Darlington Raceway lived up to its nickname this weekend as the track known as “Too Tough to Name.” Several different drivers had the chance to win on Saturday night, but Denny Hamlin outshined them all and gave his mother, Mary Lou Hamlin, a wonderful victory on Mother’s Day weekend.
Here are some questions on my mind after Saturday night’s race:
How happy is Jamie McMurray right now? … This has been a career season for the driver of the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet. After winning the Daytona 500, McMurray has accumulated one pole, three top fives, and four top 10s, in 11 races this season. He’s already led more laps this year (110) than he did all of last season with Roush Fenway Racing (33). Not many people expected McMurray to be more successful with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing than he was with a powerhouse like RFR. However, McMurray has proven that just being comfortable with your surroundings can make all the difference.
How soon will Jimmie Johnson rebound? … Johnson went from winning 3 of the first 5 races to suffering a DNF in 2 of the last 3. Though that is quite a fall, it would be just like the No. 48 team to rebound by winning the race next week. After Johnson’s wreck on lap 180, while under caution McMurray came over the team radio and said, “They’ll come back and win the next four in a row. No biggie.” While winning the next four races would be quite a stretch, would anyone really be surprised? After Johnson wrecked at Texas Motor Speedway late last season, many expected the championship battle to be wide open. However, the No. 48 team squelched any hope of a tight championship battle with a win the next weekend at Phoenix. During the Daytona 500 this season, Johnson had to retire early from the race due to a broken axle, only to win the following weekend at Fontana. These comeback stories are the norm for Johnson and team, so don’t be surprised if they’re in victory lane at Dover.
Why did two very accomplished drivers have issues on pit road? … It may not be so much the racetrack that is “Too Tough to Tame.” It may be pit road. Though pit road mistakes happen every week, it was the drivers that suffered pit road mistakes this weekend that were so surprising. Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton were both in contention for the win. Between the two of them, they led 141 of the 367 laps. However, late race pit miscues cost both of them a shot at the victory. During a round of late race green flag pit stops, Gordon made an attempt to come into pit road but was blocked by Tony Stewart and missed the commitment line. When he came back around to make his stop, he got trapped on pit road under caution. He was still on the lead lap, however, and made his stop once the pits were reopened. During that round of stops under caution, Burton ran over his air hose leaving pit road, prompting a penalty from NASCAR. Both drivers found themselves out of contention for the race win. Though Gordon made a late race charge from 12th to 4th on the last green flag run of the night, he ran out of laps as Denny Hamlin pulled away to the victory. Burton finished 8th.
What is in Denny Hamlin’s knee? … Two of Hamlin’s three wins this season came after his knee surgery. The other one came just days before the operation. Take out his 30th place finish at Phoenix (his first race back after the surgery), and his average finish is 4th! Hamlin was considered to be the biggest threat to dethrone Johnson, but was at first disregarded due to a slow start to the season. In the first five races of the season, Hamlin averaged a 21st place finish and never finished any higher than 17th. After his knee surgery, though, only once has he finished any worse than 11th. It seems as though what many have thought to be a hindrance to Hamlin, might have made him that much better.
How happy was Kyle Busch to leave Darlington? … After wrecking his car in qualifying and having to relegate to a back-up car for Saturday night’s race, it was already apparent to Kyle Busch that it was going to be a long night. However, though he had to start from the back of the pack, Busch was able to work his way up into the top 10 in just under 100 laps. He was even able to lead twice for 29 laps. However, at one point during the race the No. 18 team took two right side tires on pit road but ended having to come back to pit road after Juan Pablo Montoya noticed they had a flat left rear. Then, on the final restart of the night, Busch was lined up alongside leader and teammate Hamlin. He seemed to be poised to make a run at the victory, but smacked the wall just seconds after the restart and fell all the way back to 7th place. It was definitely a long day for the Las Vegas native.
Bonus questions: Do you “Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun”? … Is Jeff Gordon still irrelevant to Jimmie Johnson? … Was “The Lady in Black” in a bad mood Saturday night?
Photo courtesy of NASCAR Media. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author.