It's one of NASCAR's most respected traditions, put back on the original date where it belongs. The 2019 Southern 500 marks the fifth straight on the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, a spot it held on the sport's calendar from 1950-2004 until an ill-fated decision to bounce it around for over a decade.
But now, the sport's unique, egg-shaped oval that served as the original 500-mile oval race for NASCAR has reclaimed its spot as a crown jewel. The teams, drivers and track have bought into its rich history, turning Sunday night's event into a "throwback" weekend in which old paint schemes dot the landscape of both the Xfinity and Cup series grid.
Sure, it takes a minute to find your favorite driver amongst the deluge of throwback schemes... but once you adjust, it's totally worth it. A full compilation can be found here, stirring up memories of decades' worth of legendary drivers. Among the more popular ones this year are Brad Keselowski's homage to the old Miller Genuine Draft scheme of Rusty Wallace; Denny Hamlin's Western Auto-like tribute to Darrell Waltrip; and the Wood Brothers honoring late founder Glenn Wood's 1957 Ford.
The theme-based racing weekend is a nice replacement for what Darlington used to mean during most of the growth period of NASCAR's 1980s and '90s; a spot where a driver could win a potential $1 million bonus. The old Winston Million program provided the ultimate reward to someone who could win three of the four biggest races on the circuit: Daytona's season opener, the spring race at Talladega, Charlotte's Coca-Cola 600 and this weekend's Southern 500.
There's no such financial incentive this time around. But a quick look at the last five winners shows the talent needed to succeed here. Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have all finished no lower than second in the season championship standings; the quartet still active are all strong contenders for the 2019 title. Veteran experience usually wins out at a place so difficult to drive it's long been given the nickname as the Track Too Tough To Tame.
Does that mean Jimmie Johnson has an edge as the seven-time Cup champion looks to fight back and sneak into the postseason? Or will Joe Gibbs Racing and their Toyota continue their recent surge to the top of the Cup Series grid?
We're about to find out at another historic weekend as NASCAR's stretch drive begins.
Time: Sunday, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Matt DiBenedetto
The Cinderella story of the past month almost came to a crescendo at Bristol Motor Speedway, DiBenedetto leading most of the race's last 100 laps before Denny Hamlin caught and passed his No. 95 Toyota. But this former journeyman is making the most of his opportunity with a middle-tier team that recently announced DiBendetto won't be retained for 2020.
Just in the past six weeks, Matty D's racked up three top-six finishes along with 93 laps led at Bristol. In his previous 161 Cup starts, almost a five-year stretch, he had only 73 laps led and just two career top-six finishes. This young driver is coming into his own at the right time to at least give himself a chance at a quality ride next season.
Who's at the Back: Austin Dillon
Richard Childress Racing continues to struggle through a nightmarish 2019 year on the Cup level. At least Daniel Hemric has somewhat of an excuse; he's a rookie navigating this new handling package in less-than-ideal equipment. But Dillon, now in his sixth full season at the Cup level, needs to start producing. The 2018 Daytona 500 winner has five finishes outside the top 30 in the past seven races, plummeting out of playoff contention. The speed has been there on qualifying day (three poles) but that's yet to translate into a single top-5 finish this year.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back at the track and ready to race following last month's scary plane crash in eastern Tennessee. Earnhardt took care not to talk in depth about the incident Aug. 15 in which his two pilots, one-year-old daughter Isla, wife Amy and dog came out OK after his small plane bounced multiple times on the runway, skidded off it and caught fire on a local highway. "It was a very scary experience," he said of a crash which is still under investigation. "I really try not to think about it too much. Things happen for a reason and you just try to learn from it and move on." NASCAR's former Most Popular Driver will be back in the NBCSN booth this weekend along with competing in his first stock car racing event of 2019.
A bizarre off weekend story involving NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Tyler Dippel led to his suspension and reinstatement from NASCAR. Dippel was prevented from competing in last weekend's race at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park after being suspended by NASCAR due to conduct policy violations. Initially, drugs commonly associated with Adderall had been discovered in his vehicle on a drive home from Orange County Fair Speedway, leading to misdemeanor charges. But the whole incident was dropped once a friend came forward and admitted the drugs were not Dippel's but his own. The name of that other person has not been officially released.
Matt DiBenedetto has a new, popular sponsorship partner as he continues his audition for a 2020 Cup Series ride.Barstool Sports has come on as a primary sponsor of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota for races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. The popular sports site for millennials has upped its NASCAR coverage in general this year, appearing at such marquee events like February's Daytona 500.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The last time a driver snuck into the Cup Series playoffs during the final two races of the regular season. It was Greg Biffle who knocked out Clint Bowyer after Bowyer crashed during the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. See more about how often late-season NASCAR Cinderella stories happen here.
Top-10 finishes for Kyle Busch through 24 races. He’s on pace to at least tie the modern-era playoff record of 30 set by Jeff Gordon during the 2007 Cup Series season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
One word: experience. That’s what should guide you in making fantasy picks at a track who eats up rookies and spits them out. Both Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, recent winners at Darlington Raceway with a combined 26 starts between them, would be solid picks to head your roster. Hamlin, in particular, has an average finish of 6.2 with only two career finishes outside the top 10. Coming off a Bristol win, he’s one of the hottest drivers on the circuit right now.
But Truex has led laps in three straight Southern 500s and is eager to add one more win before the postseason starts in mid-September. It wouldn’t surprise me to see these two dueling side-by-side at the finish line for the win Sunday night.
Kyle Larson should have won the Southern 500 by this point. Period. End of story. But just like so many other racetracks as of late, bad luck has bit the dirt track star and left trophies sitting on the table. His 284 laps led last year were no match for a late caution that cost him the victory. In all, his 408 laps led the past two years easily heads the pack but he has just a 14th and a third to show for it. Can Chip Ganassi Racing finally get their young, talented driver over the hump?
Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have a strong track record at Darlington lately. But sitting 26 points from the final playoff spot with two races left adds a level of desperation at the No. 48 team. New crew chief Cliff Daniels seems to have injected new life there; they just haven’t had the luck to back up the speed. At the very least, expect some stage point bonuses here on strategy for a driver seeking his first top-5 Darlington finish since 2014.
Ick. Darlington often is one of the most difficult tracks for this space on your roster because of how little it rewards underdog efforts. I’d go with a retiring David Ragan, 18th in last year’s edition with Front Row Motorsports. But even he has just one top-10 finish in 12 career starts.
If you could get, say, a rookie like Daniel Hemric at a low price and hope they survive? Maybe? But even Hemric failed to crack the top 10 here during his Xfinity Series career. Your best bet is to squeeze as many top-tier drivers as you can into your roster and max out the salary in any format.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson, in a mild surprise, has the edge with oddsmakers, going at 5/1 to win the Southern 500 at Saturday morning. A half-dozen drivers are right behind at 6/1, including Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski.
Matt DiBenedetto, last race’s Cinderella currently sits at 80/1.
What I Think
Joe Gibbs Racing keeps rolling on the top of the Cup Series ladder. Martin Truex Jr. finds his way to Victory Lane and earns a second Southern 500 trophy with ease.
— 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.