Here's the thing, though: When I tweet or write realistic things about Patrick's NASCAR performance, her fans and defenders go crazy. Out of all the drivers in NASCAR, no fan base seems more irrational than Patrick's Posse (I don't know if that's what they call themselves, but it seems appropriate).
Patrick's Posse is full of people who have some fantasy that Patrick is going to come into the Sprint Cup Series and be able to post top-20 finishes right away. That's not going to happen.
Of course, Patrick herself once had her expectations set too high. When she announced a part-time Nationwide Series schedule, she told reporters she expected to run in the top 15 every week.
It's taken awhile. Only now, in what would be the start of her second season by pure number of races (34), is she posting consistent top-15s in Nationwide.
Patrick is much more realistic about her chances these days. I can't recall a single thing she's said in the past year that wasn't an honest evaluation of her current NASCAR skill set.
She has adapted quickly to superspeedway racing, been solid on 1.5-mile tracks and has outright struggled on short tracks. That's fact.
But here's the thing so many people fail to realize: Patrick takes good care of her equipment, so she's more likely to be around for the finish. And in the Nationwide Series, if you finish, you have a chance for a good result (not so in Sprint Cup).
Let's reflect on what happened in the Nationwide Series race on Friday night for a moment. Patrick finished 12th – on the lead lap – and brought her car home without a single Darlington stripe. That's impressive given her lack of experience.
Since she'd never even seen the track until Friday morning – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took her around for a few laps in a pace car after NASCAR's rookie meeting – Patrick did well to keep the car in one piece and finish the race.
It's important to give credit where credit is due, and Patrick drove a solid, clean race last night. She said her only hope was for a "respectable night," and she had one.
But even she was a bit surprised by the result. When I asked her whether she thought her car would make it through the event without at least one Darlington stripe, she was honest.
"I really didn't," she said. "I thought that was just kind of something that happened as the tires wore on and something of an inevitable here."
Sprint Cup competition is much harder, though. There isn't one driver in the top 35 Patrick could out-run right now due to her lack of seat time, and she did well to qualify 38th out of 47 Cup cars.
With her unfamiliarity with the track, I had figured Patrick would qualify dead last (the driver's only other Cup race was Daytona, which doesn't translate at all).
That she beat nine drivers with much more experience – even if they were in inferior equipment – was notable. Even she thought so.
"The Cup qualifying, while I know I'm starting in the back, was a good step in the right direction," she said, referring to an improvement from her practice times.
But by the tweets I got from her nutty fans after trying to predict her qualifying effort, you would have thought I had just spit in a queen's face.
Now, I'll admit I've been critical of Patrick at times. I can relate to the fans who want to see good talent rewarded with good rides, and who find it frustrating to see someone struggle in great equipment after they haven't done much to earn the spot based on performance alone.
Plus, I still believe Patrick is going to be a hazard tonight at Darlington and will probably struggle immensely in a full-time Sprint Cup Series schedule next season (which I think is a mistake).
But let's also be honest and say she's beating expectations – the realistic ones – with some of her performances. She certainly has every tool and resource at her disposal to succeed in NASCAR, and I believe she'll eventually post top-20s in Cup.
Some fans will take that as an insult. I don't think it is. When you're driving Hendrick-built cars on a well-funded team and you have NASCAR champions coaching you, it's hard to fail.
"I mean, you can't buy that kind of help," she said. "I've been really fortunate I have such great people around me and so many people that have been on my side and offered advice. That's what allows me, I believe, to come to a place like Darlington that is challenging and have a decent night."
And if her fans ever calm themselves down and get realistic about Patrick's chances, everyone would be better off. Because of her celebrity, she's a huge story and will continue to be scrutinized by the media.
But she's not backing down from any of it.
"At this point in time, I'm here to work," she said after her solid Nationwide run. "And I still have work to do."
Weather will be tame for the track that's "Too Tough To Tame" at Darlington Raceway, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races under the lights Saturday in the Bojangles' Southern 500.
High pressure dominates the weather. It will start off mostly sunny. A few more clouds are possible by evening, but it will remain dry. Temperatures will be pleasantly warm in the afternoon as the high temperature gets near 80. Winds will be relatively light and the humidity will be comfortable.
3 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup pre-race – Patchy clouds – temp: 79
5 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup pre-race – Patchy clouds – temp: 78
7 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Patchy clouds – temp: 75
9 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Patchy clouds – temp: 68
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Sprint Cup race – Patchy clouds – temp: 67
It's NASCAR race night at Darlington Raceway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about Saturday's Southern 500 for you below.
What time does the race start? Typically, NASCAR night races in the Sprint Cup Series start at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. But in an effort to get fans home earlier, Darlington is starting Saturday's race shortly after 7 p.m. – 30 minutes sooner than usual. The mothers of several Cup drivers are the grand marshals, and they'll give the command to fire engines at 7:08 p.m EDT. The race itself is scheduled to begin at 7:16 p.m EDT.
Race name/distance: The Bojangles Southern 500 is the "Southern 500" in name only to many longtime race fans, who were used to the Southern 500 being held every year on Labor Day Weekend. The name has been revived since Darlington cut back to one race per season, and Bojangles replaced Showtime as the presenting sponsor this year. In all, the distance is actually 501.3 miles (367 laps around the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval).
TV and radio: The race can be seen on FOX. Every Sprint Cup Series race through May will be on the FOX network. Unfortunately, there is no live streaming of the race – but you can listen on the Motor Racing Network's Web site (just click the red link). You can also check MRN's site for a list of affiliate stations in your area.
*** NOTE: If you're out and about and can't watch the race, make sure to follow me (@jeff_gluck) on Twitter. I'll be tweeting updates about the event. ***
National anthem: Casey Weston, a former contestant on NBC's The Voice, will sing the national anthem. She was on judge Adam Levine's team during the first season of the reality singing show.
Tickets: Darlington has not announced a sellout, and there should still be tickets available if you're looking to make a last-minute trip to the track.
Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman, Brian Neudorff, says fans are in for a pleasant and dry evening with very little chance of rain. The temperatures are expected to cool down into the 60s by the end of the race.
Last time: One year ago, Regan Smith held off Carl Edwards on old tires to claim an improbable Southern 500 victory and pull one of the biggest upsets of the season. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick had a memorable clash on pit road after the race.
Starting lineup for Saturday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway:
Joey Logano expressed remorse for unintentionally spinning Elliott Sadler toward the end of Friday night's Nationwide Series race at Darlington Raceway, saying the incident made his victory "bittersweet."
With five laps to go, Logano lined up third behind race leader Sadler, who was on two older tires. When Sadler slightly spun his tires, Logano's shove got him out of shape and the No. 2 car spun and crashed.
"First and foremost, I need to apologize to Elliott," Logano said. "That wasn't intentional. I was trying to help him."
On the restart prior to the one in question, Logano successfully pushed Sadler and gave him momentum going into Turn 1. But when he tried to do the same thing again, it didn't work.
"I kept trying to push him," Logano said. "I was trying to shove him ahead. It worked the first time ... once he started getting sideways, I couldn't get off him in time. I was trying to lift ... I shoved him around."
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver said, "You don't want to win 'em that way," and was cognizant of the fact Sadler was running for points.
Sadler went from sitting just five points out of the Nationwide championship lead to 23 points behind the top spot after Darlington.
"Your heart drops," Logano said. "You know he's running for points. You know the championship is really close between him and (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). You don't want to be the guy who does something like that, you know?
"We're all out there trying to win the race, but at no point in my mind was I ever like, 'I'm going to wreck him to win this thing.' I don't want to win races that way."
Logano placed a call to Sadler before he even reached the media center, but the call went to voicemail and he left a message. He planned to try and find Sadler in person before the night was over to apologize in person.
Here are the full results from Friday night's Nationwide Series race at Darlington:
Greg Biffle once went three years without a NASCAR pole position. But since he broke the pole-less streak, he's certainly making up for last time.
Biffle won the pole for Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, and he'll lead the starting lineup for the second time this season and the fifth time since last August.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver only has 11 poles in his career, but nearly half of them have come since the Michigan race last summer.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne tied for the second-fastest time, and Johnson got the No. 2 spot based on a tiebreaker.
Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch completed the top five.
Danica Patrick, making her second Sprint Cup Series start, qualified 38th. That's worth noting, because of all the talk about what would happen if she had to qualify based on speed (she didn't, though), her time was fast enough that she still would have made it.
Scott Riggs, Michael McDowell, Stephen Leicht and Mike Bliss failed to qualify for the race.
Here is the starting lineup for Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Southern 500 at Darlington:
As Travis Pastrana walked into the media center at Darlington Raceway, reporters noticed something missing: His mullet.
The NASCAR-themed hair style he'd been growing out for some time and promised he wouldn't cut until he won his first race was no more. And he hadn't won a race, either.
So what's the deal?
As frequently happens in marriage, Pastrana was overruled by his better half.
"I was supposed to wait until I won something but my wife said, 'It's either divorce or cut hair,'" Pastrana said, adding his wife was "not optimistic" he'd win anytime soon.
Besides being fearful of sleeping on the couch, few things rattle the man who lives his life with a "no fear" attitude. When you've jumped off of cliffs and over buses, that's just the way it has to be.
But after taking his first laps around Darlington, the multi-time X Games champion and former motocross rider has a newfound respect for the track nicknamed "The Lady in Black."
"I've never been scared in NASCAR until today," Pastrana said. "It's definitely faster than it looks on TV. Most scared I've ever been in a vehicle – anything with a roll cage, for sure. You know what's coming up and it's still scary. ... Quite overwhelming."
But managing that fear and pushing yourself beyond your comfort level is something Pastrana is familiar with and something he plans on continuing to do as he furthers his NASCAR education.
"I can overcome fear as well as anyone else, but it's just a matter of trying to do it in a safe manner and in a way that we're going to be able to finish this race," Pastrana said. "That's the toughest part, not just saying, ‘I'm going to do this,' but 'I'm going to do this without taking anyone or myself out in the process.'"
A respectable 18th on the speed charts in the first session of practice bodes well for Pastrana in preparation for what will be just his second start in NASCAR's junior series. But despite this, he knows to keep his expectations in check in what will be his first race on a track of this size – and certainly the fastest he's ever driven on an oval.
"Honestly, 18th is way better than we had expected, but we're still farther off the times – the top five cars are still significantly quicker," Pastrana said. "We'll try to do the best we can. My goal is to stay on the lead lap. Whether that goal is obtainable or not, we'll have to see."
Jimmie Johnson had some interesting comments about gaining respect in NASCAR on Friday at Darlington Raceway, so we're passing them along here:
"In any sport, you've got to come in and earn the respect. Regardless of lower divisions; if you look at the NFL and regardless of your draft pick or whatever it is, you don't show up to the pro leagues and have respect. You've done a lot of great things to get you there; but it's always a different pace, a different level of effort in either.
There's just a lot of change when you get to the top level of any division, of any sport. And you have to go out and earn that respect. And that's something that I took a lot of pride in coming up through the ranks. I took a couple of licks before I passed one out.
There are people that come into any sport and I've seen it in ours, where they expect to have the respect out of the gate. And they act in a certain way. And it makes life tough for them. But, you just have to go out there and earn it. It's just the way it works."
Eric McClure walked gingerly into the Darlington Raceway media center on Friday morning, though he seemed fortunate to even be walking at all.
After his vicious wreck in the Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway last week – which knocked him out and left him with some painful internal bruising – McClure said he felt grateful to have escaped the crash without further damage.
"I'm doing OK – about as well as can be expected," said McClure, who was hospitalized for two days after the crash. "I'm definitely sore and battling some things this week. It's obviously been a very long week for me and my family. I'm thankful to be here."
McClure said he crashed so hard because his brakes failed. On the replay, it almost appeared as if his car was accelerating, but the driver said that was not the case.
"I had no idea the brakes were out," he said. "...On the restart, it was a slow start and everyone bunched up and I remember having brakes because we were dragging the brake a little bit to try to bump someone or stay in line or get a good start and not lose too much time.
"The next time I hit the brakes was when I saw the smoke, and they just weren't there. It's a little bit of a heart-sinking feeling right there and that created the impression that I was speeding up or going faster than everyone when I hit. Obviously, I was. I'm just glad it wasn't worse."
McClure said he could remember right before the accident, and then "bits and pieces" of the safety workers trying to extract him from the car. He also remembers being on the medical helicopter on the way to the hospital.
The driver now will spend time recovering until he is cleared to return by NASCAR's doctors. The series has a concussion policy that tries to prevent drivers with head injuries from being on track soon after their incidents.
"I would hate to speculate on when I get back in the car," he said. "NASCAR has a great process in place and we're following it in trying to do everything that they say. There's various time periods that are needed for proper healing and things, but once we go through this process and the doctors feel that medically I'm cleared to race, then that's what we'll do."
While Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't go as far to agree with everything Tony Stewart said in his post-Talladega interview, the driver did acknowledge the racing at Talladega wasn't what it could have been.
But as he stated, that was in part because his car wasn't to his liking, which prevented him from racing the way he would have preferred.
"I was disappointed in how the racing went myself as far as how difficult it was to get the outside lane to move," Earnhardt Jr. said. "There was just not as much passing as I anticipated. The cars didn't – I like the pack racing, but we weren't really able to challenge and make moves on each other like I anticipated happening.
"... (But) I also didn't have that great of a race car, so I was holding back a little of my judgment due to the fact that my car just wasn't competitive enough to do the things I wanted it to do. Had it been more competitive, maybe I would have enjoyed the racing better."
As for Stewart's comments, Earnhardt Jr. said he was amused at the "parody" interview.
"I know it was just kind of his sense of humor and a way for him to vent his frustration with the style of racing that he had and he saw that day without doing it in a derogatory way or some way that might come back on him," Earnhardt Jr. said.
"What he said isn't really how he feels; it was kind of a parody on the day. He feels strongly that it's not good and he thinks it should be better and could be better and thinks things should be changed and we should do the things differently as far as the plate package is concerned and the style of racing that we have there."
Unlike Talladega, this week presents a different challenge to Earnhardt Jr. in his quest to snap his nearly four-year winless streak, as Darlington is less about pure speed and horsepower and more about getting your car to handle correctly.
It's also a place Earnhardt Jr. has had limited success on, having never won here before and posting just three top-five finishes in 17 career starts. Regardless, it's a track Earnhardt Jr. has much respect for.
"It's a tough track," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's got a lot of history and a well-deserved reputation for being difficult, challenging."
As you probably know, most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series night races begin at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time.
That's part of NASCAR's initiative to standardize start times – 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. – so fans are more familiar with when to tune in and watch.
But Darlington is different. The Southern 500 will begin shortly after 7 p.m. this year, in part because it allows fans who drove several hours to get back home sooner.
Darlington has more of a local crowd than many other tracks, so the extra 30 minutes might be the difference between getting home at 12:30 a.m. or 1 a.m.
That might not seem like much, but when fans are driving late at night after a long day, it can add up.
Here's a look at the complete NASCAR schedule for the next two days at Darlington Raceway (Note: All times are EASTERN):
8:30 a.m. – Nationwide Series final practice (two hours)
11:30 a.m – Sprint Cup Series practice (two hours)
2:15 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series final practice (45 minutes)
3:35 p.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying
5:10 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series qualifying
7:15 p.m. – Nationwide Series race (147 laps, 200.8 miles)
7 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series race (367 laps, 500 miles)
As NASCAR drivers tackle the track that's "Too Tough To Tame" at Darlington Raceway, they won't be worrying about Mother Nature.
After weeks of dodging rain drops, high winds and chilly temperatures, there's finally a race weekend where the attention is on the track and not the radar or the sky.
High pressure will build in over the Carolinas for Friday and Saturday. There will be plenty of sunshine both days and temperatures will be very pleasant ranging from the upper 70s to low 80s. Humidity levels will also be low, so it will feel very comfortable as well. Winds will also remain generally light between 3-8 mph.
Enjoy a quiet weather weekend. NASCAR has definitely earned it.
8:30 a.m. EDT
Nationwide final practice – Sunny skies – temp: 58
11:30 a.m. EDT
Sprint Cup practice – Sunny skies – temp: 71
2:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup final practice – Sunny skies – temp: 77
3:30 p.m. EDT
Nationwide qualifying – Sunny skies – temp: 79
5:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup practice – Sunny skies – temp: 78
7:00 p.m. EDT
Nationwide race – Clear skies – temp: 75
7:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Patchy clouds – temp: 76
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