DARLINGTON, S.C. – Jeff Gordon's season didn't get any better at one of his most successful tracks.
Gordon twice had to pit because of flat tires, continuing a host of struggles that have left the four-time Sprint Cup champion 23rd in the points. "We got something broke here, boys," Gordon told his crew as he headed into the pits for his second flat tire.
Gordon drove the car into the garage after the second flat, his crew inspecting underneath for problems while Gordon waited patiently inside.
It's been that sort of year for Gordon, who had hoped to find his old form at Darlington Raceway, a track where he's won seven times. Teammate and five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson captured the Southern 500 for the 200th victory for Hendrick Motorsports.
Car owner Rick Hendrick acknowledged Gordon's horrible luck so far. "Jeff is like, I wouldn't fly home with him," he said. "It's been unbelievable."
Gordon had a blown engine at Daytona when he was running fifth. A cut tire at Bristol left him 35th. Two pit road penalties in California dropped Gordon to 26th. Gordon was challenging for the win at Martinsville when he got spun in a green-white-checkered finish and ended 12th.
Last week at Talladega, Gordon started from the pole yet saw his car overheat to drop him back. He got caught in a later wreck and finished 23rd.
"It's the same old story," Gordon said. "We're running good. We have fast race cars. We're doing everything we can as a team and just having things like that happen to us," he said.
With Gordon so far down in points, he said his season is about winning enough races to earn a wild card spot in the season-ending championship chase. "I'm not saying it's impossible, but I think that the nice thing about that is we just go do what we always try and do, which is win races," he said.
Gordon ended 35th at Darlington, 29 laps behind Johnson.
ROUND 2: Time has not smoothed things over between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.
The two Sprint Cup stars stole the show at the Southern 500 last year with their post-race dustup on the way to the garage after Regan Smith's victory at the track "Too Tough To Tame." Harvick was angered with Busch's tactics late in the race when both were contending for the checkered flag.
Busch, Harvick and Clint Bowyer were three-wide on the narrow track during a late restart when all were trying to chase down Smith. Bowyer went sprawling into the interior wall after contact. As cars spun out behind, Busch gathered his machine, then veered down the track and sent Harvick spinning.
Smith held on through a green-white-checkered finish for his first Sprint Cup victory. But the real drama was unfolding on pit road as Busch and Harvick drove from the track. Busch was up against Harvick's back bumper when Harvick jumped out and rushed toward Busch's window where it looked like he took a swing at Busch.
Busch bumped Harvick's driverless car into the interior wall and headed into the garage. Both were called into the NASCAR hauler and each left composed — although with different versions of what happened.
Busch and Harvick were both fined $25,000 and placed on probation by NASCAR after the Darlington tussle.
The two said they hadn't talked about what happened last year. "I tend to be able to let things go and forget about things while others tend to keep dwelling and keep bringing them back up," Busch said.
Harvick understood why the track used the incident to attract fans. He said he hasn't spent too much time worrying about it. "I don't talk about Kyle or to Kyle," Harvick said.
OLD DARLINGTON?: Is Darlington Raceway again "Too Tough To Tame?" Four years after a major repaving project, it seems the old, gnarly, tire-chewing surface is back rearing its ugly head for Sprint Cup's top racers.
Howard Comstock with SRT Motorsports Engineering said there were "Darlington stripes" on nearly every car you looked at during Friday's practice. "They tried to pave (tire wear) out of the racetrack when they did the repave in 2008, but it's back," Comstock said.
The past few years since the repaving have allowed race teams to use two tires near the end to save time and beat rivals out of the pits. Those days, Comstock said, are probably done. "I think we're back" to four-tire pit stops all the time, he said. "I think the track has enough wear on it now that were back to four tires every chance you get," he said.
Sprint Cup series points leader Greg Biffle said fresh tires are become as important as they were before at Darlington. Biffle won here in 2005 and 2006 before the track's repaving. Four new tires "picks the speed up a little bit," he said.
REMEMBERING SHELBY: NASCAR drivers, race teams and leaders paid their respects this weekend to driver and sports car designer Carroll Shelby, who died Thursday at age 89.
The Nationwide Series race at Darlington Raceway held a moment of silence in Shelby's honor. Track owner Bruton Smith said Shelby was one of his best friends and an innovator in the automotive industry. "I admired him a great deal and will miss him greatly as a friend and a business partner," Smith said.
Former Charlotte Motor Speedway President H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said Shelby was a character in the automotive industry that rivaled Bill France Sr., Enzo Ferrari, Smokey Yunick and Barney Oldfield. Shelby "could see the future of performance better than anyone I ever knew," Wheeler said.
Two-time Darlington champion Greg Biffle was saddened by Shelby's passing. "I've got a few of his cars and he was an inspiration to all car collectors and car guys across the country," Biffle said. "I grew up in that era when all the muscle cars were happening and did a lot of stuff for hot rods and other cars."
FIRST FAN: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley came to Darlington Raceway for the first time for a tour of the state's NASACAR superspeedway. Haley and her husband, Michael, took part in the drivers' prerace meeting and the first-term leader got to meet her favorite driver, Danica Patrick. "Michael took a picture of it. It should be up on Facebook soon," Haley said.
Haley said the Southern 500 brings 60,000 fans and millions of dollars to the area and is a wonderful way to showcase South Carolina.
"It is amazing what goes into these races," she said. "It really tremendous for the state."
Her biggest surprise of the day? "That Danica Patrick is tiny. She's absolutely tiny," Haley said about the 5-foot-2 driver.
LUGNUTS: It's Mother's Day weekend, which means Darlington's annual tradition of honoring mom. Several NASCAR moms came out along with their driver sons during prerace introductions, then the group gave the starting call of "Sons and drivers, start your engines." ... Carl Edwards has pointed to Darlington Raceway more than most competitors since ending runnerup to Regan Smith in a green-white-checkered finish. "We've been waiting since that last restart a year ago to come back here," he said. "Everyone talks about this being one of the biggest races and it really is for our whole team." ... Nominations for the 2012 Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award close May 31. The award honors NASCAR fans making an impact with children in communities across the country.