At one point in the Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Saturday night at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Tony Stewart was two laps down and outside the top-25. But when the checkered flag waved on the 65th annual race at the venerable 1.366-mile oval, Stewart was ninth.
It was an incredible rally for Stewart, crew chief Chad Johnston and the entire No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 team of Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR.) It was the group’s fourth top-10 of the season and it moved Stewart up two spots in the championship point standings to 12th.
“To end up ninth after where we were most of the race, we’ll take it,” said Stewart, who now has 12 top-10s in 22 career Sprint Cup start at Darlington. “We were stuck in traffic all night, but right at the end, we were able to make some headway and get a top-10.”
Stewart started 23rd and while he was able to crack the top-20 and rise to 17th by lap 64, he was back in 23rd by lap 100 as his Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy was too tight through the track’s corners. This handling condition stayed with Stewart throughout the majority of the race, and with a blistering pace being set by his SHR teammate Kevin Harvick, who ended up leading seven times for a race-high 238 laps en route to winning the Southern 500, Stewart eventually was mired in traffic and two laps down.
When the caution came out on lap 359 for fluid on the racetrack, Stewart radioed that his car was the best it had been. The constant tinkering Johnston had performed on the Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevy on each and every pit stop paid off. Stewart’s lap times were as good as the leaders, but they were seemingly irrelevant since Stewart wasn’t on the lead lap.
But thanks to some fortuitous caution periods and smart pit strategy by Johnston, Stewart earned his way back onto the lead lap. Still, he was stuck in traffic, all the way back in 21st position with only a handful of laps remaining.
But a caution for debris on lap 366 pushed the race into overtime, setting up a green-white-checkered finish. Johnston called Stewart to the pits for four fresh tires and no fuel, which meant Stewart’s car had plenty of grip and nowhere near the weight of his competitors.
Stewart restarted 13th and shot into the top-10 until the caution flag waved for the final time for Kurt Busch’s spin on the backstretch. In the next attempt at a green-white-checkered, Stewart muscled his way to ninth and held onto the spot until the finish. It was his 294th top-10 in 529 career Sprint Cup starts.
Harvick’s victory in the Southern 500 came from the pole. It was his first win in 18 career Sprint Cup starts at Darlington. The driver of the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS also collected the 22nd point-paying Sprint Cup win for SHR since its inception in 2009. It was the organization’s third win this season, tops among all Sprint Cup teams. Harvick earned SHR’s first win of 2014 when claimed victory in the second race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway.
Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy/Get Found Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 22nd. It was Patrick’s 54th career Sprint Cup start and her third at Darlington.
Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished 31st. He was fighting for a spot in the top-10 when he was hit from behind and spun on lap 369, impacting the SAFER Barrier on the inside of the backstretch. Busch was uninjured in the crash, but his car was too damaged to continue.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished .558 of a second behind Harvick in the runner-up spot, while Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle rounded out the top-five. Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson, Stewart and Ryan Newman comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 11 caution periods for 50 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish the 374-lap race, which was extended seven laps by the green-white-checkered finish.
With round eight of 36 complete, Stewart leads the SHR contingent in the championship point standings. He is 12th with 224 points, 73 behind first-place Gordon. Harvick is 22nd with 186 points, 111 out of first. Kurt Busch is 26th with 164 points, 133 out of first. Patrick is 29th with 143 points, 154 out of first.
The Sprint Cup Series takes a rare weekend off for Easter before returning to action April 26 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway for the Richmond 400. The race starts at 7 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its prerace show at 6:30 p.m.
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