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Monday Rundown: Sprint Cup's low-drag package entertaining

The focus at Darlington was the return of the Bojangle's Southern 500 to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend and the popular retro theme that accompanied it.

But the star of the show was NASCAR's low drag aero package for the Sprint Cup Series.

Running a smaller rear spoiler, reduced splitter lip and altered radiator pan, the cars were slipping and sliding all over the place -- much to the delight of the drivers.

Ever since the low drag package made a one-off debut at Kentucky Speedway in early July, Carl Edwards was one of its biggest proponents. Kyle Busch led a 1-3-4-5 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing at Kentucky, and, led by Edwards, JGR placed three cars in the top seven at Darlington.

It was a remarkable performance by Edwards, who took advantage of the many cautions to overcome a two-lap deficit he encountered early in the race. But it wasn't just the Gibbs drivers who were raving about the way the cars raced in the lower downforce configuration that is being used as a baseline for the 2016 Sprint Cup rules.

Roush Fenway Racing had a typically tough night, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne crashing out and Greg Biffle scraping home 18th after a flat tire and a later spin.

"That was just hard racing," said Stenhouse, who qualified seventh but crashed just short of the 200-lap mark. "We saw a lot of us get loose. We enjoyed it. It's a lot of fun out there sliding around and tires wearing out and I think this is what we all wanted.

"It just bit a few of us."

That's the truth. The race featured a record 18 full-course cautions, 16 of which were prompted by spins or wrecks. Eighteen of the 43 drivers were officially reported as being involved in contact, and there were doubtless many more.

If the high-drag package run at Indianapolis and Michigan can almost unquestionably be called a failure, the low-drag package has proven to provide almost everything the drivers have asked for.

Brad Keselowski, who finished second to Edwards at Darlington in his Team Penske Ford, said he believes Sprint Cup cars had become too easy to drive in recent years, mostly due to the increasing reliance on aerodynamics.

He likened the NASCAR pilots adapting to the reduced downforce package to a road car driver re-learning how to drive a stick shift after many years out of practice from driving cars with an automatic transmission.

"We asked NASCAR to make these cars harder to drive -- metaphorically speaking, give us our stick shift back -- and they did," Keselowski said.

"I think somebody thought they'd be really funny and pick Darlington as the track to do that," he added. "That would be like if you picked the mountains of Virginia to give somebody a stick shift back. It's kind of that same feeling. Kind of metaphorically speaking I think there was a lot of people that stalled it out today."

NASCAR declared itself pleased with Sunday night's show.

"We certainly liked what we saw on the race track, and all of the early indicators were really positive from the fans," remarked NASCAR vice-president Steve O'Donnell. "There is a lot of data for us to go back and absorb, like we did coming out of Kentucky and other races. From our perspective, we'll go and do that and spend the proper time with the industry -- with the race teams, with the drivers."

He said he expects a decision on the 2016 rules package toward the end of the month.

"All in all, I'm really pleased with the race product tonight," he said. "This certainly was a very positive night for us that we'll build upon and take that momentum as we head into '16."

With all the spins and yellows, the Southern 500 may not have been an artistic success. But it also fit in with the retro theme of the evening. Fans lose sight of the fact that not every race can feature a 43-car pack jostling toward a photo finish.

Attrition, whether through crashes or mechanical issues, is substantially reduced from the era from the 1960s to '80s that inspired so much nostalgia from almost everyone involved in the sport.

Twenty-eight cars finished on the lead lap Sunday night, and 39 were running at the finish. Edwards' margin of victory was 0.902 second.

Ned Jarrett, one of the many NASCAR legends on hand to celebrate the sport's heritage this weekend, won the 1965 Southern 500 by 14 laps. And his race-winning time of 4 hours, 19 minutes was actually less than the 4:28.35 that this year's caution-filled race required ...

So the retro Southern 500 really did succeed in its mission of replicating the past. And thanks to the low drag aero package, it also provided a glimpse into the future.

"I think the general consensus among all of the drivers at least is that we would like to start with this [for 2016] and possibly try to even get more downforce off the cars," said Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray, who finished 14th at Darlington. "It seems like they race better when you are behind someone, when you are not as dependent on having the air on the car. I think that is always going to be important.

"It doesn't matter what type of racing you watch, the leader always has a little bit of an advantage," he added. "But it seems like he has less of an advantage with the smaller spoiler and this rules package."

Xfinity Series

Joe Gibbs Racing's domination of the Darlington weekend was complete, starting with a 1-2-3 finish in Saturday's Xfinity Series Sport Clips 200.

Denny Hamlin led 117 of the 147 laps to earn his 20th Xfinity Series race win, but it wasn't nearly as easy as those numbers would indicate. The Virginian thought his race was doomed after his Toyota did not receive a full load of Sunoco Race Fuel on Lap 72.

Hamlin had to make an additional stop some 50 laps later, and he had to chase down his JGR teammate Daniel Suarez, who was trying to stretch his fuel to the finish on a one-stop strategy.

Hamlin needed a clean race with no yellows and he got it. He caught Suarez and passed him with three laps remaining. Kyle Busch passed Suarez on the last lap, relegating him to third, but the Mexican gained some consolation from winning a $100,000 Dash for Cash bonus.

It was Hamlin's third Xfinity win of the season (all from pole position) and his fourth at Darlington -- also all from pole.

"You can't have dominant performances like that without a great race car, and obviously [crew chief] Mike Wheeler and these guys did that for me," Hamlin said.

A clean run to fifth place helped Chris Buescher extend his lead in the Xfinity Series championship to 29 points over Ty Dillon, who came home 14th.

"We got it turned around here," Buescher said. "It was a really good day for our team and we will definitely take this when it is all said and done."

Defending Xfinity champion Chase Elliott had a troubled day. Some close racing with Brian Scott early in the contest got the 19-year-old riled up on his radio, and he dropped to a 24th-place finish when his Chevrolet's engine lost power with a handful of laps to go. Elliott is still third in the standings, 35 points behind Buescher.

Camping World Truck Series

The Trucks will enjoy a second consecutive off weekend prior to a stretch of eight races in 10 weeks to identify the 2015 champion. The American Ethanol 225 is Sept. 18 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Erik Jones claimed the Truck points lead with his Aug. 30 victory at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. But two-time defending Truck champion Matt Crafton finished right on Jones' tailgate in the CTMP road race and the battle for the title between the two Toyota drivers -- the rookie and the rising star -- should be a good one.

A 19th-place finish in Canada was a blow to Tyler Reddick, but the Ford man is still within 15 points of Jones, and Johnny Sauter (-55) can't be counted out.