In a fast-paced Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway that at one point had only 10 cars on the lead lap, Tony Stewart was poised to score a top-10 finish in one of the most grueling races the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has to offer. But when the checkered flag dropped on the 367-lap contest, Stewart and his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS crossed the stripe in 15th Saturday night.
Stewart was in eighth place on a restart with 59 laps remaining, and coming off turn four of the 1.366-mile oval, the three-time Sprint Cup champion earned his first “Darlington Stripe” after brushing the wall.
When the caution flag waved again on lap 313, Stewart was ninth. He smartly pitted for four fresh tires while his crew checked his Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 machine for right-side damage. With his car getting a clean bill of health, Stewart returned to the track in 11th. It’s as high as he would run the rest of the night.
Another caution on lap 328 provided another opportunity for Stewart to head to the pits and improve his car. Four fresh Goodyears and a track bar adjustment would aid the car’s handling, at least in theory. But when the race returned to green on lap 333, Stewart described the car’s handling as feeling like a “soapy dishrag”. Thankfully, the feeling didn’t last long as the caution flag waved for the final time on lap 335.
Crew chief Steve Addington, feeling something might be amiss with that set of tires, again brought Stewart to pit road. Four new tires were bolted on, and Stewart was 10th for the final restart, with 30 laps remaining.
For those last 30 laps, Stewart dug deep to wring all he could from his No. 14 Chevy. He drove hard around the track’s quirky, egg-shaped confines. But those around Stewart were just a scant quicker, and they took advantage at the beginning of that restart while Stewart’s Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 machine settled into the racetrack. While quick at the end of the race, it wasn’t enough to make up the ground lost during the start of the 30-lap dash to the finish.
Despite the outcome, Stewart gained one position in the championship standings. He rose to 21st and has 253 points, putting him five points out of the top-20 and 62 points outside the top-10.
Fifteen races remain before the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Only the top-10 in points are locked into the Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. If multiple drivers have the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Scoring a top-10 finish in the Southern 500 was Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) teammate Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet SS. It was Newman’s fifth top-10 finish of the season and his 10th top-10 in 15 career Sprint Cup starts at Darlington.
Rookie Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 28th. It was Patrick’s 21st career Sprint Cup start and her second at Darlington.
With round 11 of 36 complete, Newman continues to lead the SHR contingent in the championship point standings. He maintained his 17th position in the standings and has 276 points, 147 back of series leader Jimmie Johnson and 39 points behind 10th-place Kevin Harvick. Patrick dropped one spot to 28th place in the standings and has 196 points, 227 behind Johnson and 119 away from Harvick.
Patrick, who is also competing for Rookie of the Year honors against Ricky Stenhouse Jr., finished 10 spots behind Stenhouse, who placed 18th.
Matt Kenseth won the Southern 500 to score his 27th career Sprint Cup victory, his third of the season and his first at Darlington.
Denny Hamlin finished 3.155 seconds behind Kenseth in the runner-up spot, while Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Harvick rounded out the top-five. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Newman comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were five caution periods for 25 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday, May 18 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway. The non-point-paying event begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by SPEED beginning with its pre-race show at 7 p.m. SPEED’s “RaceDay” begins at 4 p.m.