Observations• Congratulations to new Darlington Raceway President Chip Wile. I was among many who were skeptical of the change of Darlington’s race day this season, which coincided with the Masters and spring football games at South Carolina and Clemson. Thanks to the work of Wile and his staff, Saturday night’s crowd was near capacity. It was a perfect weekend of racing – from the weather down to the action on the track both Friday and Saturday nights. Well done.
• A lot was made of the recent struggles by Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team, but any concern that the team would not be able to make the Chase was vastly unfounded. It remains highly improbable there will be 16 drivers win during the first 26 races – Harvick’s victory Saturday night is first sign that idea has been wishful thinking at best. The one constant by the teams who end up winning multiple times a season ago is being consistently fast, and there are several viable candidates remaining besides Harvick’s team.
• Speaking of consistently fast, Earnhardt Jr. has a win and has now finished third or better in five of eight races this season. Earnhardt and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team seem primed to join Harvick as multiple winners this season.
Second not good enough: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished third or higher in five of eight races this season, including a runner-up Saturday in the Southern 500. But he expects better, especially in the win column. His only victory came in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“It’s a little disappointing to come that close because I know I don’t really run that well here and the opportunities to win are going to be very few compared to other tracks,” he said.
“It hurts a little bit to come that close because we worked so hard to try to win races. Running second is great, but nobody is going to really remember that. But we’re proud of it.”
Johnson rebounded well: Jimmie Johnson struggled during qualifying Friday and at one point early in Saturday night’s race, he was 31st and the last car on the lead lap.
But when the sun went down, Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet came alive and he took the lead for the first time on Lap 360 thanks to a two-tire pit stop. He ended up third.
“We’re really just trying to get a grasp on these rules, and we go home with what we’ve learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and unfortunately we’ve had to continue to work on it each week,” Johnson said.
Still the points leader: Jeff Gordon led only eight laps but ran up front most of the race. He ended up seventh and continues to lead the series standings by one point over Matt Kenseth.
“There towards the end I don’t know we just kind of started fading,” Gordon said. “I got into the wall a little bit and got the right side flattened up a little bit and then from there our night just went downhill.
“We just made some mistakes and got behind. Good to be leading the points, but I feel like a missed opportunity.”
Larson tames Darlington: Darlington (S.C.) Raceway had not been kind to Cup rookie Kyle Larson most of the weekend. He wrecked during practice Friday and had several run-ins with the wall in Friday night’s Nationwide race.
Larson, however, rebounded with an eighth-place finish Saturday night.
“We had four tires at the end when a lot of people had two, so I was pretty excited about that. The restarts just didn’t really work out for me that well,” Larson said. “All in all it was a good Saturday for us. Friday was terrible, but my team worked hard.”
Five key moments
1 . Kevin Harvick took the lead for the first time on Lap 46 and ended up leading a race-high 238 of 374 laps.
2 . Brian Vickers led twice for 30 laps but fell out of contention during late green-flag pit stops when he spun trying to enter pit road.
3 . Joey Logano dropped fluid on the track to bring out a caution on Lap 359. Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon took changed two tires on their pit stops, but Harvick took four and restarted fifth on Lap 363.
4 . Harvick seemed poised to battle Johnson for the lead when a caution for debris on the next-to-last lap sent the race into a two-lap overtime. Earnhardt took the lead on the restart on Lap 368.
5 . Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer wrecked on the backstretch to set up a second two-lap overtime. This time on the restart on Lap 373, Harvick got around Earnhardt and held on for his first victory in Darlington, S.C.
Toyota Owners 400
Where: Richmond (Va.) International Raceway
When: 7:30 p.m. April 26
Radio: Motor Racing Network
Last year’s winner: Kevin Harvick