Darlington Raceway 500
Ill-Timed Caution Curtails Stewart’s Solid Run in Southern 500
Office Depot/Mobil 1 Driver Rallies from 20th in Last 85 Laps To Log 10th Top-10 at Darlington
Despite finishing seventh in Saturday night’s Showtime Southern 500, Tony Stewart had one of his best races ever at the venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
The tricky 1.366-mile oval has proven to be a challenge for Stewart, as the two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had logged only three top-fives and nine top-10s in his 18 previous Sprint Cup starts at the aptly named “Too Tough to Tame” venue.
But as soon as his Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team unloaded his No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet Impala for practice on Friday, Stewart was fast. He qualified a solid ninth and then climbed to second behind his SHR teammate Ryan Newman as Newman paced the field for the race’s first 28 laps.
Stewart was a top-five mainstay, getting shuffled away from the leaders only when getting bogged down on Darlington’s ever-so-tight pit road. He appeared to have a car capable of finally delivering that long-sought win, but during a long, green flag run on lap 278, Stewart made a scheduled pit stop for four tires and fuel. Unfortunately, the caution flag waved just two laps later, momentarily putting Stewart a lap down.
But crew chief Darian Grubb deftly kept Stewart out on the track, whereupon he earned the “wave around,” where any car that doesn’t pit under caution gets its lap back if every car on the lead lap does pit.
When the race restarted on lap 285, Stewart was in 20th, the last car on the lead lap with just 85 laps remaining.
The No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 team dug deep, rallying from their hole to eventually take the race lead for six laps before having to pit one final time for tires and fuel on lap 339.
This dropped them back to 18th with less than 30 laps to go, but when the caution flag waved on lap 359 for Jeff Burton’s blown engine, Stewart and Grubb decided to do the opposite of whatever the leaders did. So, when the front-runners ducked onto pit road, Stewart stayed out, leapfrogging his way to third.
Track position had trumped tires, and even with 18 laps on his Goodyears, Stewart was determined to earn a strong finish. With a tenacious drive, Stewart did just that, outlasting two late-race restarts to bring home his second straight top-10 finish and his 10th top-10 at Darlington.
The caution that caught us out on the track – there was nothing we could do about it.
“The caution that caught us out on the track – there was nothing we could do about it,” Stewart said. “But Darian and this team gave me a good car and we did the best we could with the hand we were dealt. The guys that got around us had fresher tires than us, and it showed on that last restart. This is a tough track. Seventh isn’t anything to celebrate, but we’ll take it.”
Newman, driver of the No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet Impala for SHR, finished fifth. It was his seventh top-five finish in 13 career Sprint Cup starts at Darlington.
The duo’s Darlington effort marked the second time this season that both SHR drivers have finished in the top-10. The last time came seven races ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where Stewart finished second and Newman finished fifth.
Regan Smith won the Showtime Southern 500 to score his first career Sprint Cup victory. The win had a strong connection to SHR, as the team provides the pit crew to Smith and his No. 78 Furniture Row team.
Championship point leader Carl Edwards finished .196 of a second behind Smith in the runner-up spot, while Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Newman rounded out the top-five. Denny Hamlin, Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr., comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 11 caution periods for 46 laps, with 10 drivers failing to finish the 370-lap race, which was extended beyond its scheduled 367-lap distance by a green-white-checkered finish.
With round 10 of 36 complete, Newman improved two positions to jump to sixth in the Sprint Cup championship standings. He now has 317 points and is 61 markers behind Edwards. Stewart improved three positions to climb to seventh in the standings. He has 313 points and is 65 markers back of Edwards.
The next race on the Sprint Cup schedule is the May 15 FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.