Several drivers at critical juncture as Sprint Cup heads to Darlington
Darlington Raceway officials are promoting Saturday night's Southern 500 as a possible showdown between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, a year after their on-track confrontation carried over to pit road after the race.
Don't expect to see a rematch.
The bigger topic should be the direction they and others are headed 10 races into the season.
Harvick has had fast cars a number of times but mistakes in recent races have kept him from contending. Twice in the last three races he's run out of fuel. He fought an ill-handling car at Richmond and was held back at Texas by a slow pit stop that dropped him from second to just inside the top 10.
Three finishes of 19th or worse in the last five races is a bit concerning for Harvick, although it's better to have these mistakes now and have time to correct them than to struggle with them in the Chase.
While Harvick's team seeks to fine-tune some issues, Busch seems headed in the right direction after a slow start.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that Busch was being asked what's wrong. Then he won at Richmond -- he's won the spring race there four consecutive years -- and finished second at Talladega last weekend. Wrecks at Bristol, where he was collected in an incident, and Martinsville saddled him with finishes worse than 30th. His only other finish outside the top 20 came at Las Vegas when he ran through some oil and bounced off the wall, wounding his car.
Other than those three races, he's run toward the front. This week provides a chance to extend his strong run and give himself four consecutive top-10 finishes, matching his best run from last season.
But Saturday night's race also has meaning to others.
The driver many will watch this weekend is Jeff Gordon, who seems to find trouble no matter where he is on the track. He was in the top 10 at Bristol when contact with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. sent him spinning. Gordon was leading at Martinsville before he got knocked around on a late restart after Clint Bowyer's banzai move.
Last weekend at Talladega it appeared Gordon would get by an accident, but Martin Truex's car came down the banking and clipped Gordon, sending his car into the wall. Gordon finished 33rd in the race and fell to 23rd in the points.
"Man this is just one of the most bizarre years that this ... team has ever gone through,'' Gordon said after the incident. "I mean it's almost comical at this point. I thought I was clear. I was just kind of cruising by on the inside and it looked to me like somebody came down and got Martin [Truex Jr.] and then that turned him into me. That is just the way our season has been going.''
Now, his best chance of making the Chase appears to be winning two of the final 16 races before the Chase cutoff after Richmond in September.
Darlington could be what Gordon needs. Last year's 12th-place finish was the first time since 2004 that he placed outside the top five at this track. With five finishes outside the top 20 in the last seven races, Gordon could use some good fortune.
"At the end of the day when the checkered falls, they haven't been in a position they were running and have had a lot of things take place," teammate Jimmie Johnson said of Gordon. "That is frustrating for anyone. You go along and tell yourself 'Well at least we are running well,' but that lasts for a short period of time. We saw that with Kasey Kahne early in the year too, where the performance was there but the results weren't. You can only say that to yourself so many times. I know he is looking forward to just finishing where he should and not have something weird take place to him."
Darlington also comes at a nice time for Denny Hamlin, who saw his string of five consecutive finishes of 12th or better end last week at Talladega. His 6.5 average finish at this track is the best among all drivers entered this weekend.
What makes him so good there?
"I just strive on harder racetracks to try to figure out -- the Pocono's, the
Martinsville's -- tracks that just some people love and hate,'' said Hamlin, who won the Southern 500 two years ago. "It just seems like we have adapted to it and found a way to get around the track.''
Others looking for that magic include Truex. He started the season strong but had his two worst finishes of the season the past two weeks, finishing 25th at Richmond and 28th at Talladega. For a team learning how to win, it will be important not to let this mini-slide last much longer. Truex seemed so close to his first victory since 2007 only a few weeks ago. The question is if he and his team can recapture that and return to the top 10 or even top five.
Also worth watching this weekend will be the progress of Aric Almirola. Among the interesting things this season has been the lack of crew chief changes -- or other such changes -- by teams. Richard Petty Motorsports hired Mike Ford, who nearly won the 2010 championship with Denny Hamlin, last week to work with Almirola. Their first race together was Talladega.
A crew chief has little impact at Talladega. Ford knew this weekend would be more pivotal in working with his young driver.
"Darlington is going to be a challenge for us but we do have -- I feel like [Ford manufacturer teammate Carl Edwards] was the best car at Darlington last year and we can fall back on some of that knowledge,'' Ford said. "Then we have a couple weeks at Charlotte and Dover, which the No. 43 has been typically very strong at Dover, probably one of the top three cars. Then you have Pocono and Michigan and we get a day of testing those configurations. So the timing of this couldn't be better."
Others hope their timing is right starting this weekend.