Social media created Throwback Thursday but it’s NASCAR who’s created the idea of a throwback weekend in sports. The Southern 500, one of the sport’s iconic races now gets paired with legendary paint schemes as teams and drivers come together to celebrate the past.
The list of throwback schemes will put fans straight down memory lane. A full list can be found here as almost every car has decided to change their colors for Sunday night. Everyone from former Cup champion Brad Keselowski(paying tribute to Rusty Wallace) to backmarker Derrike Cope(running a Bojangles scheme from when he drove for NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough) have climbed on board.
So for once, let’s skip the long intro, stop and look and all the cool colors you’ll see on the track this Sunday night. It’ll take a while to adjust to who’s who out there but the conversation it inspires every year is one of the best ideas NASCAR’s had this decade. Getting fans to research where these past schemes came from and reconnect with the sport’s (much more popular) past is a small way to keep them invested during a time of great uncertainty.
2018 Southern 500
Time: 6 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
Each of Stewart-Haas Racing’s four cars spent time at the front two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway. In the end, Kurt Busch prevailed for his first win of the year, darting in front of teammate Clint Bowyeron a series of final restarts.
That made Busch the third of four SHR teams to clinch a postseason bid with Aric Almirolaon the verge of doing so at Darlington. Their ten wins as an organization lead the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as they’ve become Ford’s primary championship contender in just a little over a year and a half.
Who’s at the Back: Bubba Wallace
It’s been a rough rookie season for one of the sport’s most popular drivers. Wallace, involved in a multi-car wreck at Bristol, hasn’t scored a top-10 finish since Texas all the way back in April. He’s earned just one top 15 the last 17 starts (Daytona in July) and has fallen far behind William Byronin the sport’s Rookie of the Year race. Wallace raised expectations with his season-opening second place in the sport’s Daytona 500 but has since failed to meet them, largely invisible from public view. That’s bad for the sport as the first full-time African-American driver in decades helps champion their growing effort to diversify.
Rumors are running rampant surrounding the future of Furniture Row Racing. The reigning NASCAR championship team is losing sponsorship from 5-Hour Energy at the end of the season and owner Barney Visser appears inclined to sell the operation rather than replace the sponsorship or spend more of his own money. Talks with GMS Racing have recently fallen through, leaving 2019 even more uncertain. Driver Martin Truex Jr. has been rumored to land at Joe Gibbs Racing next season, replacing Daniel Suarez while Suarez is farmed out to the No. 95 team of Leavine Family Racing. This unexpected Silly Season domino should trigger a rash of driver moves (or none, if Truex works out an extension) as Visser resolves his team’s future over the next few weeks.
Kurt Busch remains noncommittal about his 2019 future but admitted on Friday he has two contract offers. Busch was initially reported to be in position to re-sign with his current team, the No. 41 at Stewart-Haas Racing for next year. But then contract negotiations hit a snag and SHR gave him the thumbs up to look around. Chip Ganassi Racing and the No. 1 car would be the most likely destination for Busch if he leaves the Ford program.
With his uncle Brian France in rehab, Ben Kennedy indicated he’d be interested in assuming the role of NASCAR CEO one day. The 26-year-old, currently managing the Camping World Truck Series within the sport was a NASCAR driver himself until the end of last season. But now, he’s being pushed as a longshot candidate as soon as 2019 should NASCAR decide they’ll keep France from permanently reassuming his role as CEO. He has been out of the public spotlight since an arrest for driving under the influence and drug possession early last month.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The year of the first Southern 500, considered NASCAR’s first superspeedway race on an oval. Johnny Mantz outlasted an outsized field of 75 cars to take the victory.
Winners this season through the sport’s first 24 races. It’s the lowest number, by far, since the sport adopted its current 16-driver “win and you’re in” playoff format in 2014.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
NASCAR’s Big Threeof Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are well positioned to succeed at Darlington. It’s a track where driver skill reigns supreme and each of them have past wins at the Lady In Black. Combining for 17 wins in the first 24 races this season, it’s clear they remain head and shoulders above the rest of the pack.
Tired of taking that trio? How about Denny Hamlin? He’s the track’s defending winner and has six top-five finishes in the last eight Darlington events.
Ryan Newman topped the charts in a bit of a surprise during Friday practice. Newman has to win to get into the NASCAR playoffs and his No. 31 Chevrolet has shown some speed at this track in the past. He’s got four top-10 finishes in the past five races at the Lady In Black and also enters the weekend with momentum (12th at Bristol). Could the Richard Childress Racing driver be in position to pull off a mammoth upset?
Matt Kenseth could be a true sleeper here after running inside the top 10 in practice driving the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Kenseth, for the most part, has been underwhelming since coming out of retirement to drive for RFR part time. But he’s had a strong career at Darlington, posting an average finish of 15.4, has a past win here (2013) and was sixth with Joe Gibbs Racing last year. Don’t sleep on him.
What Vegas Thinks
Once again, NASCAR’s Big Three top the charts with Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. featuring the best odds, in that order. Harvick has the edge among bettors with 5/2 odds as of Saturday morning.
What I Think
In the battle amongst the Big Three, I think Sunday night is Harvick’s turn. Expect the No. 4 team to hit Darlington Victory Lane for the driver’s career-best eighth victory of 2018.
-- Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)