It was entirely appropriate that the Bojangles' Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Darlington Raceway should have been held on Labor Day weekend, because the drivers certainly had to labour exceptionally hard all evening in a floodlit race that ended up running half an hour longer than the official longest race on the calendar, the Coke Cola 600, thanks to a record number of cautions (18) occurring during the night.

The winner of that race in May had been Joe Gibbs Racing's Carl Edwards, and there's clearly something about marathon events that hugely appeals to the 36-year-old, because when the dust settled and the chequered flag came out it was Edwards once again performing his trademark celebratory back flip off the door of the #19 before heading to join his team in victory lane.

"A win like this is really special, especially leading into the Chase," Edwards said after securing his 25th victory in 398 Cup starts. "This is what we needed. We just needed a shot in the arm and needed to have a good night like this. All over, it's cool."

Edwards, who has never won before at Darlington, was particularly approving of the new low downforce package designed to promote close racing, being used this weekend for only the second time this season after its introduction at Kentucky in July.

"This is what it's about. We're sliding cars, tyres are falling off. This is the style of racing that I love," he said, disappointed only in that as yet none of the races in the championship play-offs are slated to make use of the new package. "If there's any chance we can do it in the Chase, I hope, I hope we can do it."

CLICK: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup race results from Darlington Raceway.

Having won pole position by an impressive two tenths in qualifying on Saturday afternoon, it had been Brad Keselowski who maintained the lead when the green flag came out under the setting sun over the South Caroline circuit, while Stewart-Haas Racing's Kurt Busch was swept from second place by his own team mate Kevin Harvick and by Keselowski's fellow Penske driver Joey Logano even before the early first caution on lap 6 for contact between Chase Elliott, Cole Whitt and Brett Moffitt on the backstretch.

When the race resumed, Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth spun out of a top five spot and hit the wall doing significant damage to the #20 but without triggering a new caution. That came when Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing) spun in turn 4 on lap 44 but the #31 escaped any significant damage. A round of pit stops ensued, with Keselowski beating Harvick in the race back out on track to continue to lead at the restart.

A debris caution just 12 laps later saw most of the leaders take the opportunity to pit again - but Edwards was a significant sole exception after what the team subsequently admitted had been a miscommunication between the driver and pit wall. Although Edwards led Kasey Kahne (Hendrick Motorsports) to the green flag, the older tyres on the #19 meant he quickly dropped back and it was his JGR team mate Denny Hamlin who took charge in his stead. The seriousness of the pit miscue became apparent soon after, when a tyre going down forced Edwards into an off-schedule green flag pit stop on lap 90 which on a 1.366-mile (2.198km) intermediate track like Darlington meant that he went two laps down. Things were now looking grim for Edwards for any sort of decent result, but there was a long way to go and anything could yet happen.

Hamlin by contrast had a three second lead over Busch, Harvick, Keselowski and Logano when the next caution came out on lap 109 for a spin by Michael Annettt (HScott Motorsports) in turn 2. Keselowski used the restart as an opportunity to pass Hamlin before another caution on lap 120, this time for a spin for Mike Bliss. There was another rapid caution on lap 125 for a second spin for the hapless Bliss along with JJ Yeley after contact in turn 3, with Annett also once again getting caught up in the incident; and the rapid-fire cautions continued with another on lap 133 when Jimmie Johnson spun in the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy after contact with Logano.

Finally there was a green flag that stuck, Keselowski quickly getting back around Harvick for the lead after being jumped at the restart. Keselowski retained the lead through the next round of pit stops that took place under caution following contact between Trevor Bayne (Roush Fenway Racing) and Danica Patrick (SHR) that sent the #6 spinning on lap 165. Patrick herself was the cause for the ninth caution on lap 190 after the #10 got loose and hit the wall in turn 4.

"I didn't feel out of control out there," Patrick insisted as the crew carried out extensive repairs to get her back out on track. "I felt like I was in a pretty decent rhythm. It snapped pretty hard in four, so I don't know, I mean they said it looked like it snapped pretty hard. I'm not 100 per cent sure. It could have just gotten loose, but it could have been a cut tyre, too. It's a bummer."

Patrick's off-track partner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway) triggered the next caution when he spun while racing side-by-side with Clint Bowyer (Michael Waltrip Racing) and hit the inside wall at the restart on lap 197. TJ Bell and Alex Bowman also picked up some damage in the jostling, while Paul Menard was reporting a loss of power steering on the RCR #27.

"Just hard racing," said Stenhouse. "I got up under the #55 [David Ragan] and got loose. We saw a lot of us get loose. It just snapped around. I hadn't been that loose early in a run and it just jumped out from under us there. We were slowly making it better and clawing our way toward mid-pack or a little better than mid-pack but it just got out from under us there."

Kurt Busch took the lead from Keselowski at the next restart, but once again the yellows were quick to follow - and it was Kurt's brother Kyle in the thick of things after he spun in turn 2 after contact with Greg Biffle (Roush Fenway) while running side-by-side through turn 2. It was the last thing that Kyle needed as he simply tried to have a safe race and clinch his place in the Chase play-offs, but fortunately the JGR pit crew were able to patch up the #18 with no real harm done and he was soon back on his way; Biffle came off somewhat worse for the encounter.

Ganassi's Kyle Larson stayed off pit road to lead the field back to green but his older tyres meant that SHR owner-driver Tony Stewart sailed past into the lead of a race for the first time since Talladega on lap 212. Hamlin took over on lap 222 before a new caution - the 12th - on lap 229 came out for Chase Elliott spinning out in 1, this time with significant damage for the #25 that ruled him out of continuing.

"I'm not sure," Elliott said when asked what had happened. "I didn't feel like [there was a tyre] going down or anything. It just like going in there, getting into 1 and tore up the race car, unfortunately. I appreciate everybody's hard work this weekend. We were trying. I messed up there at the beginning of the race and got us behind and you just can't do stuff like that."

During the ensuring pit stops, problems with the jack cost Hamlin his lead and promoted Harvick to the front for the restart and he retained it through to the next caution on lap 246 for a second spin of the night for Trevor Bayne. Logano stayed off pit road this time to pick up the lead for the next brief green flag stint which concluded with a spin for David Ragan on lap 265; Ragan was also the cause of the next caution as well, after he was tapped from behind by Menard on lap 279.

Pit stops meant that Logano surrendered the lead and it was Harvick back on point from Keselowski with Kurt Busch doing battle with Martin Truex Jr. for third place when the racing resumed on lap 283. After a brief debris caution on lap 300, it was contact between Busch and Truex in turn 4 at the restart that brought out the 17th caution of the night.

"We cleared the #78 off turn 2," recalled Busch later. "We had been working with him all night. You've got to race the racetrack and he let us in off 2 and everything was fine. Then he just drilled us going into 3."

Keselowski had taken the opportunity to pass Harvick and continued to lead at the next restart with 50 laps remaining. However, much more significant at this point was the return to the top five of Carl Edwards, who had worked hard all evening to recover from his early setback and through a combination of wavearounds and free passes had finally managed to get himself back on the lead lap and from there to the sharp end of the race. Even so, Keselowski and Harvick continued to look the class of the field, and Keselowski - who ultimately led for a race-high 196 of the 367 laps at Darlington - was able to maintain a second's advantage over his rivals. It appeared that only a final caution could give either Harvick or Edwards any chance of dethroning the Penske from its imminent coronation.

And sure enough, the gods provided. The yellows were out one last time on lap 355 for Jeb Burton spinning the BK Racing #23 between turns 1 and 2. Desperate not to be caught on old rubber come the restart, the leaders headed to pit road - and it was JGR that won the battle and indeed the war for Edwards, putting him back out ahead of Keselowski for the final restart on lap 360. Given that edge and no further interruptions, nothing was going to stop Edwards picking up the chequered flag for his second win of the season.

"They [the pit crew] won that race for us," Edwards agreed afterwards. "To come in third and come out winning the race. It's the Southern 500, one of the most sought-after wins in all of motorsports.

"I hope I never forget those last 25 laps. That was really fun, and the restart was fun, but truly racing with Brad and Kevin was a blast. I really had a good time."

Keselowski was able to hold on to second place ahead of a late charge from Edwards' JGR team mate Denny Hamlin. Joey Logano was also able to get a jump on Harvick, leaving the defending race and series champion crossing the line in fifth place just ahead of his team mate Kurt Busch.

"I needed to be a little bit better everywhere," said a disappointed Keselowski, who has yet to score a Cup win at Darlington. "Needed to be better on the restarts and a little better probably because I brushed the wall a little bit there. I just needed to be a little bit better everywhere to have a shot at the win."

"We were in the race and we just got a little too far behind with eight laps to go and never made that up," said Harvick. "We've got to brush up on that but, all in all, the car performed well. We just got bit there at the end."

"We got the lead at one point - it was short lived, but the car definitely loved the clean air," said Busch. "Then we had a poor pit stop when we came in as the leader, then some guys stayed out and it kind of bottled us up for a while. Then we worked our way back up and once you get past 100 laps to go restarts get really congested.

"Overall, pleased with our day we came back strong after a mishap," he added. "I just have to thank all the guys for their hard work."

His brother Kyle Busch recovered from his own mid-race misfortune to secure a significant seventh place ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick), with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson rounding out the top ten.

"The guys did a good job getting the car better all night long," said Earnhardt, whose #88 had got progressively stronger the longer the four-and-a-half hour race had gone into the nighttime. "The car was a lot of fun to drive all night. We did have some balance issues we need to improve on, but we fought hard and got a good result. The car was pretty good the last two or three runs, just took us all weekend to get there."

"We lost the handling late in the race and went backwards," reported Truex after securing his 17th top ten finish of the year, a new team record for Furniture Row Racing. "We were a top five car all night and to come away ninth is disappointing. We just didn't have the grip at the end to run closer to the front. I would feel better about the team record had we finished in the top five."

Ryan Newman recovered to finish in 13th while Tony Stewart faded to 15th in the final laps, finishing just ahead of Jeff Gordon in the four-time Cup champion's final race at Darlington before his retirement from competition at the end of the season. Jimmie Johnson was 19th after an atypically anonymous evening at the office, while Matt Kenseth was able to climb back to 21st place following his early spin.

Chase standings

While it might not have been all that he had been hoping for, fifth place at Darlington means that Kevin Harvick continues to lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings by 42 points over Joey Logano. The top nine drivers are all safely in the Chase courtesy of having at least one race win in 2015: as well as Harvick and Logano, also locked in are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch as well as Carl Edwards who moves up to 12th place in the standings on the back of his win this week.

Officially newly confirmed as making it through to the Chase championship play-offs this weekend is Kyle Busch, who has four wins in 2015 and whose seventh place at Darlington means that he is now also sure of finishing in the top 30 as required to be Chase-eligible.

"Making the Chase was something we weren't all sure was possible after my injuries," admitted Busch, who missed the first 11 races of the season after breaking his right leg and left foot in an accident at Daytona in February, which meant that it had seemed highly unlikely he would make the Chase this season. "That's probably the longest I've ever been out of the race car in my life and the most time I spent laying on my butt, too ... That was a tough lick. But we made it back and we made it into the Chase.

"It's a great opportunity to be with these guys on this M&M'S Crispy team. They're working really hard at Joe Gibbs Racing. We've got a lot of speed, and I think all four cars have a really good shot at this championship."

"I think everything that happened to us at Daytona and then to bounce back in 11 weeks, I thought the odds were against us," agreed team owner Joe Gibbs. "And for him to be able to pull this off, win four times and get back in the Chase tonight - they had a great game plan, Adam [Stevens, crew chief] and Kyle, and first up was to make sure they had enough points tonight that they didn't have to worry next week.

"I think that's also a great sports story," he added. "It was great for Kyle."

The leading drivers in the points still without a win in 2015 are Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Paul Menard. Clint Bowyer is on the bubble for a play-off place: he needs there to be no more new winners next weekend at Richmond before the cut-off. Aric Almirola (-29 points) and Kasey Kahne (-31 points) are on the outside looking in despite finishing 11th and 12th respectively this weekend, while Greg Biffle and Kyle Larson are now too far away to make it in on points unless they pick up a last-chance win next week.

The race deciding the 16 drivers who have officially made the 2015 Chase will be the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 12.

See full race results and updated Sprint Cup Championship standings.

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