A record-breaking weekend at Darlington

Nationwide Series rookie Chase Elliott (center) poses in Victory Lane at Darlington with his parents Cindy and Bill Elliott, the 1988 Sprint Cup champion.  

Nick Laham/NASCAR via Getty Images

Last weekend at Darlington we had a record-breaking weekend that actually started on Friday. Aric Almirola set an absolutely blistering new track record that I honestly never thought we’d ever see at that place. Aric averaged nearly 184 mph around the track, that as we always tell you, wasn’t built for those kinds of speeds. I’m talking about the fact that Aric ran basically a 100 mph faster than that old track was ever built and designed for. So that was pretty phenomenal.

After Kevin Harvick ended up winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup pole, they held the Nationwide race. Young Chase Elliott won his second consecutive Nationwide race. Believe me, a rookie winning at Darlington is unheard of. That young man behind the wheel of the No. 9 NAPA car certainly has already served notice this early in 2014 that he will be a force in the future.

If all that wasn’t enough, we had Kevin Harvick, as I mentioned, starting on the pole for the Southern 500 Saturday night. Dale Earnhardt was the last driver to win the Southern 500 from the pole in 1990. In addition to that, 1997 was the last time anyone won from the pole at a race at Darlington. That was Dale Jarrett.

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So I knew when I made the bold prediction Saturday night that Kevin was going to win the race that a lot of folks were pretty skeptical. I mean, I can’t blame them, because the statistics simply didn’t support my pick. I just knew, though, from watching that car in practice and qualifying, plus in talking to Kevin, that he had a car good enough to win.

He basically did the same thing he did back at Phoenix where he dominated and won the race. Kevin led 238 laps of a scheduled 367-lap race. He was the car to beat all night long. It certainly looked like he was going to cruise to a pretty easy victory until we once again had a green-white-checker scenario and not just once, but twice.

Kevin’s crew chief Rodney Childers and the rest of the team were spot-on when it came time for that last crucial pit stop. While they anticipated some folks would only take two tires to try and gain track position, the No. 4 camp opted for four tires because they knew the advantage Kevin would have. It was a great call by Rodney. The crew came through perfectly and everything worked to perfection.

Getting any win is a big deal, but getting that second win this early in the season is a really big deal for Kevin and his team. As long as they stay in the top 30 in points come Richmond in September, Saturday night’s second win assures them a spot in the 2014 Chase. Speaking of the points, that win also jumped Kevin from 26th in the points up four spots to 22nd. So he obviously widened the margin between him and 31st place.

Now after eight races, they have two wins, two top fives and three top-10 finishes. Sure, they’ve had some mechanical issues. Again, I remind you that is a team with a new driver and a new crew chief, both who have never worked together until this year. It simply takes time for everything to fall into place and things to jell.

To be honest, I am not surprised at their success. I had said last year during the offseason that I expected to see that No. 4 car do something magical this year. So far they have proven me right. They also were bad-fast in offseason testing at Charlotte and Daytona. When you take a driver the caliber of Kevin, add in a crew chief the caliber of Rodney plus combine the resources of Stewart-Haas Racing with the alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, well, having already won 25 percent of the races run this season is sort of what I expected.

Winning the Darlington Southern 500 is important. It’s one of those races a driver wants to have on his resume at the end of this career. I had won a number of times at Darlington but it was always the spring race. I can’t tell you how sweet it was when I won the Southern 500 in 1992. Obviously, I didn’t know it at the time, but it would prove to be my last win. Being able to say the Southern 500 was my last win is something pretty special to me.

Today’s generation is the same way. There’s no other track like it on the circuit. It’s the oldest superspeedway. That race is 500 grueling miles, again at speeds the track simply wasn’t built for. So when a driver wins at Darlington, he or she knows they have done something pretty special. When you can say you won the Southern 500, you have joined an elite group. Ask any driver who has won the Southern 500 and they will tell you that trophy has a special place on their mantel.

Our two main Rookie of the Year contenders did quite well at the Lady in Black. Kyle Larson finished eighth and Austin Dillon finished 11th. Again, for rookies to finish well there at Darlington says a lot about their talent. Greg Biffle had a great run. He finished fifth. As I always tell you, Biff is a wheel man. He is getting everything he can out of that No. 16 week in and week out. That fifth-place finish also jumped him five spots to 11th in the points.

Jeff Gordon continues as our points leader as we head into this much-needed weekend off. I know he has to be somewhat disappointed with his seventh-place finish Saturday night because he had a really fast race car all night long. While one of his cars was celebrating in Victory Lane, Tony Stewart had to be happy to finish ninth. He struggled all night long but in the bigger picture that ninth-place finish also moved Smoke up two spots to 12th in the points. If all that wasn’t enough to make him smile, Tony has to take great satisfaction knowing that his Stewart-Haas Racing has now won three of the first eight races.

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With a Saturday night race, I was able to watch the final round of the Masters. For those doubters out there, Bubba Watson served notice he is the real deal. He now has won the Masters twice in the last three years. It was touching to see his young son run over to him after it was all over. When a professional athlete can have his family around him when he or she wins, that truly is as good as it gets.

The IndyCar race was great. The four-wide NHRA event at Charlotte was cool. So it was a great weekend of racing. Congratulations to all the winners, and a big thank you to all the fans that came out to support the events. It’s been quite a while since we rolled into Daytona in mid-February, so this rare weekend off is much needed and appreciated.

Next weekend we have another Saturday night race, this time at Richmond International Raceway. That’s also a special place, and going there always reminds me of my buddy Travis Tritt’s song "Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde" that has the lyric, well, it’s a long way to Richmond, rollin’ north on 95 with a redhead ridin’ shotgun by my side." Hey, that’s me!