Kevin Harvick unloaded the fastest car in Darlington and ran away from the competition to become the season's first repeat winner. The No. 29 didn't have the easiest of times notching the victory, though, as multiple late cautions and differing pit strategies forced Harvick to work his way forward through traffic to win.
Harvick was the dominant car nearly all weekend, and the gremlins that have bit him in other races stayed away from the track. Harvick has had a car strong enough to win a handful of races this season, but the pieces finally fell in the right places Saturday. The impressive performance was good news to fantasy owners who have started to question whether Harvick would overcome the mechanical challenges that have plagued him thus far.
The Sprint Cup heads to Richmond International Raceway next, after a week's rest for the teams and drivers. The winner of last year's spring Richmond race was no other than Kevin Harvick. Will he be able to become the season's first three-time winner?
Kevin Harvick - After starting from pole last week it was clear the fastest car in the field in Darlington was the No. 29. For much of the race Harvick ran away from the field and appeared destined to win. Late cautions threatened to take that win away, but just enough luck was on his side. He wasn't to be denied. Harvick took four tires on the final pit stop and ran down the challengers who took two to become the season's first multi-race winner. Harvick's two Richmond wins in the last five tries, including this race last year, make him a stout option for rosters next week too. His average finish in the last five Richmond races is 8.4, and he finished on the lead lap each of those times.
Jimmie Johnson - Running as strongly as the No. 48 has for much of this early season, a breakthrough win must certainly be in the cards. Johnson again led deep into Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500, but wasn't able to survive the restarts with his two-tire pit decision. The team scored its second top-5 result in the last three races and continues to threaten almost every week. Considering he has three career Richmond wins to his credit, Johnson's average result through the last five races at the track is less impressive at 20.4. He failed to finish on the lead lap three of those tries but will work hard to reverse that trend. Johnson will find Victory Lane this season, and it could happen any week.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The way Earnhardt has raced this season makes him likely to turn this year into the best season of his career. His second-place finish in Darlington was his fifth of the season in eight races, and another win looks on the horizon. Two top-10 finishes in his last five Richmond starts propel Earnhardt's average finish in that time to 11.0. He only failed to finish on the lead lap once in that span. His last of three wins at the short track was quite some time ago, in the 2006 Crown Royal 500 where he led 47 laps. Expect Earnhardt's run of strong from to continue and play him with confidence.
Tony Stewart - Despite missing the second race at Richmond last season, Stewart still has one of the better statistical portfolios at the track. His last four races there have produced three top-10 finishes, and zero finishes off the lead lap. He did not have the equipment that could challenge like teammate Harvick in Darlington, but Stewart steadily worked on his handling all night. By the time the race distance was complete, the owner-driver had pulled himself up to ninth position to claim back—to-back top-10 finishes. Expect more of the same from Stewart at Richmond, and even more as the team continues its progress this summer.
Kyle Larson - While Darlington isn't a track that favors rookies, Larson proved he was a quick study Saturday night. The young driver rode around the high line against the wall much of the night, and battled his way back and forth in the field before making a two-tire call on his final pit stop to gain track position and claim eighth place, his fourth top-10 finish of the season. Larson's Richmond resume includes two starts in the Nationwide series, a best finish of eighth and zero finishes off of the lead lap. Richmond is a place where a rookie could excel, and if there is any driver this season who has the raw speed to challenge the big guns, Larson is it. Fantasy owners should no longer be tepid about relying on Larson this season.
Paul Menard - Almost as expected, Menard wasn't able to convert a decent car into a top finish at Darlington. The Richard Childress Racing driver hit the wall about two-thirds into the distance and was off the track for repairs before returning only to clout the wall again. Last year in Richmond's fall race the driver led three laps and scored a top-5, but his average finish in the last five races at the track is 17.6. Menard has improved this season and needs to prove that he can maintain that form all year, but last week's setback and his past Richmond statistics make him a less than optimal choice again.
Greg Biffle - Biffle is best avoided when visiting a short track. His Richmond statistics aren't good with just one top-10 result in the last five races. His average finish in that time is 17.6, includeing just one finish outside of the lead lap. Biffle has won twice at Darlington in his career and found himself at the front of the field late in last week's race, but was only able to hang on to a fifth-place finish. He might come to Richmond with consecutive top-10s under his belt, but expectations of him getting the job done on a short track are pretty low. There are certain tracks where Biffle's history makes him a strong option, but Richmond is not one.
Brian Vickers - In his last three Richmond races, Vickers has only amassed an average finish of 30.7. He only finished two of those races, and didn't end any on the same lap as the leaders. He had what looked to be a strong car Saturday in Darlington, but didn't have circumstances go his direction. He finished the race 26th, which is not representative of the outing. Vickers has been racing well in his return to Sprint Cup with Michael Waltrip Racing, and it looks like a breakthrough for victory is on its way. The likelihood of Vickers getting that done in Richmond could be suspect, though. This is a developing team that has demonstrated speed, but still needs to convert that into a win.
Kasey Kahne - After showing virtually no speed throughout the Darlington race weekend, Kahne will take little momentum to a track where he hasn't raced well recently. He picked up the pace once the green flag waved last week at Darlington, but Kahne ultimately found himself collecting a Darlington stripe that ruined any chance of a good finish for the No. 5. His 37th-place finish on Saturday was a disappointment for him and the team. Kahne's average Richmond finish of 18.0 in his last five tries with just one top-5 result, and poor statistics like that coupled with a terrible Darlington make this driver one to avoid. Khane needs to show a spark to fantasy owners, and as of yet we haven't seen it.
Denny Hamlin - While he practiced and qualified well, Hamlin proved to be little of a factor Saturday in Darlington. For a driver with such strong statistics at the track much more was expected. To cap off the frustrating night, Hamlin was penalized for speeding on pit road on the final stop putting him deep in the field. That mistake proved even more costly when that lack of track position caught him in a wreck deep in traffic. His finishing position was 19th, but could have been much more. In his last four Richmond starts the No. 11 has a top-5, two top-10s, an average finish of 13.0 and two lead-lap finishes. Hamlin tallied a win as recently as 2010 at Richmond and has three to his name thus far, so fantasy owners should expect a good result, but can the No. 11 avoid trouble this time?