Close, but not quite for Coca-Cola Family
Four finsh in the top 12 as Hamlin, Stewart finish second and third
By Andrew Shain, Special to NASCAR.COM
May 14, 2012 4:03 PM, EDT
The near-misses keep mounting as for a third consecutive week, members of the red-and-white squad had a chance for a win spoiled in the final laps.
At the Bojangles' Southern 500, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart could not catch race winner Jimmie Johnson after a green-white-checkered restart and finished second and third. They were among four Coca-Cola drivers who finished among the top 12 at Darlington Raceway, including points leader Greg Biffle.
And the newest member of the crew -- Danica Patrick -- met the Lady in Black and gathered experience at one of the circuit's toughest tracks.
Darlington finish: Second
Season standings: Fourth
Hamlin came into the race with the best average finish at Darlington during the past five seasons and never raced lower than 14th on Saturday. He stayed out on the track after the race's second caution to get the lead but soon slid back on old tires. Hamlin gained two spots after starting fourth on the final restart. His team put him in contention with the night's fastest pit stops. He has a trio of top-four results in the past four races.
What he said: "We just didn't have quite the winning car [Saturday]. Darian [Grubb, crew chief] did a great all night there keeping us out and give us some track position. My pit crew kept gaining me spots on pit road and that really helped. We wanted to win the Southern 500, but second isn't too bad."
Darlington finish: Third
Season standings: Seventh
Stewart tied his best finish at Darlington by stretching his fuel mileage after breaking a clutch that prevented him from making a pit stop in the race's final 67 laps. He started second on the final restart but he lost fuel pressure, forcing him down toward the apron to pick up more gas -- a move that cost him some momentum. He still netted his second third-place in the past three races. Stewart was the third-fastest in traffic during the race after starting 17th.
What he said: "We just got better as the night went on. We weren't good enough to win the race, but track position was so important. The biggest thing was to get the track position when we could and just try to save the tires."
Darlington finish: 10th
Season standings: 15th
Logano built on winning his second consecutive Nationwide race with his best Cup finish in two months. He started 21st but had the second-fastest car in traffic and reached the top 10 about halfway through the race. Logano's crew helped straighten fenders bent on Darlington's walls and he gained 10 spots in the final 30 laps for his first top-10 since the second race of the season. He stands 44 points out of an automatic Chase spot.
What he said: "It feels good to get back in the top 10 for sure, but I am really disappointed in myself because I know we had so much more than a 10th-place car out there. I just wasn't very good on restarts and I would lose several positions each time and I was getting frustrated. Our car was great on the long run and I could reel those guys back in and make those spots back up."
Darlington finish: 12th
Season standings: First
Biffle dominated the first quarter of the race after winning the pole, but his car became too loose as the sun set. Tire pressure adjustments did not get him back in the lead, though he remained in the top 10 until the final laps when the No. 16 became loose again and caused Biffle to slide back after the last restart. Despite his fourth finish outside the top 10 this season, Biffle holds onto the points lead for a ninth consecutive week.
What he said after winning the pole: "I'm having such a great time driving these race cars. My guys and [crew chief] Matt Puccia are doing such a great job. This is what a race car driver looks forward to is showing up every weekend and having a really fast car to drive. They're sure making my life easy and making me look good so far."
Darlington finish: 18th
Season standings: 17th
Burton started 10th but fell 14 spots in the first 20 laps with a very loose car and he would fall a lap down about halfway through the race. Chassis adjustments kept the car from falling back more and Burton earned the free pass to get back on the lead lap with 57 laps remaining. He reached as high as 12th before getting shuffled back to 18th for his second consecutive top-20 -- an improvement after finishing no better than 22nd in the previous five races. He climbed one position in the standings.
What he said: "We definitely wanted to come out of here with a better finish, but I can't say enough about the effort these No. 31 guys put out all night. Towards the latter part of the race, we were running consistent lap times with the leaders. However, we were pinned one lap down on that initial long green-flag run and seemed to play 'catch up' all night."
Darlington finish: 23rd
Season standings: 13th
Newman's sixth top-six qualifying run of the season was nullified by an ill-handling car that left him outside the top 15 after the first quarter of the race. The car wavered between being too loose and too tight, and Newman dropped two laps down. He regained both laps and appeared headed for a top-15 finish when Kurt Busch's spinning car cut in front of him and sent Newman into the wall. His 23rd-place finish was fourth of 20th or worse in the past five races. Newman holds one of the two wildcard Chase spots after 11 races.
What he said: "We were chasing it for much of the night. With that said, we were in good shape to finish 15th or so. But Busch spun in front of me coming around Turn 4, and when I checked up [Aric] Almirola just got into the back of me. It's unfortunate the night had to end that way. For some reason, we couldn't get the balance right. It seemed that when we got it good on one end of the track, the other end wasn't good."
Darlington finish: 29th
Season standings: 27th
Labonte recorded just his third finish outside the top 25 in his past 27 races at Darlington. His car was started off tight and then began vibrating and getting loose later in the race. He spun off a turn on Lap 299 but didn't hit the wall. Labonte could not find the speed to get any higher than his starting position of 22nd. On average, he ran about where he finished and was four laps behind the leader when the checkered flag flew. He slipped a spot in the standings.
Darlington finish: 31st
Season standings: 59th
Making her debut at Darlington and her second Sprint Cup start, Patrick accomplished the main goal she set for herself -- finishing the race and gathering experience at the 1.366-mile track. She finished six laps behind the leaders as her car went from loose to tight. Patrick also received a pass-through penalty when she hit the commitment cone to pit road. She will race next at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte as part of her limited Sprint Cup schedule.
What she said: "I know I didn't have a great result. My goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own all right. And the other one was to finish, and both of those things happened. So, overall, good night. I will be much less worried coming back to this place."
Darlington finish: 34th
Season standings: 20th
McMurray's streak of four top-15 finishes ended on a wreck with AJ Allmendinger on Lap 317. After a rough beginning despite starting 11th, pit strategy helped him regain a lap lost about midway through the race before his accident in Turn 4. McMurray returned to the track after the accident to finish 23 laps down. His worst result since the second race of the season cost McMurray four spots in the standings.
What he said: "Our Chevy started off pretty loose. We made adjustments, but I noticed the car get tighter after I made slight contact with the wall about halfway through the race. Our pit strategy helped us gain our lap back until the accident that sent us to the garage for repairs. I hate that our night ended this way."