REAR-VIEW MIRROR: 2004 Southern 500

Ethan Butler 0 Comments

Race Chaser Online’s ‘Rear View Mirror’ returns this fall and kicks off NASCAR’s ‘Throwback Weekend’ at Darlington Raceway with a look back into the history annals at the final ‘original’ running of the Southern 500, moved to Nov. 14, 2004 as a result of the infamous Ferko lawsuit.

Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon lead the field to the green flag to start the 2004 Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (ISC Archives photo)

Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon lead the field to the green flag to start the 2004 Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. (ISC Archives photo)

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Whose name would go on the trophy of what was believed (at that time) to be the final running of the Southern 500?

In the first appearance of NASCAR under the lights at Darlington, with the race starting mid-afternoon and ending in the early evening, it was truly anyone’s guess.

The 2004 premier series season was winding down. In the midst of arguably the most exciting championship battle in NASCAR history, any of the top seven drivers in points could have mathematically left Darlington as the points leader heading into the final race of the inaugural Chase at Homestead — all separated by a scant 150 markers.

The ‘Lady in Black’ had already made her presence known, as Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler were forced to back-up cars after crashing in practice. Qualifying was washed out, so the field was set by owners points … meaning Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon lead the field to the green flag in front of a packed house in southern South Carolina.

After a clean start, Busch was quickly swallowed up by Gordon for the lead on lap two, with then third-year standout Jimmie Johnson following close behind. Gordon paced the field for the next 19 laps before Busch swiped the lead right back and brought Ryan Newman with him into second. Newman’s chase for the lead was short-lived, as he pulled in to the pits three laps later because of a right-front tire issue.

Johnson ran down and passed Busch on lap 27, the fourth lead change since the start of the race. The torrid battle for the top spot would finally settle down after that, however, as Johnson led for the next 35 laps before surrendering it during green flag pit stops. Joe Nemechek, Greg Biffle, and Sterling Marlin each stayed out to lead a lap during the cycle of pit stops.

Mark Martin came out the leader after short-pitting 10 laps sooner than the leaders with teammate Greg Biffle, but the pace was finally slowed for the first time on lap 83, when the first caution of the day flew for the No. 32 of Bobby Hamilton, Jr. smacking the wall in turn two.

The leaders came in for service again, with Martin and Biffle retaining their top two spots. Rusty Wallace had clawed his way into the picture in third place as Johnson slipping back to fourth on the restart, while championship leader Busch had fallen back to tenth complaining of a loose race car.

The battle for the top spot continued as Biffle took the lead away from Martin on lap 96, but was quickly swallowed up on lap 102 by a hard charging Johnson. Martin fought back to lead lap 113 until giving way to a young Jamie McMurray, driving the No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge Charger in his sophomore season. His moment of glory at the front was short-lived after Bobby Labonte brought out the day’s second caution, looping his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet to the apron of turn four.

This yellow was a major break for Busch, who though he might have a tire going down after suffering damage to his fender.

The race restarted on lap 125 with Robby Gordon’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in the top spot. Gordon led the race for the next 17 laps, despite his car trailing smoke due to a fender rub, before Johnson would take the lead back and dominate the next stint of laps.

Michael Waltrip and Derrick Cope tangled in turn four on the 145th round, bringing out the third caution, but the race quickly resumed with Johnson picking up right where he left off and leading the next 49 laps. After another yellow for a spinning Dale Jarrett, the race resumed on lap 202 with Jeff Gordon out front and Johnson slipping back to 10th position after a lug nut problem on his pit stop.

Jeff Gordon showed some muscle, leading the next 53 laps, but Martin and Robby Gordon hung around in the top three and had McMurray and Carl Edwards lurking just in reach behind them.

Cooler temperatures and shadows began to blanket the speedway, as the track temperature and lap times began to fall. The characteristics of this Darlington race were much different than the typical hot, slick afternoon drivers were used to. The lights came on and afternoon transitioned into the evening, and drivers prepared themselves for the final 100 lap sprint to the finish.

Continued on the next page…

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