Southern 500

Long: Managing mistakes defined Cup playoff opener

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Mistakes and how they were handled during Sunday’s Southern 500 could reverberate throughout the Cup playoffs.

Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott could feel the impact of what happened for the next few weeks. Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin could benefit in how they recovered.

Drivers talked last week about the need to be mistake-free in the playoffs. Some teams didn’t make it to the pre-race ceremonies without blunders.

NASCAR penalized Blaney 10 points, his starting spot and suspended crew chief Todd Gordon for the race before Blaney was on the grid.

A five-pound bag of lead used at the shop to simulate fluid weights before the engine is installed was accidentally left in Blaney’s car, the team stated. Gordon said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the issue “was missed by several people.”

NASCAR saw it. The 10-point penalty could be devastating to Blaney.

Darlington and Richmond, the first two tracks in the opening round of the playoffs, are among Blaney’s worst. He’s not scored a top 10 at either in Cup.

Blaney’s Southern 500 issues were compounded when a left rear tire went down and he had to pit as the field took the green flag to begin the second stage. That cost him a lap. Blaney finished 24th. He’s last in the playoff standings and now heads to Richmond, a place he’s never finished in the top 15 in a Cup race.

Blaney’s team wasn’t the only one to have problems before the command to fire engines. Somehow, Dillon’s team switched the left front and right front tires on the No. 3 car.

“Somebody just didn’t see the L and didn’t see the R,” Dillon said of the markings that note left side and right side tires. “They’re Sharpied on there. That was how they found it.”

Dillon said crew chief Justin Alexander saw the issue shortly before the race. Had the error not been found, Dillon said “I would have probably knocked the fence down.” Dillon had to start at the rear for changing the tires since it came after pre-race inspection.

Dillon relied on FIDO — Forget It and Drive On — to get him through that challenge.

It’s an approach Dillon picked up from former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a motivational speaker and veterans advocate, who lost his left arm and left eye in combat in Vietnam. Clebe spoke at Richard Childress Racing before the season.

“It was probably one of the best luncheons we’ve had as a group, just an unbelievable speaker,” Dillon said. “I think it really hit home for me because I’m a fiery guy and I can dwell on things too long instead of moving on. That acronym is just an easy reminder, like hey, man, it’s over. There’s no need to play it back or wonder why we’re in the situation we’re in. It’s just get the most out of everything that I can.”

Dillon moved on and prepared to race from the back of the lineup. Challenges persisted. He had to pit under green during the first stage because a right rear tire was going flat. He overcame that obstacle and went on to finish second to winner Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski’s team had their own challenges. Keselowski — whose playoff motto is “Why not us?” — hit the wall and had a flat right front tire on Lap 81 of the 367-lap race. Instead of making partial repairs and sending Keselowski back on track to stay on the lead lap, crew chief Jeremy Bullins calmly told his team they’d lose a lap while making the necessary repairs.

Keselowski eventually got back on the lead lap and went on to finish 11th. It wasn’t a memorable result, but it was better than 31st, his position after the incident.

Hamlin also was steady during a key point in the race. He was in a pack of cars and tried to get to the lower lane so he could pit under green. Hamlin was blocked by a car on the inside on the backstretch. He finally got to the bottom lane in Turn 3.

Hamlin recognized he was going too fast to pit and didn’t compound matters with a daring move that could have damaged his car. He lost positions by going back around the track before pitting, but he didn’t panic. A debris caution about 10 laps late stuck Hamlin outside the top 10 and he wasn’t able to recover. Still, his 13th-place finish was better than it might have been.

It was a better finish than Truex (22nd) and Elliott (20th). As they raced for the lead late, Truex got a run off Turn 4 and made a move under Elliott entering Turn 1 with 14 laps to go. Truex hadn’t cleared Elliott when he moved up but later said: “I thought I had enough momentum and distance on (Elliott) that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear and I was committed.”

They made contact and both hit the wall. Their chances to win were over.

The aggressive move is understandable. It’s 14 laps to go in the Southern 500. It’s a playoff race where a win moves the driver to the next round and scores five playoff points. Truex entered the playoffs with only 14 playoff points. But his hope that Elliott would let him up might have been overly optimistic. Could Truex have stayed on the low side and tried to pressure Elliott into a mistake over the remaining laps? Possibly. If he thought that was his one opportunity to take the lead, Truex had the take the chance. 

With risk comes reward, but there was no reward this time. Instead, Truex and Elliott each lost about 20 points and the potential for five playoff points because of the incident.

Will they need those points in the playoffs? Will those points be the difference in advancing to another round or the championship race? Or will it be only a footnote to what is to come in these playoffs?

With nine races remaining, there will be many challenges and mistakes made. How drivers and teams respond could  play a role in who races for a title.

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Cup standings after Darlington

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While Ford driver Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s Southern 500 to advance to the second round of the playoffs, other Ford drivers are at the bottom of the Cup standings after Darlington.

Aric Almirola holds the final transfer spot to the second round. He is tied with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer but holds the tiebreaker on Bowyer. They are followed by rookie Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney at the bottom of the Cup standings after Darlington.

Two races remain in the opening playoff round before the 16-driver field is cut to 12. The series races at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Richmond Raceway. The first round ends Sept. 19 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Here is a look at the Cup playoff grid. Drivers shaded in green are locked in the playoffs. Drivers shaded in yellow are in a playoff spot based on their point total. Those shaded in red are outside a spot in the Cup playoff grid.

 

Southern 500 winners and losers

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Here is a look at the Southern 500 winners and losers:

WINNERS

Kevin HarvickThe idea of him becoming the first Cup driver to win 10 races in a season since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 seems plausible after winning the Southern 500. That is Harvick’s eighth victory of the season. The win puts him into the second round. He now has 62 playoff points, which should get him into the third round. 

Austin DillonStanding on pit road before the race, he and his team noticed that his right front tire was on the left side and the left front tire was on the right side. The team fixed the mistake but had to start at the rear for unapproved adjustments. Dillon responded by working his way to the front and finished second.

Erik Jones He placed fourth Sunday. He has never finished outside the top 10 in a Cup race at Darlington in six starts. Think about that. At one of the sport’s toughest tracks, Jones has a win and always finished in the top 10.

Alex BowmanHe finished sixth after a jack problem on a pit start, but he finished the night with 43 points. That was more than any driver except winner Kevin Harvick. Bowman scored 12 stage points.

 

LOSERS

Ryan Blaney Awful night dropped him to last in the playoff standings heading to Richmond, one of his worst tracks. The day started with a pre-race penalty that saw NASCAR suspend his crew chief for the race and dock him 10 points. It got worse. Blaney had a tire go down as the second stage began and had to pit as the field took the green. He lost a lap and never recovered, finishing 24th. He’s never scored a top 10 in eight Darlington starts.

Matt DiBenedetto Never was a factor in finishing 21st. Feels confident about upcoming playoff races at Richmond and Bristol in the first round. Will need strong runs there to advance to the second round.

Denny HamlinHe missed pit road on Lap 309 of 367. That put him back in the pack. A debris caution about 10 laps later trapped him outside the top 10 and he never recovered. On a night when he ran toward the front much of the race, he finished 13th.

Martin Truex Jr.He entered the postseason with only 14 playoff points, so it is understandable that he was aggressive in attempting to pass Chase Elliott for the lead with 14 laps to go. But to expect the other driver to let him come up the track when Truex was not cleared so late in a playoff race seemed overly optimistic. The result is the aggressive move cost both Truex and Elliott. They each hit the wall and weren’t a factor. Truex finished 22nd. He is 16 points ahead of the cutline with two races left in the first round.

Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott tangle keeps both from win

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Martin Truex Jr. thought he had enough room. Chase Elliott didn’t see it that way.

Truex challenged Elliott for the lead with 14 laps to go in Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but both hit the wall. That allowed Kevin Harvick to take the lead and win the Cup playoff opener.

MORE: Crew chiefs for Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer suspended 1 race

Truex got a run off Turn 4 and pursued Elliott down the frontstretch. Truex went under Elliott entering Turn 1 but was not clear when he came up the track. Elliott and Truex hit and both slammed the wall.

“It’s Darlington and typically you don’t want to go in side-by-side,” Truex said. “I felt like I had enough of a run and enough space there that the last foot or so (Elliott) was going to understand that if I was committed, we both weren’t going to make it. Typically, here that’s kind of how you race. If a guy gets a run on you and he’s just about got you cleared, you have to give that last little bit.

“Now obviously, the end of the race, probably the pass for the win, he wanted to drive it on in there, and I was committed to being clear and there was no way we were both going to make the corners. Basically, when I made up my mind and I was driving it in there and then he drove in on my right-rear quarter, there was no possible way that we both weren’t crashing. That’s what happened.”

Said Elliott: “He (Truex) had a run on me there off of (Turn) 4 and he just kind of cleared himself into 1. He was close, but he wasn’t all the way clear, obviously.”

Truex had to pit soon after the incident because his right rear tire lost air pressure. He finished 22nd, ending his streak of eight consecutive finishes of fourth or better.

Elliott worried he had a tire going down but stayed on track and finished 20th.

“I hate it, obviously we had a fast NAPA Camaro – fast enough to contend,” Elliott said of the finish. “We needed a little pace there to extend our lead instead of playing defense, but regardless I thought we were in a good spot. I ran the bottom in (Turn) 3 and 4 to see if there was anything left down there, that’s what kind of gave (Truex) the run and then he just slid up into my left front, I felt like and on we went.”

Said Truex: “I hate it for (Elliott’s) team. Obviously, it was nothing intentional, just two guys going for the win and not enough room for both of us there. If it was my fault, I apologize. I really felt like I had the position to get in there to (Turn) 1. That’s how it goes, and we’ll see what goes on from here.”

The incident marked the second Darlington race in a row that contact with a Joe Gibbs Racing car ruined Elliott’s race.

Elliott was running second in the race there in May when Kyle Busch misjudged his position and clipped the rear of Elliott’s car as Busch attempted to fill in the gap for third place. Elliott crashed. After climbing from his car, Elliott gave Busch a one-finger gesture when Busch drove by.

What drivers said after Southern 500

Southern 500
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Southern 500:

Kevin Harvick — Winner: “We kept having a lot of trouble with the right-rear tire cording. The car was really loose all night long for whatever reason and would cord the right-rear tire, so I think that was probably about as far as they felt like we were comfortable of going and wound up being the right strategy in the end. Anytime you can win the Southern 500 is a good day. This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport and this is one the most prestigious racetracks in our sport, so anytime you can win at Darlington it’s a big deal, but, man, Southern 500!”

Austin Dillon — Finished 2nd: “Man, it would have been nice to get that win and lock ourselves into the next round of the NASCAR playoffs, but it was a heck of a finish for our No. 3 American Ethanol Chevrolet team. I’m proud of our second-place finish, especially after dropping to the rear of the field at the start of the race and having to recover from that setback. We battled really hard all night for every single spot we could get. We had a really good long run car and towards the end of the race I knew Kevin Harvick was getting tighter each lap. I caught him earlier in the closing run, but he took my low line in Turns 1 and 2, which was where I was running the best, and stopped the momentum that I had going. I gave it everything I had though.”

Joey Logano — Finished 3rd: “Man, hard fought. We kind of were decent, it’s just so hard to pass with these big spoilers on the car at this racetrack. That makes it challenging. We had a right-front go down the last lap of the second stage, hit the wall and we did a good job fixing the car and then strategy worked well, so Paul (Wolfe, crew chief) did great there, and then they had an amazing pit stop the last stop, had a good restart and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Shoot, we could win this thing.’ To see what the left-rear looks like after that I was pretty impressed to get whatever we got. It’s funny how the team always tells you, ‘How does the damage look?’ ‘It looks great. It looks great.’ You get out and you’re like, ‘Whoa!’ Overall, that’s what we needed to do. We need to come out of these playoffs running hard and having a solid top three finish to start the playoffs with a couple stage points is a good way to start.”

Erik Jones — Finished 4th: “It was good. It was really tough to pass. Once you got up inside the top seven or eight, those guys were all pretty equal, and it was hard to make ground from there. We started deep, 30th, today and drove up and finished fourth. We got a couple of extra spots at the end, but this Sport Clips Camry was quick. We just never got up front. We just needed to get up front and get some clean air. That’s what we did last year. I thought we had just as good of a car as what we did last year. We just never got to the lead. That’s what held us back, I think. It’s tough. The cars are finicky. They are on edge, and it’s really hard to make ground, but decent day.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 6th: “Sixth place isn’t terrible, but man we had a fast Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE tonight in Darlington. We had some issues on pit road that hurt us and we had to recover from that. I really feel like we were a car capable of winning. We just got buried there, but thankfully recovered from it. Sixth place isn’t the end of the world, but you know you had a fast car when you are bummed about sixth. This car looked amazing tonight and hopefully we can go to Richmond next weekend and do the same thing. It is a good feeling to have a good start to the playoffs.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 7th: “Traffic was definitely our detriment, there was just nothing I could do to try to find clean air in order to make up any speed back in traffic so I just got mired wherever the heck I was and that was it. Being out front in clean air, I was able to run with Martin (Truex Jr.) and had a fast M&M’s Camry and could really show how fast our car was when we drove away from the field by a couple seconds there until that caution that NASCAR flew that was not a caution.”

Kurt Busch — Finished  8th: I’m happy with our run tonight with the Monster Energy Chevy. I know it’s not a win, but we got everything out of the race that we were hoping for; except maybe the alternate strategy that we were trying with one stop in the final stage. I was hopeful for the long run. I like dancing with the Lady!”

Aric Almirola — Finished 9th:  “We got in a little bit of a hole early in the race with some left-rear quarter panel damage that we had to fix on pit road and really put us in a spot to where we couldn’t capitalize on stage points, so that hurt us a little bit just not scoring any stage points, but we were able to battle back from that and get back to the top 10, which is where we felt like we were capable of running.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 10th: “I certainly was hoping for more.  Frustrated to be honest with you. I have to go back and look at the race to see what happened with the debris. By the time that they picked it up I’d say it was way off the racetrack, so that kind of set us up to not have a not very good day. That put us in a hole. We were gonna be in the single digits for sure there, looking pretty good, but just had a lot of trouble. Right-rear (tire)— threw the rubber off the right-rear and had to pit there. It could have been catastrophic. At the end, the left-rear (tire) was about to fall off of it, so we’ve got to clean some things up. I told you going into this we’ve got to put 10 races together. We’ve got to put whole races together. We can’t make these mistakes.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 11th: “(Crew chief) Jeremy Bullins and everyone on the Discount Tire team did a great job tonight. I made a mistake early in the race, but we worked together and made a good recovery.”

Cole Custer — Finished 12th: “We definitely fought hard the whole night just to try to keep ourselves in the game. We had to go to the back with a speeding penalty and just overall fought as hard as we could all night and ended up 12th. Overall, I mean, we wanted to run better, but that’s something that can keep us in the game and keep us in the game for the next two races. Hopefully, we can put together better, but Darlington definitely hasn’t been our team’s strong suit, so it’s just a matter of figuring out what I can do better and what we can get better with the car.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 16th: “Well, that was a really positive end to what started out as a pretty tough day for our No. 34 team. We didn’t unload exactly how we had hoped to start the race, but Drew (Blickensderfer) and the guys did what they do best and made our race car a lot better by the time we took the green flag for the final stage. Overall, it was a pretty decent points day and another top-20 to add to our season. I definitely wanted that top-15, coming up just one position short; but we’ll take what we can get.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 18th: “That was not the result we wanted, we had a fast Ally Chevy until that last stage and it just kept getting tighter, but my guys just keep fighting. We will just focus on Richmond.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 20th: “He (Martin Truex Jr.) had a run on me there off of four and he just kind of cleared himself into one. He was close, but he wasn’t all the way clear, obviously. I hate it, obviously we had a fast NAPA Camaro – fast enough to contend. We needed a little pace there to extend our lead instead of playing defense, but regardless I thought we were in a good spot. I ran the bottom in three and four to see if there was anything left down there, that’s what kind of gave him the run and then he just slid up in to my left front, I felt like and on we went.”

MARTIN TRUEX Jr. – Finished 22nd: “It’s Darlington and typically you don’t want to go in side-by-side. I felt like I had enough of a run and enough space there that the last foot or so he (Chase Elliott) was going to understand that if I was committed, we both weren’t going to make it. Typically, here that’s kind of how you race. If a guy gets a run on you and he’s just about got you cleared, you have to give that last little bit. Now obviously, the end of the race, probably the pass for the win, he wanted to drive it on in there and I was committed to being clear and there was no way we were both going to make the corners. Basically, when I made up my mind and I was driving it in there and then he drove in on my right-rear quarter, there was no possible way that we both weren’t crashing. That’s what happened.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 23rd: “I’ve gotten to run a lot of cool races, but the Southern 500 has always been towards the top of the list for me, so it was really special to be able to make my first start in it tonight. I love NASCAR’s throwback weekend, and our No. 8 Cat Power Chevrolet honoring Jeff Burton’s No. 8 scheme that he accepted Rookie of the Year honors with looked great out there. We fired off really fast tonight, but our handling was just a touch loose. My team made some good adjustments early in the run to tighten me up, but then the rear security of our Camaro became really unstable, which made it tough to manage the handling through the turns on both sides of the track. During the start of Stage 3, the field got stacked up on the restart and I received some damage to the nose of our car, right above the grille. That affected the handling a lot for the rest of the night and kept the temps up high, too.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 24th: “Definitely wasn’t our night for our Menards/Maytag team. We had the inspection penalty and lost points before the race started and had some bad breaks. We’ll get ready for Richmond and Bristol and try to gain ground back in the playoffs.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 25th: “We made the most of what we had in our throwback CommScope Toyota tonight. We didn’t have the speed we were hoping for, but everybody did a good job turning us around into the right direction. We struggled to find grip in the beginning, when we were not too good on the short runs but better on the long runs. That changed when the track changed – we were pretty good on the short run but then too free over the longer run. I’m proud of Dave (Winston, crew chief) and the guys for their hard work making the car better at the end of the race.”

John Hunter Nemechek — Finished 36th: “That definitely wasn’t the way we wanted to end our night driving Elliott Sadler’s CITGARD throwback scheme. Our No. 38 Ford Mustang fired off pretty tight but then I got looser as the run went on and the sun set. We had some really good pit stops tonight and Seth (Barbour) and the crew made some good adjustments so that we had a good balance by the end of Stage 2. Unfortunately, we had a miscommunication on track early in the final stage and that ended our day. I hate it for my guys because they’ve worked so hard all year and they never give up. We’ll reset this week at the shop and get ready for Richmond.”

Bubba Wallace — Finished 38th: “We had some bad luck on our side. I don’t really know what the main issue was that ultimately led us to not finish the race. We started out decent. Our guys made some good adjustments on the car and then got it better, and I was really happy with it. After we had our mishap and went to the garage, we came back out and I thought our car was really good. We just had to survive until it went to night time and I thought we could have put a decent race together by that time, but it didn’t work out.”