NASCAR Cup Series
Points Report: NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington
Sep 4, 2023
Coming into the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Darlington Raceway, the theme among the top 16 drivers contending for the title was ‘limiting mistakes’ that could cost the team a shot at the championship.
Despite the best efforts and preparation of many, Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 was riddled with mistakes from both drivers and pit crews, proving to be costly for many contenders.
While the opening Stage of Sunday’s race went caution free, there were a host of teams that struggled to get their Playoffs off on the right foot. Playoff drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ross Chastain, and Bubba Wallace all suffered setbacks early with slow pit stops or penalties, but each driver was able to recover throughout the night.
Others in the field were not as lucky, though, as the opening race of the Playoffs did not go according to plan.
Perhaps none more than Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin. Entering Sunday’s race with a series-high four wins at Darlington, Hamlin appeared to be on his way to a fifth victory, dominating the majority of the event and leading a race-high 177 laps, however an apparent loose wheel under a green flag stop with less than 100 laps to go ended his chances.
Following the stop, Hamlin radioed the crew in a panic complaining of a possible loose wheel. As the team went to work diagnosing the issue, Hamlin brought the No. 11 Toyota to pit road for a second time under green as the team put four fresh tires on the car.
The additional trip to pit road dropped Hamlin from the lead to 30th, one lap behind the leaders. Looking things over after the second stop, crew chief Chris Gabehart told him the wheels did not look loose, something Hamlin refuted.
The team was not able to recover or get their lap back, were caught up in an incident with Todd Gilliland, and finished 25th, one lap behind the leaders.
“It’s part of it,” Hamlin said on pit road after Sunday night’s race. “Everyone is all-in on it and trying to do the best we can and one little thing can just take you out. It obviously turned our day.
“I felt a loose wheel,” he said. “It’s really tough to tell. It looked like the left rear was still tightening as we were gone.
It’s close enough to where it didn’t matter what I felt, we were going to crash if I kept going. Had to bring it in and it just turned my day upside down.”
Hamlin was not the only JGR driver to have issues in the opening round of the NASCAR Playoffs. Both pole-sitter Christopher Bell and regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. had issues throughout the event that left them wanting more at the end of 500 miles.
Bell had one of the strongest cars all weekend, sitting on the pole and leading three times for a total of 40 laps. However, the No. 20 team struggled on consecutive green flag pit stops, which dropped them back in the field. On Lap 113, Bell got into the marbles out of the groove and hit the outside wall exiting Turn 2. The contact knocked the toe out of the front of the car and he was forced to hang on until a caution to make repairs.
That caution finally came when NASCAR threw the yellow flag because the lights inside Turns 3 and 4 were not working properly. The team made multiple pit stops under that caution to address the issue but Bell’s chances at victory were gone and the team’s focus shifted to making the most of a tough situation.
To make matters worse, Bell was caught up in the same incident as Hamlin, collected when the cars came back up the track on Lap 322. In the end, Bell finished the night 23rd, one lap down to the leaders. He now holds a one-point advantage over Bubba Wallace for the 12th and final transfer spot.
“We have speed. We’ve had speed a lot. I know at Kansas we’ll be fast again, it’s been a really good track for Toyota. I know that we have the speed to do it, we just have to put it all together,” said Bell. “We’ve definitely got to work (on limiting mistakes). It’s been our Achilles’ Heel for basically the whole summer, so we definitely have to work on it.”
Heading into Sunday’s race, JGR swapped Bell’s regular pit crew with the crew that had been pitting Ty Gibbs’ car throughout the regular season. Jackman Derrell Edwards said the issues Sunday were just attributed to getting adjusted to working with a new driver, but also just a series of unfortunate events that led to slow stops.
Crew chief Adam Stevens told Racing America the problems started when Bell got into the pit box too deep, throwing off the crew’s rhythm, then things snowballed from there.
“We created our own problem,” said Stevens. “We had a jack issue on the first stop. I don’t really think it was human error. We just got behind there, then got up in the marbles, caught a piece of the fence and just destroyed the right front suspension and our day was done at that point.
“We need to have clean weekends if we want to score points, and we didn’t have a clean weekend,” he said. “The car had good speed. The balance could have been a bit better, but we didn’t really have the opportunity to work on it before we killed it.”
JGR’s third entry in the Playoffs, regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. started deep in the field after a bobble on his qualifying lap and was making strides in the opening stage of the race. However, as green flag pit stops began around the Lap 150 mark trouble struck.
Truex was forced to come back down pit road with a loose wheel, dropping him deep in the field and a lap behind the leaders. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota struggled with the handling of the car throughout the night, but was finally able to receive the free pass and get back on the lead lap with 45 laps to go while running 24th.
Over the final stretch of laps, Truex was able to recover slightly, ending the night in the 18th position and dropping him to sixth in the driver point standings heading to Kansas Speedway next week.
Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell started Sunday’s race inside the top 10, but that was one of the few highlights from this trip to Darlington. Falling back in the opening stages, McDowell was never a factor and was the lowest-running Playoff driver for much of Sunday’s race. A rough outing got even worse when he ran into the back of Hamlin on Lap 332, who was attempting to avoid McDowell’s spinning teammate Todd Gilliland.
McDowell indicated the team just missed the setup heading into the race and did not have the speed needed to contend with the rest of the Playoff drivers.
“We just didn’t execute tonight,” McDowell said after leaving the infield care center. “We had one set of tires there that just got us really far off. I’m not sure what happened, the car just went really loose. We lost the lap and it kind of just spiraled from there. Not how we wanted to start, but we’ve still got two more and we’ll race hard and see what we get.”
On a night in which all Playoff drivers and teams were hoping to limit mistakes and missteps, a host of those drivers and teams stumbled out of the gate. While Hamlin and Truex have a bit of a points cushion heading into the next two races in the opening round, Bell and McDowell will now have to execute perfectly and avoid any further setbacks if they hope to contend for the championship in Phoenix.
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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