Darlington Raceway at sunset....and when the sun goes down, temperatures tend to rise.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Joe Gibbs' guys -- Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth -- certainly have been headliners on the stock car circuit this spring, and not always for the best reasons.
But here this weekend's Southern 500 may provide a fresh restart.
-- Hamlin has the doctor's okay to run the full 500 miles Saturday night.
-- Kenseth has been shed of those draconian NASCAR penalties, in a Wednesday appeals session.
-- And Busch has cleared things up with rival Kasey Kahne, following Sunday's messy run-in at Talladega, which resulted in 16 cars, including most top contenders, seriously damaged.
Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth's crew chief, will be serving a one-race suspension; but that's much better than the six-race suspension originally handed down for that Kansas engine violation.
To be honest, in this age of instant communications around the world, it's not really clear just how effective a 'suspension' is these days, other than being a bar to being physically at the track.
And as tough as Kenseth and Ratcliff have been this spring -- winning Las Vegas and Kansas, and running well enough to win a just about every other track so far, including Sunday's Talladega 500 -- Kenseth has to be one of Saturday night's favorites here at legendary Darlington Raceway.
Even though Kenseth has never won here, Ratcliff points out "Our intermediate program has been pretty good for us, with Vegas and Kansas, so I’m really anticipating this weekend. I think Darlington fits into that 'intermediate track' category; even though it's very unique, it's a high-speed almost 1-1/2-mile track."
When Kurt Busch (51 here) and Ryan Newman (39) get together, the mix can be combustible, as it was last spring at Darlington (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The rule of thumb here is 'race the track, not other drivers.' And indeed winning here is all about surviving the intensity....which Kenseth did quite well last weekend.
Busch didn't do quite that well, though: "I know I got in the back of Kasey; I guess I was trying to go to the outside of him, but he just moved up in front of me, and I wasn't expecting it.
"I tried to go to the outside of him, and before I could get to the outside of him I got in the back of him.
"I hate that I caused a hell of a melee for everybody. A lot of cars got torn up, and it's way too early in the race to be doing any of those sorts of moves... whether he made it or I made it."
Brother Kurt Busch had a fast car too at Talladega: We just got hit from behind, and along for the ride we went.
"It's Talladega, what I can say.
"We ran up front for most of the day and don't have much to show for it. It's been the story of our season.
"But when the luck cycle turns our way, it's going to be good, because the performance is there. We've proven that."
For Hamlin it's been a frustrating spring. He's been sitting out since his California crash March 24th. And despite getting a doctor's okay to drive last weekend at Talladega, there are still questions hanging over him.
An L1 compression fracture in your back is nothing to play around with. Yet Hamlin is so determined to try to get back into championship contention....
Hamlin narrowly avoided getting caught up in that Busch-Kahne crash at Talladega; he had just turned his car over to sub driver Brian Vickers, who did get caught up and crashed out.
Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman got into a little post-race scrum after last spring's Southern 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hamlin has a very good record here, winning in 2010, and scoring six top-10s in his seven starts. His worst finish was 13th.
Last spring Hamlin ran second in this 500.
"Last week was all about just going through the motions and getting the process of making a comeback, getting that started," Hamlin says. "We executed that.
"This week it's about completing all the laps and being there at the end to have a shot at the win.
"We know what we have to do if we want to make the chase, and this week is the first step, first race in that comeback."
Hamlin's game plan for making the playoffs is to work his way back into the top-20 in the standings by the Richmond-September cut and to score two wins over that span.
One of the issues hanging over this weekend's 500 may be fallout from Talladega's very late and very dark finish.
The final laps were run on a very dark track; Talladega has no lights. And rain had sogged in the track for nearly four hours before the final restart.
Ryan Newman, who had Kurt Busch's flying car land on his windshield, was caustic in complaining about NASCAR restarting the race: "They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing.
"I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is.
"That's no way to end a race. That's just poor judgment in restarting the race, poor judgment: I mean you got what you wanted, but (it was) poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain....."
So far NASCAR officials do not appear to have penalized Newman for those words. However the last time Newman lashed out at the racing conditions, he was 'secretly' fined $50,000.
But then maybe NASCAR officials have been somewhat chastened this week, with penalties significantly reduced on appeal in both the Gibbs' case and the Roger Penske case.
When Kurt Busch gets fired up..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth, the leader on the final restart, wound up losing the race to surprisingly game David Ragan.
Was it too dark or too wet?
Kenseth called the race conditions "Okay.
"It was plenty dry enough. That was no problem.
"It was fairly dark. We could see what was going on. I'm not sure how good the spotters could see.
"It was fairly dark but it was safe for everybody."
Another issue for NASCAR officials to consider -- along with the pit wall opening at Michigan, where Mark Martin crashed hard last year, and the lack of soft walls where Hamlin crashed at California, and the apparent still lack of soft wall protection on the Talladega infield crossover where Eric McClure crashed hard last year -- is the vast expanse of infield grass at Talladega. That grass is extremely slippery, especially after a rain. Daytona officials several years ago repaved major grassy areas, as a safety move, to allow cars to scrub speed if they get off the track there.
Brian Vickers, while trying to avoid the crash that took him out at Talladega, says "I was on the far bottom, and I went as far left as I could without going through the grass. It's been raining for three days, so if I would have hit the grass I would have ripped the front of the car off.
"I decided early in the incident that going in the grass wasn't an option."
Good thing Denny Hamlin got out early last Sunday....and didn't get caught up in that first 'Big One.' (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)