Darlington Raceway has been a staple of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule since 1950. Its Labor Day event, the Southern 500, has been a longstanding tradition in the sport. Denny Hamlin, driving the Flying #11 throwback, was the lead car in a dominating night for Toyota, but fell back after missing pit road. Despite the error, he managed to catch up to Martin Truex Jr. and capitalize on Truex’s tire going down with three laps remaining to take the victory.
In its third year since returning to Labor Day weekend, Darlington once again continued its tradition of throwbacks to NASCAR’s past. For 2017, the Southern 500’s theme was 1985–1989, an era featuring moments like Bill Elliott’s Winston Million victory and holding the fastest qualifying speed in NASCAR history, the rise of Dale Earnhardt, and the growth of NASCAR’s Busch Grand National (now Xfinity) Series.
Another Darlington custom formed in 2015 was the starting command, which is given by the NASCAR Hall of Fame class of the following year. In 2017’s case, the 2018 class – featuring Ray Evernham, Ron Hornaday Jr., Ken Squire, and Robert Yates – gave the command.
Richard Petty, driving his 1967 Plymouth (used in his lone Southern 500 victory that year), and Bill Elliott (serving as the honorary pace car driver in the Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang) paced the field to the green. Petty would unofficially lead the first lap of the 2017 Southern 500 as he stayed out for another pace lap, causing him to be black-flagged before returning to pit road for the start of the race.
To celebrate the throwback, many teams in both the Cup and Xfinity Series (who raced at Darlington on Saturday) sported special schemes commemorating various drivers of the past.
Cup Series throwbacks
Xfinity Series throwbacks
Though not racing at Darlington, three Camping World Truck Series teams sported throwbacks for Sunday morning’s race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park: Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe of Brad Keselowski Racing ran trucks honoring Keselowski’s uncle Rob and father Bob, respectively, while John Hunter Nemechek of NEMCO Motorsports’ truck was a tribute to father Joe and Mosport track owner/former NEMCO driver Ron Fellows. With Denny Hamlin winning the Xfinity race and Cindric winning the Truck race, throwback schemes were two-for-two entering the Southern 500.
Despite the throwback spirit, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Daniel Suárez, Paul Menard, and Carl Long did not run any special schemes. Long had a throwback to Darrell Waltrip’s 2000 car prepared, but a lack of sponsorship, which had already prevented him from running the Bristol race two weeks prior, forced him to drop the scheme.
On a more serious note, with Hurricane Harvey ravaging Texas for much of late August, many figures in the auto racing community have supported relief efforts in various ways. Logano’s sponsor Shell Pennzoil announced it would donate $1 million to the American Red Cross’ relief fund, while Logano donated $25,000 and his foundation allowed for disaster donations. He will also run a Red Cross car at Richmond next week.
“Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast have suffered a disaster of historic size – one that is going to take months if not years of recovery,” Logano stated. “In the last couple of days, we have seen sports icons and organizations step up for Texas and the Gulf Coast. With our strong ties to Shell and the community, we wanted to rally the passionate NASCAR base for this cause as well.”
Sadler added to the effort by announcing he would donate part of his winnings from Saturday’s Xfinity race. Ware’s #51 car for Sunday’s race, a tribute to Days of Thunder character Cole Trickle’s Mello Yello car, featured “Pray for Texas” logos. Rick Ware Racing also helped out by planning to sell diecasts and other merchandise of the car, with all sales going to relief funds.
“Tragedies happen, but you always look at things differently when family members are involved and it’s your home,” Ware’s father and team owner Rick said. “This was something that was so catastrophic that I think it’s only going to get a little bit worse before it gets better.”
Kevin Harvick, who won the 2014 Southern 500 and finished 3rd in Saturday’s race, won the pole and started on the front row alongside defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. The first victim of the Darlington wall was Ryan Blaney, who scraped it in turn four after just five laps, forcing him to pit road, which itself took a lap longer as he was unable to see and enter it from his angle. As a result, Blaney was lapped by Harvick.
On lap 16, the first caution of the race came out when Trevor Bayne hit the wall after blowing a tire; while attempting to avoid the #6, A.J. Allmendinger spun and scraped Bayne. On pit road, Harvick lost nine spots and restarted 10th, while his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer stalled, prompting a track truck to push him to his pit box; Bowyer eventually retired from the race for a broken valve. Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson won the race off pit road and led the field to the green flag on lap 22; the latter had a stronger restart and took the lead. Busch eventually fell to 3rd as Truex passed him. 19 laps later, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got loose exiting turn four and hit the wall. Larson and Truex took the green on lap 46; a lap later, Harvick, who had spent the prior green flag run moving his way back up, passed Busch for 3rd.
Larson continued to lead, with Harvick taking 2nd from Truex on lap 60. The #4 eventually lost his spot and began to fall for tire wear as Truex began to close in on Larson. On the final lap of the stage, Truex passed Larson on the inside exiting turn four to win his 16th stage. Behind them were Hamlin, Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, and Austin Dillon.
For Stage #2, the NBC booth of Rick Allen, Steve Letarte, and Jeff Burton stepped aside for the Darlington tradition of letting legendary announced Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett, along with Ned’s son Dale, commentated the race. The stage commenced on lap 107 with Larson and Truex at the front row. On lap 124, Daniel Suárez hit the wall to bring out the caution, with the green flag waving seven laps later. Truex took the lead from Larson on lap 148, increasing it to over 1.5 seconds before the caution came out on lap 150 when Allmendinger and Matt DiBenedetto spun in turn one; Ware was also involved in the accident.
Allen, Letarte, and Burton returned to the booth for the restart on lap 161. Hamlin, who was the first off pit road, paced the grid to the green flag alongside Truex. On lap 179, Truex passed Hamlin for the lead. With four laps remaining in the stage, Gray Gaulding cut a right-rear tire and spun in turn two, which caused the stage to end under caution and Truex to win yet another segment. Hamlin, Harvick, Larson, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Kurt Busch, McMurray, Austin Dillon, and Matt Kenseth followed. The 17th stage win guaranteed Truex the regular season championship and an additional 15 playoff points.
During pit stops between stages, Hamlin once again was the first off pit road with Kyle Busch behind him. Truex fell four spots on his stop, restarting 5th. The final stage began on lap 205, though the green flag run lasted just two laps as David Ragan spun in turn three; racing resumed four laps later. Scheduled green flag stops began with Logano hitting pit road on lap 248, with those like Kenseth, Truex, McMurray, and Larson following. As the pit cycle continued, Keselowski and Landon Cassill led laps, with Truex inheriting the lead upon its completion.
A caution for debris in turn one was called on lap 260. Hamlin and Truex were the top drivers for the restart on lap 266. A lap later, Kurt Busch passed Truex for 2nd and began to close in on the leader. Busch brushed the wall on lap 290 and eventually reported the smell of burning, but remained in the top five. Harvick pitted on lap 297 for a loose wheel, with green flag stops commencing a lap later. Truex pitted from 2nd on lap 304, while Hamlin attempted to do so ten laps later, but missed pit road. Kyle Busch pitted afterward and Harvick became the new leader; Hamlin would exit pit road in 14th. Kurt Busch retook the lead from his SHR teammate on lap 318, though Truex passed him on lap 325.
While Truex led, Hamlin was seven seconds behind him with 19 to go, but on fresher tires, began to catch up to the #78. As the laps wound down, Hamlin saw his gap to the leader decrease. With three laps remaining, Truex cut a tire and hit the wall, allowing Hamlin to slip beneath him and pull away to win his 31st career Cup race, second Southern 500, and the second career weekend sweep since 2010 (also at Darlington).
The Busch brothers finished 2nd (Kyle) and 3rd (Kurt), while Truex was forced to settle for 8th. Austin Dillon and Erik Jones finished 4th and 5th, respectively, followed by Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Truex, Harvick, and McMurray.
“This track is just amazing,” Hamlin stated. “I love this race track. This is the second (win), this one’s sweeter. To go through the adversity we did right there, missing pit lane, and I knew I had to drive my tail off to get it back and that’s all I had.
Next week, the Cup Series ends its regular season at the Richmond Raceway with the Federated Auto Parts 400. Hamlin is the defending winner.
Race results (by Racing-Reference)
Featured image by Matt Sullivan, Getty Images