Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
This is Darlington, and Darlington means not just one of the most prestigious races on the Cup schedule, but also a weekend of nostalgia with its throwback theme and some great-looking cars to go with it. For just a moment, you can almost see them out there, the racers of the past, but that’s because of the effort put forth by teams and sponsors to great cars that pay homage to those who came before.
This weekend, William Byron finished a disappointing 35th after a mechanical failure, but his No. 24 car was voted best in show by fans for its throwback scheme. Unlike many of the others, this throwback was as authentic as they come. It took the No. 24 back to its glory days when Jeff Gordon was winning everything and entering into the last great rivalry the sport has seen with Dale Earnhardt. A few others also had throwbacks to their own cars, but the No. 24 took it back 20 years and more with what amounts to the same sponsor (Axalta bought DuPont’s auto paint division several years ago). There are a few teams who can take it back even more, but the No. 24 team hit a home run with its colorful exterior.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
There don’t have to be a lot of cautions to produce a great race. Fans at Darlington were treated to plenty of action (more than fans at home saw on TV, no doubt). This track has produced both the largest margin of victory (14 laps) and the smallest (.002 seconds) the sport has ever seen And while it doesn’t race like a short track, it doesn’t race like a typical intermediate either.
It’s harder to race well at Darlington than at the 1.5-milers, and this race showcased the importance of the dance with the Lady in Black as well as the importance of the equipment, something the sport needs more of. There was plenty of drama to go around Sunday night.
And the stands were packed.
Yes, everyone knows that’s in part because the capacity is lower. Darlington, hemmed in on all sides and unable to add another 100,000 seats, actually did something the other tracks didn’t. It kept the supply and demand ratio steady even after the NASCAR fad wore off and took a lot of fans off the bandwagon with it. This race probably doesn’t actually draw more fans than many other Cup races, but the intimate confines of Darlington are full when other tracks look mostly empty. Those empty stands are not a good look for the sport, and many tracks have torn down section upon section to that end. Darlington has simply withstood the test of time and come out unscathed.
Where… did Brad Keselowski come from?
Think the days of races being won or lost on pit road are gone? Think again.
Keselowski stalked the lead late in the race but needed something more to catch Kyle Larson. He got it thanks to a spinning Jeffrey Earnhardt, who brought out the caution and brought the field to the pits for the final time. A hiccup on Larson’s stop and a flawless one from his own crew gave Keselowski the lead with 20 to go, and he used those laps to run away from teammate Joey Logano and the formerly dominant Larson.
Winning races has always been about more than having the fastest car. It comes from racing the track, from sound strategy and from great pit work. Keselowski’s victory, Team Penske’s first at Darlington in more than 40 years (1975), came from those things. He started a mediocre 13th but put himself in a better position each time the team could make adjustments and put on fresh tires. He’s a smart racer, and a smart racer in a fast enough car is a hard combination to beat.
When… was the moment of truth?
There were a few on Sunday night, all with a common theme: one of the most treacherous pit road entrances in the sport. Unlike most tracks, drivers can’t see the pit entrance until they’re into Turn 4 and almost on top of it. That makes for some tense moments and some penalties. The latter bit seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who had already lost a lap due to a loose wheel, along with veteran champion Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray. A few others missed the entrance altogether or had to abort when they could not clear the cone.
The biggest crash of the night, a two-car incident, also happened as Ryan Newman tried to come to pit road. Clint Bowyer, two cars behind Newman, didn’t know Newman was trying to pit and ran into him, triggering a violent crash for Bowyer and significant damage for Newman as well. Dancing with the Lady isn’t just about being fast.
Why… didn’t stage one and two winner Larson pull it off?
Larson’s car was easily the best on Sunday on long green-flag runs. Had the race stayed under green instead of needing one final caution, Larson would have led a few more than the 284 laps he did and run away with the race. But the slightest holdup on that final stop left him second on the restart. That wouldn’t have been a problem for Larson had there been more laps left, but the No. 42 wasn’t as strong as it needed to be on short runs. That’s what Larson got with a 20-lap sprint to the finish.
For Larson, there could be, maybe even should be a couple of trophies on the shelf this year, but instead, he’s got just one more shot to build some momentum for the playoffs.
How… important is this weekend to the sport?
Beyond the throwback theme, there are a lot of lessons. Despite all the changes they’ve endured, fans still care about where the sport came from. A lot of what they’re searching for is a time long past, and this weekend gives it to them, at least for a moment.
Can NASCAR better balance the nostalgia of the longtime fans with attracting new ones in the ADD generation? It’s a more delicate balance than it seems, but the sanctioning body should be looking closely at why Darlington, a track without a lot of amenities or other area attractions, is packing them in and is one of the most anticipated race weekends on the schedule despite being a track of over a mile.