Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rating the Southern 500: 4 Stars ****

The Sprint Cup Series visited one of the sport’s most historic tracks Saturday night for a long, tough race that had a historic win and the first postrace scuffle of the season. A Southern 500 that had a touch of everything gets a 4 Star Rating.
First, massive congratulations are due for Jimmie Johnson, the #48 team and team owner Rick Hendrick for getting Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th victory at one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.
Although many people love to hate Hendrick teams because they win all the time, they should at least greatly respect this accomplishment. The 200-win number is similar to the all-time homerun record in baseball. It is a milestone that is reached less than once a generation.
Petty Enterprises is the only other organization to reach 200 wins. It has 268, which Hendrick could possibly reach in the next five or six years.
Johnson also moved past Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time driver wins list. Again, like him or not, Johnson is right at the top of any list about greatest NASCAR drivers, and he showed why again Saturday at Darlington.
Lately, a late caution has caused several lead changes and somebody different to show up at the front late in the race. Tony Stewart certainly tried to make a run at Johnson during the final two runs, but Johnson drove flawlessly the last half of the race to maintain his lead and take the win.
This was a vintage Johnson performance. There is little reason to think he won’t continue to have strong runs and once again be a popular pick to win the championship come Chase time.
The Southern 500 is always one of the longest races of the year, but once again the field put together long green-flag runs. The first caution for non-existent debris didn’t come until lap 172 after Johnson had started to stretch his lead.
After the initial caution, the yellow flag became popular in the second half of the race and we got our second consecutive green-white-checkered finish.
However, the most interesting incident of the evening happened after the checkered flag. Kurt Busch supposedly nearly hit some of Ryan Newman’s pit crew members, and after the race Newman’s gas man headed over to Busch’s #51 car to take care of business.
The big guy never quite made it to Busch, but both sides exchanged shoves and heated comments. Whether or not the incident results in penalties for anybody, this is a situation Busch couldn’t afford.
After losing his ride in the #22 car after a profanity-laced tirade against ESPN reporter Jerry Punch, Busch had to be on his best behavior this season to help him score another top-notch ride and save his career.
He drove the wheels off of the #51 car (literally, unfortunately) and had the car inside the top 10 late in the race. That proves the guy has talent. Several drivers have driven what is now the #51 car in recent years, including rising star Brad Keseloski, and none of them consistently had that car in the top half of the field.
Busch could’ve used those types of performances to prove that he deserves another fully funded car to compete for a championship. But his temper will make that extremely difficult. With drivers such as Trevor Bayne who have squeaky-clean reputations sitting on the sidelines, it is tough to imagine a company wanting Busch to represent them ahead of a driver such as Bayne.
In any case, the Cup teams get to head home for the next two weeks and enjoy the rest of the month racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The All-Star race comes up next and then it’s on to the longest race of the year with the Coca-Cola 600. May is a great month of racing, and there is plenty left to enjoy.
Have a great All-Star week, everybody.

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