DARLINGTON, S.C. — After 500 miles around the lady in black, it was Martin Truex Jr. who found himself in Gatorade victory lane.
Kevin Harvick led the field to the green flag at 6:26 p.m. under mostly sunny skies. The race was dominated by Harvick and ran caution free for over 90 laps. It came out for the first time on lap 92 after Trevor Bayne spun out trying to get on pit road. It trapped all but Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. down a lap or more, and forced them to take a wave around.
The race got back underway on lap 103 and remained green for nine laps before Brian Scott went spinning in turn 2 to bring out the second caution.
When the race returned green on lap 118, it settled into another green flag long run that saw Harvick take the lead from Keselowski on lap 141 and a cycle of green flag stops on lap 162.
Just past halfway, Tony Stewart got into Scott and sent him into the backstretch wall on lap 205. This got Stewart called to the NASCAR hauler after the race.
After it returned to green on lap 211, Jimmie Johnson got loose exiting turn 4, turned down the track and hit the wall head on.
The race turned into more of a start and stop mode after it restarted on lap 218. Thirty-one laps later, the fifth caution flew after Jeffrey Earnhardt made contact with the wall. Matt Kenseth assumed the race lead after opting not to pit.
It restarted on lap 265. Harvick found himself back in the lead with 94 laps to go. The sixth caution flew with 87 laps to go for an incident with AJ Allmendinger and Ryan Blaney. Denny Hamlin exited pit road with the race lead.
There was also the engine expiration of the 14 car with 48 laps to go and an accident with Kurt Busch and Paul Menard in turn 2.
When the final caution flew with 17 laps to go after Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola tangled in turn 2, Harvick was sitting in the lead. But as has plagued him for many recent races, he had a bad pit stop on top of other bad pit stops and Truex exited pit road with the race lead.
Eventually, the race restarted, Truex pulled away and won the race.
“This is just – this is unbelievable,” Truex said. “So many people to thank obviously. I’ve always loved this race track. I’ve led a lot of laps here in my career. I feel like just something always happened and just so proud to get to victory lane with this group. The pit crew was flawless tonight. They won us the race. They took a lot of heat from last week with what happened. I’m glad he’s (Ryan Newman) not riding home with me – he’d be waiting a while. But just a big weekend for us to – we’ve had a terrible string of back luck. We’ve had super-fast race cars. Auto-Owners Insurance, this is their second race with us and one more with us this year and really excited for them. They went a little retro. I’ve got my zoot suit. This is something here that’s really special to us – I ran this wheel today and it’s real special to take that thing to victory lane. We do a lot with our foundation for ovarian and pediatric cancer. It’s awareness month for both of those diseases, so big day for us there, but just can’t say enough about this team and Barney Visser (team owner) and Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development) – the engines have been unbelievable this year – and Bass Pro Shops and Furniture Row, Denver Mattress and everybody that’s made this possible. Cole Pearn (crew chief) and these guys are just amazing. I knew when the bad luck would stop coming we’d start racking them off.
“We do a lot with our foundation for ovarian and pediatric cancer. It’s awareness month for both of those diseases, so big day for us there, but just can’t say enough about this team and Barney Visser (team owner) and Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development) – the engines have been unbelievable this year – and Bass Pro Shops and Furniture Row, Denver Mattress and everybody that’s made this possible. Cole Pearn (crew chief) and these guys are just amazing. I knew when the bad luck would stop coming we’d start racking them off and tonight we weren’t the best car for once and we actually won, so that was really cool and just couldn’t be more excited to win at Darlington, the Southern 500. I’ve been wanting to win this thing a long time and got to thank Sprint, the fans were great – tons of fans here today – and really excited. Glad they stuck around for a good finish and I don’t know – I could go on and on for hours I guess.”
It’s his fifth career victory in 394 Sprint Cup Series starts, second of 2016, the 11th top-10 finish of the season, first win at Darlington Raceway and fifth top-10 at Darlington.
“Well, it just was frustrating to lead laps here throughout my career and even in years when we didn’t run that well at teams I was on, we seemed to run well here and felt like we let a few slip away,” he added. “It was worth the wait for sure, so we’ll do some celebrating tonight and just can’t thank everybody enough again – everybody at (Joe) Gibbs (Racing), all those guys, great teammates – just so many people I need to thank. The pit crew – man, I can’t say it enough, what a job they did tonight. I appreciate them.”
It’s also the first multi-win season of his career.
Harvick led a race-high of 214 laps on his way to a runner-up finish in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
“Our team in the garage did a great job,” Harvick said. “They brought the fastest race car to the track once again and we just didn’t do a good job on pit road and gave it away.”
It’s his 20th top-10 finish of the season and ninth in 20 starts at Darlington.
Kyle Larson led 42 laps on his way to rounding out the podium in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
“It was long,” Larson said of how his race went. “My spotter said we were halfway and I was like ‘are you kidding me we still have however many to go?’ But it was a good night. We had to fight pretty hard to get to the top four or five. Our pit stops weren’t great there in the beginning, but they rebounded and we had some good stops there at the end to maintain. The last probably five or six stops I thought were pretty good. We were able to get past Denny (Hamlin) and get to the lead and lead some laps. We had a really good car out front. In traffic, I was just too tight for a little while and as we went I would get too loose on exit, but I found some lines that worked for me and that helped, but a tough race. It is good to come back after the win last week and finish third.”
Denny Hamlin led 13 laps on his way to a fourth-place finish in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Joey Logano rounded out the top-five in his No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
When asked if that means anything at this point, he said “it just doesn’t matter if it isn’t a win. At this point, I guess momentum means something so I guess something matters. I disagree that I didn’t have anything for them. I did on the long run. We were the fastest car on the long run every time. We hit a lot of short runs at the end and that would kill us. I lost two or three spots every restart for the first five or six laps and then it would kick in and off I would go. I was fighting to get them back. We kind of hurt ourselves there with restarts tonight. We needed to go green from about 100 to go. We would have been good then.”
Matt Kenseth led 10 laps on his way to a sixth-place finish in his No. 20 JGR Toyota. Kasey Kahne finished seventh in his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Ryan Newman led nine laps on his way to an eighth-place finish in his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Brad Keselowski led 47 laps on his way to a ninth-place finish in his No. 2 Penske Ford. Chase Elliott rounded out the top-10 in his No. 24 HMS Chevrolet.
Kyle Busch, who led one lap, finished 11th.
Eighteen cars finished the race on the lead lap and 32 were running at the finish.
The race lasted three hours, 57 minutes and 54 seconds at an average speed of 126.437 mph. There were 14 lead changes among eight different drivers and 10 cautions for 52 laps.
Harvick leaves Darlington with a 43-point lead over Keselowski in the points standings.