Darlington Raceway, host of the Southern 500 since 1950 is one of the oldest, most unique tracks on the NASCAR schedule. The Track Too Tough To Tame remains a special piece of stock car history, an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile oval impossible to replicate nestled inside rural South Carolina.
There’s no better place to remind fans, drivers, and everyone else involved in the sport how life used to be.
A Throwback Thursday of paint schemes in real life, Sunday’s Southern 500 will harken back to the day where men like Jeff Gordon, David Pearson, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt dominated this Darlington racetrack. Take a look at the variety of schemes that pay homage to these legendary drivers and decades’ worth of competition.
The retro scheme idea, cooked up by NASCAR a few years ago, has become one of the best ideas amid rough times for the sport. NBCSN gets in the act, as well, putting legendary race broadcasters Ned Jarrett and Ken Squier on to call portions of the race while doing a wonderful job covering all the history on display.
During a time when social media dominates all forms of entertainment, these one-off schemes can also color up Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as fans reminisce about days of old. It puts NASCAR on the radar screen for an event that translates to easy coverage throughout a variety of media outlets.
More importantly, it gets a core group of fans that may have soured on the sport in recent years to perk up for a second. If you had a driver who retired a decade ago, and suddenly you see a car that “looks” like theirs, you’d at least be curious to see how it’s painted up, right?
I have yet to meet a fan who says no to that, no matter how much they may despise the current state of NASCAR. Curiosity and a connection to past memories always make them at least sneak a peek at what the car looks like.
Now, it’s up to the sport, their current group of drivers and the racing itself to keep them there for more than a few short minutes. But for at least one weekend, every year the sport is guaranteed to get their attention. That’s absolutely a step in the right direction, especially when it comes to one of the sport’s crown jewel events.
Bojangles' 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: Toyota
Heading into the final third of the season, Toyota has taken control, both in Victory Lane and on top of the Cup Series points standings. Martin Truex Jr. is on the verge of clinching the regular season title and the 15-point playoff bonus that goes with it. All he’ll need to do Sunday is earn a total of 19 points; he can do that through bonuses alone in the first two stages.
Behind him is Kyle Busch, arguably the hottest driver on the circuit with two Cup, two XFINITY, and a Truck series win over the last month alone. His Joe Gibbs Racing team has combined with Furniture Row Racing to win five of the last seven races on the Cup tour, putting them in strong position heading into the playoffs. As for those two misses? Truex and Busch wrecked themselves out of a Brickyard 400 win, handing it to Kasey Kahne while Kyle Larson took a Michigan victory away from Truex with a tremendous final restart. Otherwise, we’d be talking about seven-for-seven.
Who’s at the Back: Aric Almirola
Almirola, wrecking two times in the last four races, hasn’t found the form he had before fracturing his vertebrae in a wreck at Kansas in May. The resulting time off gave replacement Darrell Wallace Jr. a chance to prove his own worth and now it’s Almirola, not Wallace rumored to be on the outs with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2018. Should Smithfield re-sign, the push appears strong from both Ford, co-owner Richard Petty and Wallace to get him in the No. 43 car full-time, not Almirola if sponsorship can’t be found for both men.
GMS Racing has decided not to go Cup racing in 2018 after a difficult season running the XFINITY Series with rookie Spencer Gallagher.The decision is important because it keeps another option unavailable for prized free agents Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth, who desperately need a team with its own money to bring them to the table rather than one that requires a driver to bring millions in sponsorship. There’s now a rumor Hendrick Motorsports would pair up with Kahne and put him in the No. 95 of Leavine Family Racing instead for 2018, a rapidly improving single-car team currently running Michael McDowell.
Furniture Row Racing remains undecided on whether to go with one or two cars next season. Owner Barney Visser claims sponsorship will hold the key as to whether the No. 77 will keep running for 2018. Kenseth appears the top candidate after current FRR driver Erik Jones will leave the team to replace Kenseth at the No. 20 car next season for Joe Gibbs Racing.
A belated congratulations to Jeremy Clements, who won last weekend’s XFINITY Series race at Road America. Clements, who survived contact over the final two laps of the race to win it, runs with a family-owned team that has limited resources compared to the millions spent by Hendrick, Roush Fenway Racing, and the other top teams running throughout NASCAR. Clements now will earn a playoff spot for that division’s version of the postseason that begins next month.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Erik Jones at Bristol, a career high.
Drivers who have run all 24 races this season and still have yet to earn a top-10 finish: Landon Cassill, Cole Whitt, and rookie Ty Dillon.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick has flown under the radar for much of the 2017 season. The switch to Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing caused a few hiccups and overall, the No. 4 team has not had the speed of the previous few years. But don’t sleep on him as a title contender or this weekend at Darlington, where the team has four straight top-five finishes. A strong closer at Bristol two weeks ago, Harvick has shown some signs of life and in the postseason it’s all about getting peaking at the right time.
A strong runner-up in this category is Denny Hamlin. Hamlin has an average finish of 6.3 at the track, leading all active drivers and has never finished worse than 19th in any race at the facility.
Austin Dillon has had an awful season aside from his surprise Coca-Cola 600 victory. But the Richard Childress Racing driver was 12th at Darlington last season and seems to do well at these types of intermediate facilities. They’ll be pouring a lot of resources into the No. 3 car this fall, their long-term key to future success, with Paul Menard leaving this November along with millions of sponsorship dollars. I suspect Dillon will come out of the off week with a few extra horsepower, a better handling setup and a top-15 result.
Kasey Kahne is auditioning for his future in the sport after getting released from the No. 5 car effective the end of the season. Darlington, a track where he has a 9.5 average finish over the past two races, is a perfect place to show off. Kahne also led 23 laps here in 2015 before wrecking out, showing he has speed here with Hendrick Motorsports even during a down cycle for his career.
Typically, Darlington is an awful track for rookies. But Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are no typical freshmen on the Cup Series tour. Both men have been racking up top-10 finishes as of late and should adapt well to the egg-shaped oval after previous starts in XFINITY and Camping World Trucks. After Jones’ runner-up finish at Bristol, I’d take him as a lower tier option in as many races as you can get the rest of the year. Meanwhile, Suarez ran third twice in the XFINITY Series and has a habit of keeping his nose clean.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. both have 7/2 odds to win the Southern 500. Kyle Larson sits just behind at 9/2.
What I Think
The Southern 500 lends itself to veteran expertise and there’s a veteran out there looking to keep his name on top of the charts. Matt Kenseth, still looking for a spot to land in 2018, breaks his winless streak and keeps himself on the radar for a full-time ride.
(Top photo by ASP Inc.)