What we learned in Darlington
When it comes to "Old school, NASCAR racing" it doesn't get any better than the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Saturday night's renewal of this classic contest was historic for many reasons as Hendrick Motorsports finally reached a milestone moment in what was just the third green, white, checkered flag finish in Darlington's history.
Darlington is the home of stock car racing. Not only is it the South's Oldest Superspeedway, hosting the first Southern 500 in 1950, but the greatest names in NASCAR have excelled here, from Junior Johnson, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt, to name a few.
That's why it is fitting that the greatest NASCAR driver of the current era won Saturday night's Southern 500.
So let's get to the "Five Things We Learned from Darlington."
Race No. 16 in Jimmie Johnson's winless streak was sweet for many reasons. Not only did Johnson break the longest winless streak of his career, but it also gave Hendrick Motorsports the elusive 200th Sprint Cup victory the team has been chasing since last October.
But it came with tremendous drama.
With 48 laps to go, the green flag waved with 21 cars on the lead lap and a tremendous battle between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
Kurt Busch had hit the wall a few laps before he hit it again with nine to go. Busch's car got squirrely sending him across the track and into the path of Ryan Newman, who's Chevrolet got tagged and spun for a yellow flag that Johnson did not want to see.
But on the restart for the green, white, checkered flag finish, Johnson was able to get a great run while Denny Hamlin passed Tony Stewart for second place.
From there, Johnson had enough fuel to make it to the finish and win the race.
"There you go boys, win No. 200!!" Johnson radioed to his crew after he scored Cup win No. 56 -- eighth on the all-time list.
Team owner Rick Hendrick missed the start of the race in order to attend a wedding but arrived in time for the big finish.
"I just left a wedding for my best friend to make it here," Hendrick said afterwards. "I can't believe we won 200 of these things and I can't believe it took so long after win No. 199. Everything has happened backwards for us this year. We've run so well but have had some bad luck. I think we are going to win a few more, now. We think about all the loved ones we have lost tonight."
There has been much triumph and some tragedy for Hendrick Motorsports including the terrible plane crash near Martinsville, Virginia in October 2004 that killed 10 people on Hendrick's private plane, including his son Ricky, Rick Hendrick's brother John, two nieces and engine builder Randy Dorton.
Hendrick and Johnson shared the special moment with a long hug in victory lane.
"He just said 200 wins is great; let's go get 250," Johnson said. "What a day. We had a tremendous race car and won the race. There really was a lot of drama. In a fuel mileage race I was really concerned and hoped I had saved enough fuel but there were a lot of hungry drivers out there. This race is so special; so great. Darlington is a great race track."
It was crew chief Chad Knaus that made the key call to save fuel and it paid off big for Johnson. Now that the winless streak has been snapped, watch for Hendrick Motorsports to hit its stride.
There are race drivers and then there are "real race drivers" and Tony Stewart fits into the latter category. Stewart is the modern-day Cale Yarborough when it comes to manhandling a car around a race track and he proved that Saturday night.
When Bobby Labonte spun out on lap 298, the yellow flag allowed the contenders to dive onto pit road. During that stop, Stewart's clutch would not engage in his Chevrolet and he had a lengthy stop while the crew tried to correct the problem. But Stewart was able to stay on the lead lap and when the green flag flew, the three-time Cup champion drove with fearless abandon. He motored his way up to fourth place before the next caution period when Reed Sorenson spun out.
The green flag waved with 34 laps to go and Stewart was up to third and quickly passed Kyle Busch for second place. Stewart, who had topped off the fuel tank with a pit stop shortly after his clutch problems, had the advantage over Johnson, allowing him to race hard while Johnson had to save fuel.
But Stewart's poor restart on the green, white checkered flag finish foiled his efforts to score a victory on one of the two tracks where he has never won.
Stewart had fuel pressure issues on the restart.
"I'm pretty happy to come out of here third tonight," Stewart said. "I'm really happy for Hendrick Motorsports. They deserve win No. 200."
Stewart is now seventh in the Cup standings, 42 points behind the leader Greg Biffle who is just two points ahead of Matt Kenseth. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is third, 14 points out.
Although the Daytona 500 was Danica Patrick's Sprint Cup debut, she crashed at the start of the second lap and finished the season-opening race 64 laps down to the winner, Matt Kenseth. So Saturday night's race at Darlington was her first chance to drive a complete race in the Cup Series and she was a non-factor from the start.
Patrick, who hit the wall on her first run in Nationwide practice and would go on to hit it two more times in the practice on Friday, started 38th in Saturday night's Southern 500. With a very long green flag run to start the race, Patrick would be three laps down to the leader before the first yellow flag waved on Lap 172.
The key to success at Darlington Raceway is to run the car as close to the wall as possible. For Patrick, that was simply too close for her comfort.
"I'm not comfortable. I'm not a wall person," Patrick radioed to crew chief Greg Zipadelli during Friday's first Sprint Cup practice. She would finish as the slowest driver out of the 47 that came to Darlington.
Friday's struggles were a sign of things to come for Patrick who knew heading into this race that Darlington would be her most challenging race track. And it won't get any easier for Patrick whose next Sprint Cup start is in two weeks in the Coca-Cola 600.
On the bright side, Patrick finished 12th in Friday night's Nationwide Series race at Darlington so she still has hopes of a decent season in that series. But when she steps up to Cup, it's a much more competitive field and Patrick is learning that hard way that breaking into this series is pretty tough.
Ironically, while Patrick was competing at Darlington, her father, T.J. Patrick, and mother, Bev, were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Saturday's opening day of practice for the 96th Indianapolis 500.
"I'm not at Darlington because I didn't want to go," T.J. Patrick told me Saturday afternoon on pit lane at Indy. "This is the Indianapolis 500 and there is no place I would rather be in May. If you are a racer, this is where you want to be."
While those are interesting comments from Patrick's father, his daughter realized the best career move she could make was a full-time plunge into NASCAR. But during May, NASCAR has formidable competition from the "World's Biggest Race".
The first 172 laps of the race were run without a caution period which meant three green flag pit stops for each driver. That is nearly unheard of at Darlington Raceway, one of the most demanding tracks in NASCAR. But after the mean and green start, Darlington had seven yellow flags over the final 200 laps, including the final one that ultimately determined the outcome of the contest.
When Jeff Gordon's tire exploded on Lap 192, one of the contenders for victory in this race was forced to limp his Chevrolet into the pit area. It was yet another race where Gordon's string of unbelievably bad luck has cost him a shot at a decent finish and is one reason why the four-time Cup champion is in danger of missing the Chase for the Championship in 2012. NASCAR officials threw the yellow flag on Lap 194 when Gordon's left rear tire went flat.
Gordon's left rear tire went flat again on Lap 204 leading his pit crew to determine that something was broken in the rear of his car.
"We've got something broke here, boys," Gordon radioed to his crew chief Alan Gustafson.
Rather than change tires and send Gordon back onto the track, his crew spent extensive time searching for the cause of the tire issue. Gordon would return to the track, get a third flat tire and this time Gordon drove into the garage area on Lap 222. He would later return to the race 28 laps down.
Gordon is one of NASCAR's all-time greatest drivers with 85 victories. But it's doubtful that he has ever had a run of bad luck like he is experiencing this season. It will be extremely difficult for Gordon to be among the 12 drivers to get into the season-ending championship chase.