Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Erik Jones didn’t see the lead for the first time until there were under 100 laps to go, something that bodes well in a race where track conditions change. But to take the win, Jones had to battle Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson for the top spot in the late going before leading the final 41 laps to take his first trophy on an intermediate track and first of 2019. Jones secures five extra playoff points and with one race to go until that field is set, he’ll have that much more to fall back on. It was a well-earned, impressive victory for the young driver
Kyle Busch led the most laps Sunday night, but older brother Kurt Busch put on a clinic of his own about racing at Darlington, winning the first stage and finishing second in the second. Damage from a late crash not of his making slowed Busch down just a touch at the end, and he settled for seventh, but he made sure everyone knew he was there. Is the older Busch, who remains unsigned for the 2020 season, hitting his stride at just the right time to go deep in the playoffs? It’s starting to look that way. Add the consistency he’s shown, and he’s looking a little like Joey Logano a year ago.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
As much as NASCAR seems to want to deny the importance of the sport’s history, fans keep showing them why that’s a bad idea. There’s a reason why the Southern 500 has become one of the most popular races on the schedule since returning to its traditional date, something fans had been asking for since it was moved away years ago in favor of first Auto Club Speedway and then Atlanta Motor Speedway. Teams have wholly embraced the throwback theme. The cars are beautiful, and more importantly, every ticket was sold.
That’s right, this race was a sellout.
Which brings up another point: sometimes less is more. Darlington Raceway has just under 50,000 seats, far fewer than most tracks on the Cup circuit. But every one was full (the weather might have caused some fans to have to leave, but the stands were packed). That’s good for the sport when people tune in on TV and see a sellout crowd. NASCAR’s expansion proved too big a temptation for many tracks that added seats left and right. Now, many have removed seats and still look empty even with a decent-sized crowd on hand. Darlington, which was extremely limited on expansion, came out ahead all these years down the road.
Still, even with the smaller grandstands, it’s all about the nostalgia. Darlington isn’t exactly a tourist destination, and the track lacks the luxury upgrades than some others have seen. And it boasted a full house nonetheless. It’s really time for NASCAR to realize the importance of the past in steering the future.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Pole sitter William Byron struggled with handling early on, battling a very loose racecar almost from the green flag. He slipped back through the field, but as the track came to him, Byron began to move forward again, finishing eighth in the second stage and running inside the top 10 late until damage from a lap 275 incident triggered by Daniel Hemric relegated him to 21st at the end. Chalk it up to one of those nights where the result isn’t indicative of the run.
Defending race winner Brad Keselowski started second and led the first 19 laps to start the night off. He scored points in both of the first two stages and moved back into the top five in time for the finish, coming home a solid fifth. Team Penske may have cooled off a bit after a torrid start to 2019, but consistency ultimately won the organization a title last year. It bears watching.
All-time active track winner Jimmie Johnson had a top-five car all night long, racing his way up to second early, finishing second and seventh in the first two stages. He easily passed several cars to move into the top five late in the going when Hemric’s flat tire caused a multi-car crash that damaged the front of the No. 48 enough that Johnson wasn’t be able to close out the night despite a special note of encouragement from his daughter.
Evie wrote a special note tonight that will be riding around with me for 367 laps 😊 pic.twitter.com/cMrr9uYqTG
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) September 1, 2019
Best-in-Show paint scheme winner Bubba Wallace had a solid if unspectacular night, finishing 24th, a decent result for his team right with those it realistically competes with and better than it started the night.
When… was the moment of truth?
If one moment changed the outcome of the race, it was the lap 275 incident, caused by a flat tire for the lapped car of Hemric, that ruined the night for four drivers inside the top 10. Hemric got a tire rub from contact with Ryan Newman but chose to stay on track. When the tire went flat, Denny Hamlin, running fourth and looking for a season-high fifth win, was the first collected. Johnson, Byron, and Kurt Busch also suffered damage. Hamlin also tangled with Corey LaJoie on pit road.
While all four of the contenders were able to continue, only Busch was able to recover enough to score a top 10. Hemric and Michael McDowell did not finish.
The incident cost Johnson the most. He had at least a top-five car and a fifth-place finish would have left him within striking distance of a playoff spot with a strong run at Indianapolis next week. Hamlin and Byron’s positions won’t be affected, though had Byron been able to win, he’d have improved his standings when the playoffs begin in two weeks.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
There’s now just one race to go until the playoffs. Kyle Busch clinched the regular-season title at Darlington with a race left; better change the format because we can’t have that. With 18 points separating four drivers looking for two spots, nothing is set in stone.
Still, most of the championship contenders are set. With the first round starting in just two races, who has an advantage? Three drivers (Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.) have more than 20 playoff points, and Busch will have a 15-point advantage for the regular season point lead.
But, there’s something to be said for momentum as the playoffs kick off. Busch and Truex haven’t won since June. Hamlin entered Darlington on fire but stumbled.
But even a hot start to the playoffs doesn’t guarantee much. Keselowski won three in a row last year starting at Darlington and streaking through the playoff opener, but wasn’t there at the end. Logano, who was consistent all year but not spectacular, heated up at exactly the right time and ended up the champion.
Pay close attention to how drivers are trending through the final 10 races. Will there be cracks in someone’s armor? Will someone new slip into title contention? For that matter will someone heat up at Indianapolis next week and force himself into a playoff spot? It’s all about getting hot at the right time.
How… awesome are the throwback paint schemes?
As Darlington gives a nod to NASCAR’s past, teams and drivers take a lot of time and effort to choose the right paint scheme. This year’s theme was the 1990s, though, some teams went back even further.
Part of the fun of the weekend is the unveiling of these cars, and the ensuing fun the drivers have with it on social media. From Alex Bowman’s many Tim Richmond poses to Johnson shaving his beard as a nod to 1995, when he was barely old enough to grow one, it’s all in good fun.
— Alex Bowman (@AlexBowman88) September 1, 2019
Hello 1995 pic.twitter.com/inzty12K0t
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) August 30, 2019
The fan-voted Best-In-Show winner was the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsport entry, a replica of the car the King’s grandson Adam drove in 1998 when the fourth-generation driver was just beginning to make a name for himself. The scheme evokes more than just a cool paint job. It evokes the questions of what might have been, if Adam Petty, who would be in the waning years of his career now, hadn’t lost his life in turn 3 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.
Props, too, to the sponsors who allow their logos and colors to be changed. In a time where branding is everything, they don’t have to get on board, but they have embraced the weekend almost unanimously.
Every fan should know the stories behind every one of these cars; it would only make them love the sport all the more.