Podium finishes aren’t featured in NASCAR the way they are in Formula One.
Still, it’s safe to say all three of the top finishers in last Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway came out as winners.
Obviously, the official race winner was Matt Kenseth, who passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps to go and then pulled away in his No. 20 Toyota for his 27th career Sprint Cup Series victory.
Although he’s won two Daytona 500’s, Kenseth called the victory in the historic Southern 500, the biggest win of his career.
With his series-best third win of the season, the win more than validates a move from car owner Jack Roush with whom Kenseth spent the first 13 years of his career to the Gibbs team.
The win came justt days after a reduction in NASCAR penalties was announced. Kenseth is now a solid third in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, and with his three wins, he’s a virtual lock at making this season’s “Chase for the Championship.”
Another of his Gibbs’ teammates, Denny Hamlin, had a victory of his own. In his first full race back from a back injury suffered at California, Hamlin finished second at the egg-shaped oval nicknamed, “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”
Hamlin didn’t completely tame Darlington, as a camera shot after the race showed him sitting in the car exhausted. But, he showed all concerned that he’s a force to be reckoned with in the Sprint Cup Series.
It’s way too early to count out Hamlin from making the Chase. He’s 27th in the standings, just 61 points out of the top 20 where he will need to finish for a wild-card spot. Hamlin will likely need to win a couple of races to get the wild-card, but as strong as the Gibbs teams have been with five wins overall this season, it appears to be a goal well within reach.
Crossing the line third was Jeff Gordon, who scored a 300th career top-five finish in a 700th career start. That’s finishing in the top-five in nearly 43 percent of the races he’s entered, a truly astounding number.
It compares favorably with most of the all-time greats with a notable exception of Richard Petty, who finished in the top-five in nearly 47 percent of his career starts.
Dale Earnhardt was in the top-five in 281 of 676 races (41.5 percent). Among Gordon’s contemporaries, Tony Stewart has finished in the top five 34 percent of the time, while Jimmie Johnson has a 41.9 average.
The 300 top-fives rank Gordon fourth on NASCAR’s all-time list behind Petty with 555, Bobby Allison with 336 and David Pearson with 301.
Beyond the all-time numbers, the performance on Saturday was another example of how after 20 years in the series Gordon is still a top contender to win races.
This week, the NASCAR tour moves to Charlotte for The Sprint All-Star Race, truly one of the most exciting races of the year.
With no points on the line, the drivers typically got all out, leading to some of the most memorable finishes in the sport’s history.
They include Dale Earnhardt’s “Pass in the Grass” to beat Bill Elliott in 1987, Rusty Wallace’s last-lap spin of Darrell Waltrip in 1989 and the race considered the best all-star race ever in 1992 when Davey Allison crashed across the finish line in a classic win over Kyle Petty.
Outside of Bristol’s two races, it’s the one event I would encourage every NASCAR fan to attend at least once.
If fans aren’t inclined to drive to Charlotte, there are a pair of big races scheduled for local tracks this weekend.
Kingsport Speedway has the Mahle 250 for the CARS X1-R Pro Series (formerly Hooters Cup Series) scheduled for Friday night.
Called the biggest night of racing of the year at the 3/8-mile concrete oval, the Pure 4, Rookie Pure 4 and Legends divisions will also be in action.
The fourth annual K&N Spring Fling 20’s is scheduled this weekend at Bristol Dragway.
Teams from 26 states and Canada are expected to compete in the bracket-racing event.
There is a $12,500-to-win featured race on Thursday with $20,000-to-win races scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Adam Long held off Kres Van Dyke in a battle of Virginia drivers this past Friday night in Kingsport Speedway’s Late Model Stock feature.
Johnson City driver Zeke Shell battled Long for the race lead every on, before debris from Mike Potter’s car cut the tire on Shell’s No. 97 Ford on lap 36.
Shell ended up eighth in the final rundown, followed by Daniel Boone High School student Tyler Goodwin, Gray resident Joey Trent and the veteran Potter.
In the support classes, John Harrell of Surgoinsville scored a division-leading fourth win of the season in Street Stock. Other winners included: Kingsport drivers John Ketron and Billy Byington in Pure 4 and Rookie Pure 4, and Brad Ball of Abingdon, Va., in Mod 4.