Sunday’s Labor Day Bojangles’ Southern 500 from Darlington Raceway is a beloved event among Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series fans. As one of NASCAR’s most historic events, it has an allure unlike any other race on the schedule.
By the checkered flag, Brad Keselowski and Team Penske were in Victory Lane at the Track Too Tough to Tame. It is Keselowski’s twenty-fifth career Cup win and first of 2018.
With the Southern 500’s historic reputation, many teams unveiled special throwback schemes for the race. Keselowski drove a Miller Genuine Draft design inspired by former #2 driver Rusty Wallace, while others like William Byron raced with the iconic rainbow scheme of Jeff Gordon.
Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush assisted Bojangles’ Vice President of Marketing Randy Poindexter Sr. in giving the command. In tribute to NASCAR entering its seventh decade of competition, seven figures piloted the pace cars: Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports bosses Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick, four-time Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr., Cup veterans Ricky Craven, Jeff and Ward Burton, and champion crew chief Ray Evernham.
Denny Hamlin, driving a throwback to his first mini stock car in the late 1990s, won the pole at Darlington for the first time. Kyle Larson, driving a Davey Allison tribute car, started second. Jimmie Johnson, in a car mirroring his 2012 Darlington win (the 200th victory for Hendrick), and Jamie McMurray, in a Bill Elliott-style McDonald’s throwback, were sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments and an engine change, respectively.
After a brief delay for lightning, the race was underway. Hamlin led the first 12 laps before Larson passed him. As Larson built his lead, Martin Truex Jr. battled with Hamlin for second. On lap 29, Alex Bowman suffered a flat right rear tire and pitted.
Truex cleared Hamlin for second on lap 36 before losing it to Erik Jones. Hamlin eventually fell to fifth when Joey Logano passed him, followed by pitting on lap 46 to begin green flag pit stops. Larson pitted on lap 49 and resumed leading four laps later.
By lap 60, McMurray entered the top twenty after his last-place start. Meanwhile, fellow rear starter Johnson had to pit for a vibration, but eventually suffered a commitment line violation and had to serve a pass-through penalty.
As Larson led, he approached Austin Dillon, who was running in thirteenth and determined to not be lapped by the #42. With one lap remaining in the stage, Dillon slid up and collided with Larson, who brushed the wall. Despite the contact, Larson scored the stage win. Jones finished second, followed by Truex, Logano, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Hamlin, Kurt and Kyle Busch, and Chase Elliott.
Between stages, Larson won the race off pit road as Jones was penalized for an uncontrolled tire.
Stage #2 began on lap 107 with Larson leading Logano. Larson once again built a strong lead; after fifteen laps, it ballooned to over two seconds. On lap 127, Joey Gase was clipped by Kyle Busch, spinning him. As the leaders pitted, Truex was the first to exit the pits and became the leader for the lap 133 restart.
On lap 159, Larson reclaimed the lead, while Harvick took second from Truex shortly after. The next cycle of green flag stops began on lap 163; during his stop, Truex suffered an uncontrolled tire penalty. Larson continued to stay out for the remainder of the stage, including lapping Dillon to prevent Truex from receiving the free pass. Behind Larson were Keselowski, Logano, Elliott, Jones, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, McMurray, and Harvick.
The final stage began on lap 207 with Larson at the helm. On lap 223, Daniel Suárez had a flat right front tire, but there was no caution as he pitted. Johnson eventually also pitted and retired from the race with an engine failure.
Harvick pitted on lap 244 to begin a new run of stops under green. During their stops, Dillon and McMurray were slapped with uncontrolled tire and commitment line violations, respectively Larson pitted on lap 259 to relinquish the lead to Keselowski, though he retook the spot (then held by Logano after Keselowski pitted on lap 261) on lap 278.
As the race entered the 300-lap mark, only eight cars ran on the lead lap as teams attempted various strategies (Larson, Jones, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Newman, Byron).
On lap 311, Newman was slowing down to pit when Bowyer, unaware of Newman’s intention, drove into the #31, destroying their cars as they spun up into the wall. Jeffrey Earnhardt slid and brushed the wall.
The restart took place on lap 322 with Larson leading Keselowski. Six laps later, the caution came out for debris. Another brief moment of green flag racing lasted from lap 337 to 343 before Earnhardt spun.
On the ensuing race off pit road, Keselowski edged out Larson to become the new leader. The green flag waved on lap 348 as Keselowski pulled ahead. Larson lost second to Logano, who could not catch up to his Penske team-mate as Keselowski scored his first Cup win at Darlington and completed the weekend sweep (he also won Saturday’s Xfinity Series race). For Team Penske, it was the organization’s first at Darlington since Bobby Allison won both races in 1975.
“This has got to be the biggest [win], it’s a major,” Keselowski stated in a Victory Lane interview with NBCSN. “It’s Darlington. I didn’t know coming into today if we were going to be fast enough to win, and in the race, as soon as they dropped the green, I knew this thing was fly. It was a Rusty Wallace hot rod today.”
“The 42 was really strong. Probably whoever came off pit road first at the end was going to win the race, but my team nailed the last pit stop.”
Logano finished second, while Larson, who led 284 of 367 laps, had to settle for third. Harvick took fourth, followed by Elliott, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jones, McMurray, and Hamlin.
Next week, the final race before the playoffs will take place at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kasey Kahne is the defending winner.