Weekend Motorsports Recap

Unpredictable.  That's the best way to describe Darlington Raceway, affectionately known as
Posted on May 14, 2012

  • Keselowski Overcomes Early Mishap, Rallies Back to Finish 15th at Darlington
  • Hornish, Keselowski Drive Dodges to Top-Five Nationwide Finishes at Darlington
  • Keating Continues to Win; Sweeps Pair In Viper Cup Series at Road America

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES (NSCS)

Unpredictable. That's the best way to describe Darlington Raceway, affectionately known as "The Lady in Black or "The Track Too Tough to Tame" for more than 60 years. From the first race in 1950 that had 75 cars in the starting field to Saturday night's version of the Southern 500, no other NASCAR Sprint Cup Series venue has challenged drivers quite like the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped track.

This year's event was unpredictable in an unusual way. There were plenty of cars with the usual "Darlington Stripe" or other scars, but no caution for the first 172 laps? That's uncharacteristic at the track where cautions are frequent. There have been as many as 17 in previous years. More than a fourth of the 2009 spring event (101 laps) was under caution.

Those 172 laps included two green-flag pit cycles. Only 14 cars were on the lead lap when the first caution appeared. Teams with issues were affected, having little time to make repairs or adjustments and make up laps. The opportunity came in the final 195 laps as eight cautions appeared. The race was extended beyond the scheduled 367-lap distance for a green-white-checkered finish. There were 21 drivers on the lead lap at the finish.

Both Dodge drivers from Penske Racing benefitted from the cautions, but the results fell short of expectations.

Brad Keselowski's made contact with the wall on lap 64 and ran most of the race two laps down before taking advantage of the wave-around following two of the cautions. That put the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger back on the lead lap and in position for a finish of 15th.

"I think we had a top-15 Dodge," said Keselowski. "I just tore it up early in the run. I got loose and hit the wall pretty good. I felt pretty lucky to get 15th out of the day. We kept working on it and Paul (Wolfe) had great strategy to get the laps back. This is what great teams do; they rally from adversity and we were able to do it tonight."

Teammate A.J. Allmendinger also found himself a lap down early in the race, but had moved back even with the leaders and in position to challenge for a top-10 finish just 50 laps from the finish. Battling Jamie McMurray for position, the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge Charger was squeezed into the Turn 4 wall. The damage required a visit to the garage for 11 laps while the 22 crew made repairs. Allmendinger finished 33rd.

Jimmie Johnson gave Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup Series victory and ended his own winless streak of 16 races. It was Johnson's 56th victory.

NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES (NNS)

Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. posted top-five finishes in Friday night's Nationwide race at Darlington Raceway. Both drivers had personal bests at the 1.366-mile track. Keselowski finished third in the No. 22 Snap-on Dodge Challenger with Hornish right behind in fourth in the No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Dodge Challenger.

"We were solid, just need a little more speed to be able to run and contend for a win," said Keselowski. "We're working on that, but happy to get a solid finish. We've had several races this year with our team where I felt like we had a shot at winning, but didn't put it all together at the end. And we've had races like today where we really weren't that strong and did a really great job putting it all together at the end. When we put those two together, we can win some races."

It was Hornish's second top-five of the season. "I'm happy we got out of here with a top five. We beat all the guys we were racing for points. We didn't beat 'em by as much as we would have liked, but all in all, we'll take what we can get and go on to the next race."

Hornish remains a solid fourth in the season standings after nine races. He's 59 behind the leader.

The race was extended beyond the scheduled distance for a green-white-checkered finish following the sixth caution of the night. Joey Logano took the win, edging Denny Hamlin.

SRT VIPER CUP SERIES

Last year, the SRT Viper Cup Series presented by Pennzoil Ultra championship went down to the final event of the season at Daytona International Speedway before Texan Ben Keating clinched the title. It's a different story in 2012.

Keating remains unbeaten this season after sweeping both events during the weekend at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., just as he did in the season-opener at Road Atlanta. Keating's margin of victory on the 14-turn, 4.048-mile circuit was 7.5 seconds over former IndyCar driver Richie Hearn. Keating's teammate Jeff Courtney was third.

While Keating was making his drive to victory look easy, there was intense competition from fourth through eighth. Ralph Gilles, third in Saturday's race, just missed a podium finish. He ended up fourth followed by Jim Booth in fifth.

The inverted field from the previous day's finish proved to be only a temporary obstacle for Keating. He was up to second after two laps and took the lead on the third. He led the final 11 laps.

"I don't like that last race stuff," said Keating referring to clinching the 2011 championship. "This gives me a pretty good advantage, but we still have a lot of racing left. David (Pintaric) was the closest to me in points, but after he crashed yesterday, that opened things up a little.

"I've only been driving six years and I've changed a lot over those six years. My first season, I didn't get a podium finish. It's a matter of learning the car, getting the setup right and being a smart driver. When I get somebody in front of me, I get more focused, more competitive. I'm one of the most competitive guys I know. Everybody has to have a vice and this is mine. I'm going to do it well."

Contact as the field took the green flag from a standing start proved costly for Hearn. His left front fender was damaged. "The damage just killed my aero and that killed my tires. I wasn't going to catch Ben and didn't see anybody close behind, so I made sure I made it to the end."

Gilles finished third in Saturday's race and was challenging Courtney for a podium finish in the closing laps Sunday. "That was easily the busiest race of my life," said Gilles. "It's the first time I've ever run a race with the field inverted. Everybody was very fast, very technical. In my case, we were probably a little low on tire pressure at the start. It finally came in and I started putting down some great laps. I was able to close in on Courtney, but couldn't make the pass. It was smart racing as everyone gave each other room. This SRT Viper has depth. No matter how hard you drive it, it's there for you."

Stunt coordinator/actor Darrin Prescott, the second celebrity driver along with Hearn, won't soon forget his weekend at Road America. "This is one of the best things I've ever done in my entire life," said Prescott. "It's so much fun. These guys are so fast, so fast. The course is so challenging and everything is happening three times as fast as what I'm used to. I was going at my limit and these guys are so far ahead of me. The car is so predictable. It's all car; the only thing holding it back was me."

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