Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway was not your typical Southern 500. For starters, it was held on its traditional Labor Day weekend date, something diehard NASCAR fans have been clamoring for since this date was taken away from them after 2003.
It featured a new low-downforce package with aerodynamic changes as well, adding an unknown quality to the atmosphere of the 66th annual Bojangles Southern 500. Surprisingly, it was also the longest race of the year, coming in at four hours and 28 minutes, due to the high number of cautions, a record 18.
For Carl Edwards, it was a unique event, as he captured his first victory at Darlington Raceway and 25th career win. It all came down to a seamless pit stop during the 18th caution and a flawless restart that gave him the lead with eight laps remaining in the race. Edwards held off Brad Keselowski and claimed the checkered flag in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, celebrating with his own tradition, his trademark backflip.
It was a fitting victory for Edwards who has been a vocal advocate for the low-downforce setup.
“I don’t think I can get in trouble for how much I liked it, but I loved it; this is as good as it gets,” Edwards said. “This is what it’s about. We’re sliding cars, tires are falling off, this is the style of racing, if there’s any chance we can run this in the Chase, I hope we can do it. It was an awesome day.”
Although Edwards gave his pit crew credit for the win, it was a combined driver and team effort. On Lap 62, under caution, Edwards did not pit with the rest of the lead-lap cars. When he went to pit road on Lap 89, a caution for a crash involving Michael Annett trapped Edwards two laps down. It took him about 200 laps to drive his way back to the front of the field.
Edwards described the victory as “really special” and went on to say, “This is what we needed. We just needed a shot in the arm and needed to have a good night like this. All over, it’s cool.
Denny Hamlin led 57 laps, finishing third, followed by Joey Logano who led 29 laps, in fourth. Kevin Harvick led 44 laps and finished fifth.
“I hope I never forget those last 25 laps,” Edwards continued. “That was really fun, and the restart was fun, but truly racing with Brad and Kevin was a blast. I really had a good time.”
Pole-sitter Keselowski dominated much of the race, leading six times for 196 laps and finishing in second place. He spoke about the new aero package after winning the Coors Light Pole award Saturday, saying he thought that NASCAR was moving in the right direction. His failure to win the Southern 500 didn’t alter his opinion.
“It separates the race car drivers from the pretends, and that’s the way it should be,” he reiterated.
Another highlight of the Southern 500 was driver Tony Stewart who finished in 15th place but for a brief moment, had the crowd on their feet, as he took the lead on Lap 212 for 10 laps.
Kyle Busch accomplished what some doubted was possible. After missing 11 races when he was injured at the beginning of the season, he secured his spot in the Chase with a seventh place result that locked him into the top 30 in the Cup Series points standings.
“Making the Chase was something we weren’t all sure was possible after my injuries,” Busch said. “It’s a great opportunity to be with these guys on this M&M’S Crispy team. They’re working really hard at Joe Gibbs Racing, we’ve got a lot of speed, and I think all four cars have a really good shot at this championship.
“I had my hands full tonight. I think I just got a little behind on what our adjustments needed to be for the race, but our whole team just really turned this thing around, and it turned out to be a solid finish for us.”
With the return to Labor Day weekend, Darlington and NASCAR presented the first “return to tradition” spectacular at Darlington complete with new signage, ‘70s music, throwback paint schemes, a bevy of NASCAR legends including Hall of Famers and more, to a near capacity crowd. It was an event to be remembered and one that will continue through a five-year plan that promises to offer more of the same in the coming years.
Next week, the action intensifies as NASCAR travels to Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 12 for the last regular-season race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship playoffs begins. Television coverage will be provided by NBC Sports Network.