Darlington Raceway proved once again on Saturday night that even though the ol’ track has shown some signs of aging, the track still produces some of the best racing on the entire schedule. The track still plays no favorites when it comes to which driver is going to be awarded one of her famous stripes, and she has an unquenchable appetite for Goodyear Eagles.
The track did all it could under a beautiful full moon to remind every driver that even though they only come one time a year to visit her, that she usually has the last say on who captures the checkered flag. As hard as she tried the other night, the track didn’t have the last say on who ended up in victory lane as it took Kevin Harvick two green-white-checkered finishes to get it done, but he left Darlington later on that night knowing that he had tamed the track.
Harvick, in first year driving for Stewart Haas Racing, dominated the race as he led 238 of the 374 laps but saved the best for last. He started on the third row on the next to the last restart after taking on four tires while those drivers in front of him only took two. By the last green-white-checkered restart, he had worked his way up to second with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the point. Dale Jr. had a fast race car but Harvick had a car that could not only start on the outside without spinning the tires, he had a car good enough to make a pass on the outside without collecting one of the track’s famous stripes on his way to one of the sport’s most hallowed victory lanes.
Harvick becomes the first multiple winner in the series this season as he also won at Phoenix and with the new format that NASCAR is using this season to set the Chase field, he should be guaranteed the opportunity to run for the series title. Only 16 drivers will move into the Chase and it is hard to imagine that all 16 spots will be occupied by 16 different race winners. That leaves the remaining spots to be filled by the point standings.
So much emphasis has been put on winning that the points standings has gone largely unnoticed at this point in the season. While there is nothing like winning in the series, there are no doubt going to be some drivers making their way into the Chase by their position in the points. The battle in the points standings has already started to heat up as there are several drivers that usually win a race or two each season still looking for that first win, but at the same time are very aware of where they are in the points.
Jeff Gordon, who is yet to win a race this season, leads the points by a single point over Matt Kennseth, who is also looking for his first win of the season after leading the series in wins last season. Sixtime Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in fifth is the next driver without a win in the standings as he follows Carl Edwards and Dale Jr. in the points, but both of those drivers have posted a win.
This early in the season, it is still all about winning a race as that is the fastest way of gaining entry into the Chase. Drivers and crew chiefs are still willing to gamble to grab an early win and secure their ticket to the championship round, but for drivers that are still struggling to run up front, it may be time to start making sure that they collect as many points as they can to assure them a spot in the Chase field by their position in the points.
Later in the season there will be drivers that know their only way into the Chase is with a win, while others will be points racing in the races leading up to the Chase. It’s going to be several races in one with different teams having different agendas every time the green flag waves to begin a race. Every race should provide us with a great finish but as soon as the checkered flag waves, you get the feeling that every eye will quickly move on to the point standings as that avenue will still be the way that several drivers make it into the Chase.
Event: Toyota Owners 400
Track: Richmond International Raceway (.75 mile D-shaped oval, 140 of banking in the turns)
Date: April 26, 7 p.m.
Defending champion: Kevin Harvick