NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: NASCAR’s Throwback Race (The Southern 500) Couldn’t Happen at a Better Time

It’s no secret that over the last five years or so, the face of NASCAR has changed dramatically from what many fans had grown accustomed to.

Even amongst the most die-hard company guys who would gladly toe the corporate mantra and mission statement, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody that could sit there with a straight face and tell you this sport is still rooted just as much as ever in its history, staying true to what made it great in the first place – and actually believe what they were saying. A new car, three different title sponsors in the last seven seasons, a continually evolving championship format, the green-white-checkered finish, wave-arounds and double-file restarts (Shootout Style!) have conspired to alienate many longtime fans in the hopes of attracting precious new ones. The loss of its most popular and recognizable driver continues to resonate to this day, while the notion of sacrificing future dates at Martinsville or Atlanta is downright hateful to those who remember Bill Broderick and his Unocal 76 Race Stoppers.

There have, however, been a few bright spots amongst the gloom, doom, and nay saying in recent weeks, with another coming just over the horizon – this weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

After realizing that those bumper stickers proclaiming “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Rice” carried some weight amongst the bulk of the fan base, NASCAR ditched the rear wing and returned to the simple blade spoiler that had worked so well after Dodge and Plymouth removed the rudders from their B-bodies nearly 40 years ago. The effect on competition thus far has been negligible; however, the aesthetics remind us of a sunnier time in our sport’s history, where even recession, a national fuel shortage, and a president on the verge of impeachment failed to stifle the momentum and optimism.

Over the course of the last month we’ve been hip deep in short-track season, with memorable finishes at Bristol, Martinsville, Phoenix (I know it’s technically a superspeedway, but it drives like a short track; close enough), and this past weekend at Richmond in both series. That latter came down to late-race battles for the win between two drivers in both races, each of whom had been largely snake-bit this season. Talladega was a resounding success as usual, with speeds once again tickling 200 mph capped off by a slingshot pass for the lead by Kevin Harvick over Jamie McMurray – two drivers who, in recent years, have experienced virtually all of their success at restrictor-plate races. Even better, nobody got airborne or attacked the catchfence (in Cup anyway), a far cry from the near-tragic Carl Edwards flip of one year ago. Perhaps the spoiler has had a bit of a positive effect on the track aside from not being hideous….

All of which brings us to this weekend at Darlington. Personally, the Lady In Black has always been one of my favorite racetracks. I remember watching Bill Elliott become Million Dollar Bill in 1985, winning the Winston Million while holding off Cale Yarborough by just over half-a-second. It was his 10th win of the year, doing it from the pole on Labor Day weekend as I sat at my grandparents’ house; after all, it would be another five years before they brought cable out to where we lived. The Southern 500 at Darlington was also where Darrell Waltrip won the last of his 84 career victories in a rain-shortened affair, where we were treated to interviews by both driver and owner – from the same guy who just pulled his Western Auto hat down lower.

Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton dueling for the win in the 1997 Southern 500 stands out in my mind as another watershed moment in modern Southern 500 history, with Gordon running Burton down to the apron on the white-flag lap, leaving Burton furiously trying to catch back up to Gordon to repay the favor. When asked why he didn’t hit Gordon back, Burton’s reply was deadpan, but succinct: “I couldn’t catch him.”

2003, however, was the final year the Southern 500 was run on Labor Day weekend as it had been the prior 53 years. And while the spring race that year saw the closest finish in NASCAR history at .002 seconds between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch, it was fitting that Terry Labonte would score the last win of his career in the fall. It was the final stamp on a resume that produced 22 victories, two championships and Southern 500 wins 23 years apart, a well-deserved tribute to a career that defined honor, class, and integrity.

While other memorable races would be held at Darlington – the Chase race held there a year later in 2004 is to this day one of the best races I have seen there or anywhere – the Southern 500 vanished, a casualty of scheduling and an attempt to maximize viewership and attendance, with a move to Auto Club Speedway. To shift one of the premier races from a track so revered – to one so reviled – led critics to go sackcloth and ashes, declaring the end of NASCAR as we all knew it. To many, a piece of them died the day Dale Earnhardt did; to others, a piece of NASCAR died the day the Southern 500 was no longer on the schedule.

Believe me, I understand where they’re coming from. As much as I like Mopars, calling a race at Darlington the Dodge Charger 500 just doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Southern 500.

Many longtimers will contend that it’s not really the Southern 500 anymore since it’s not being run on Labor Day Weekend. For years, the spring Darlington race was known as the Rebel 300 – with a confederate flag being used to start the race and quickly raised over the winning car in victory lane. The event then became the Rebel 500, and – once it was determined that the South was not going to rise again anytime soon – TransSouth Financial came on board to sponsor the 500 and 400-mile events here. Last year marked the return of the Southern 500 race title, though, with another familiar face from the last 20 years coming back for a full-season stint. Then 50-year-old Mark Martin took the checkers, claiming his first Southern 500 victory since his fourth win in a row in 1993.

NASCAR has made a concerted effort this season to make it known that they are getting back to their roots, trying to right the wrongs of the last several years. They were wrongs, in truth, that stemmed from trying to grow something that had been progressing along nicely all by itself. Many were skeptical at first – though standardized start times were applauded by all – when the gloves came off and cars started taking flight at 1.5-milers. But while we are only 10 races deep in 2010, the verdict so far has been largely positive, with the last two months providing a glimpse of years gone by. Even Junior Johnson provided the new NASCAR Hall of Fame with a moonshine still last week in anticipation of his upcoming induction.

This, coupled with close racing in cars that no longer look like some dopey teenager’s rice rocket that was sodomized at Pep Boys by way of a JC Whitney catalog, things are headed in the right direction as the schedule heads to the original superspeedway on the circuit. Hopefully, the trend continues this weekend at The Track Too Tough To Tame, the Lady In Black, or whatever nickname you care to give to the egg-shaped 1.366-mile brainchild of Harold Brasington, courtesy of Sherman Ramsey’s minnow pond.

If NASCAR really wants to get back to its roots, perhaps that’s what we really need; racetrack construction not determined by focus groups, investors or politicians, but by minnow ponds, trees or some other natural landmark. After all, California was built on the grounds of an old steel mill, while Riverside was sacrificed in the name of mini-mall commerce. What better way to promote NASCAR’s environmental sensibilities by saving the minnows, spotted owls and the very fiber of their being?

As I am fond of saying, NASCAR’s oldest and original tracks still produce the best stories, races and finishes. The 2010 iteration of the Southern 500 will likely prove this theory true, one more time… no matter how far the sport has strayed from its roots virtually everywhere else.

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