Darlington drama: Frustration, elation, irritation swirl at historic track
DARLINGTON, S.C. — One name was prominent Sunday night at Darlington. One performance was overlooked. One ruling was questioned.
There was much to dissect after more than 400 miles at one of NASCAR’s oldest tracks.
Ross Chastain didn’t win, but he was the talk of many after the race. William Byron won, and he made the case to be the early championship favorite. Other drivers questioned how NASCAR set the running order late.
Chastain again was the focus. Team owner Rick Hendrick rebuked Chastain for an incident in the final laps with Kyle Larson while racing for the lead.
“I don’t care if he’s driving a Chevrolet if he wrecks our cars,” Hendrick said of Chastain, who drives a Chevy for Trackhouse Racing. “I don’t care. I told Chevrolet that. If you wreck us, you’re going to get it back. If you don’t do it, they’ll run all over you.
“I’m loyal to Chevrolet, but when somebody runs over us, then I expect my guys to hold their ground. I’m not going to ask them to yield just because of Chevrolet.”
Hendrick’s voice was only the latest in a growing chorus in the garage against Chastain.
Consider the last four races for Chastain:
- Talladega: In the first overtime restart, Chastain was second to Noah Gragson on the outside line. Gragson drifted up the track. Chastain shot to the gap between Gragson and Ryan Blaney, who led the inside lane. Gragson and Chastain made contact. Gragson wrecked. The incident also collected Larson.
- Dover: Less than a quarter of the way into the race, Chastain, running fourth, came up on the slower car of Brennan Poole. Chastain made contact. Poole’s car slid up the track into the path of Larson’s car. Poole said that Chastain “probably needs his butt whooped.” Larson was critical of Chastain for causing an incident early in the race.
- Kansas: Chastain and Gragson have their second incident in two weeks. Upset that Chastain pinched his car on track and he hit the wall, Gragson retaliated on the track. Gragson approached Chastain after the race on pit road. Gragson grabbed Chastain and shook him before Chastain punched him in the face.
- Darlington: Chastain and Larson made contact on a restart with six laps to go. That sent Chastain sideways into Larson’s path, ending the hopes either driver had of winning.
While Hendrick was upset with Chastain after the race, Hendrick still had reason to celebrate. Byron’s victory was his third of the season. All of Byron’s wins have come at what will be the most important tracks in the playoffs.
Byron has won at Darlington, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
- Darlington is the playoff opener in September.
- Las Vegas is the first race in the third round, making it the first chance for a driver to earn a spot in the Championship 4. Joey Logano won at Las Vegas last year and used that as a springboard to the championship.
- Phoenix is the site of the championship race.
Byron also has placed in the top 10 this season at six of the seven tracks that will host a playoff race.
“I think we’re safely in a groove here where we’ve got to continue our processes, continue what got us here,” Byron said. “It definitely feels different than what we had last year -- where I felt like after we won those couple races (early in the season) … we had just kind of a false confidence.”
Byron has a series-high 16 playoff points despite a penalty that took five points away earlier this year. He’s also climbed to fifth in the standings even though he was penalized 60 points earlier this season.
A key moment in Sunday’s race proved to be the incident triggered by Martin Truex Jr. and Logano on a restart with 16 laps to go. Logano and Truex made contact, blocking the top line, which included Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.
Elliott ran into the back of Logano. Keselowski hit the back of Elliott’s car. Harvick hit the back of Keselowski’s car. As that happened, Harrison Burton, Bubba Wallace and Justin Haley drove by on the inside lane.
But on the ensuing restart, Elliott, Keselowski and Harvick were ahead of Burton, Wallace and Haley in the running order.
NASCAR stated that officials reverted to the previous scoring loop before the caution. NASCAR also stated that Elliott, Keselowski and Harvick slowed when the caution was out and maintained reasonable speed, thus they were given their positions back.
“I keep looking at the pylon and I’m pissed off,” Wallace told FS1 after the race. “There’s a couple of cars that were involved in a wreck that got put back in front of us. … Frustrating to see that we got beat like that.”
Denny Hamlin also wasn’t happy, saying on his podcast: “The order was all wrong. Why were the cars that were in the wreck placed back in front of cars that missed the wreck?
“They said, ‘Well, they maintained caution pace.’ Well, you watch the in-car camera … they were destroyed, and saying that they were running pace car speed was maybe, probably, a stretch.”