Despite waiting to race until Monday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crowed its seventh different winner in as many races when Joey Logano raced home at Texas Motor Speedway. The young driver took the trophy in a race that saw Penske Racing dominate, with Logano forced to make a last lap pass for the win.
After spending much of Sunday drying the track, a final rain shower forced the organizers to postpone the Duck Commander 500 until Monday. It was just another race impacted by rain this season, but well worth the wait.
When the green flag finally dropped it looked like the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates of Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick would have the cars to beat, at least until Harvick's engine blew. A late caution due to Kurt Busch's contact with the wall set up a final pit stop for a green-white-checkered. The No. 22 exited the pits without the lead he worked hard to consolidate earlier, but passed veteran Jeff Gordon on the last lap to claim the all-important win.
Joey Logano - Logano took Monday's Duck Commander 500 by the scruff of the neck. After watching teammate Brad Keselowski run in the lead Logano decided it was his turn and never looked back, even surviving a green-white checkered finish. Logano led more than 100 laps in the closing stages of Monday's race, often stretching his lead to an insurmountable difference, and then finally claimed the win. The Penske driver held his cards close to the chest throughout the weekend, but turned on the afterburner once the green flag waved. The young driver's Darlington statistics include two top-10 finishes in his last five tries, in addition to a 20.6 average result. Assuming he doesn't encounter trouble the Penske and Logano combination could be a formidable factor again this week.
Denny Hamlin - Monday was a decent day for Hamlin, who overcame relatively quiet practice and qualifying sessions to run with the leaders most of the afternoon. He led 20 laps of his own before being shuffled further back under the final caution and green-white-checkered restart to notch a slightly unrepresentative 13th position. However, this week Hamlin has the best recent finishing average at Darlington of the current field by far. The next best driver's average through the same period is more than twice the No. 11's posting of 4.8 in the last five races at the track. A win and four top-10 finishes in that span is simply the best. This week at Darlington could be the week Hamlin finally fulfills the promise he has shown much of 2014 so far.
Tony Stewart - After a few weeks of good runs, and a pole position in Texas, Stewart rolls into Darlington with momentum. He came away from Texas with a top-10 finish, plus the knowledge that he had the car to beat early. His improvement in finishes in the last few races is evidence of the team starting to click, and just a few tweaks are needed to get the group into Victory Lane. At Darlington his 10.2 average finish in the last five races shows that he can run well at this track too. His three top-10s in that time came during summer, though, and this year's race is in spring. If the team can continue improving, it might find itself with even more to cheer after the Southern 500.
Jeff Gordon - It is difficult to not talk about Gordon at Darlington. His effort in Texas makes him an even more appetizing pick too. His gutsy two-tire call under the final caution showed that this veteran is hungry to win. He nearly pulled it off too, finishing just behind the dominant car of Logano. The new format to qualifying for this season's Chase isn't lost on Gordon, and he looks like he is ready to make it happen. His statistics at Darlington are incredible, but recently his form at the track has suffered. Gordon's 7.4 average finish in the last nine Darlington races falls to 11.8 when looking at the most recent five, but given the strength he showed last week, this could be the perfect time to nominate him to fantasy rosters.
Kyle Larson - Who can ignore Larson after the rookie notched his second top-5 finish of the season in Texas? This young driver has been nothing short of impressive this season, and yet another top run at Texas gives us even more confidence that he is the real thing. His Nationwide statistics at Darlington Raceway include a sixth-place result with a qualifying effort of seventh in his only outing. Larson is a driver who has raw speed and is improving each week. It would be tough not to see him pick up a victory this year, and fantasy owners should start paying serious attention to selecting him. His lack of history hasn't proven to be a hindrance yet.
Marcos Ambrose - Although Richard Petty Motorsports and Ambrose have made strides, Darlington presents a unique challenge to the Australian. Ambrose has 22.8 average finish in his five races there and tallied just one top-10 in 2012. The weekend in Texas provided an opportunity to demonstrate even more progress for Ambrose, but his fast practice and qualifying only managed to translate to 20th place, one lap down to the leaders. Ambrose will have his chances at more circuits this season, but fantasy players would probably be taking a pretty big leap to think the No. 9 is the most confident option to crack off a top-5 this week in the Southern 500.
Clint Bowyer - Although a top-10 finish would be considered a good day in seasons past, Bowyer knows that he has to do more to threaten for victory now. After running well much of Monday afternoon the No. 15 car was penalized for a missed lug nut toward the end of the race. That mistake took away his chances of battling in the top 5 for a win, and instead left him picking up the pieces for an eighth-place result. Underachievement might best describe Bowyer's season so far with mistakes and trouble thwarting any major success. Bowyer hasn't found his stride at Darlington yet either. His last five starts at the track haven't produced any top finishes and a meager 24.4 average result, so fantasy owners may wish to proceed with caution.
Kurt Busch - Busch got to know the barriers intimately last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. The Martinsville victor started the weekend on the wrong foot after blowing a rear tire and damaging his primary chassis, moving to a backup car for the rest of the weekend. While the change didn't affect him terribly in qualifying, he did reverse during Monday's race. Ultimately he caused the final caution, scraping the wall just before Logano took the white flag to set up the dash to the finish. His Darlington finish with Ricky Craven is the stuff of NASCAR legends, but with just one top-10 finish at the track in his last five efforts one wonders if Busch can overcome his poor Texas showing to get back on top this week.
Casey Mears - Although Mears has shown steady results so far in 2014, Darlington may not be the track to expect a smooth ride from the veteran. His last four Darlington races haven't produced any top finishes, or lead lap finishes for that matter. His recent history here has been a challenge. Add to the equation that after Texas Mears has produced just one top-15 result in the last five races and fantasy owerns have a reason to beware. Darlington could be a place that Mears may merely be hoping to survive without inflicting further damage. Until the team demonstrates that it is capable of scoring consistent top-15 finishes fantasy owners should look for better value.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick is rarely uncompetitive this season, but reliability has become a big question as he recorded yet another uncharacteristic DNF Monday in Texas. The weekend looked very promising for the 2014 contender, but barely after getting the engine warmed up the failure struck, resulting in a 42nd-place finish. His speed this year has been unquestionable, and he continues to prove that his move to Stewart-Haas Racing was probably a good decision for him. Fantasy owners should expect him to be fast again this weekend in Darlington, but will he finish? His two top-10 finishes in the last five tries there equate to an 11.0 average finish in that time, one of the more impressive averages in the field.