Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2009 Southern 500 at Darlington

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

There were several candidates for this one at Darlington, including two rookies and one driver who drove much of the race feeling very ill because his team couldn’t find a relief driver small enough. But the award goes to the defending series champion after an exhausting night. After starting in the back, fighting an ill-handling car early and losing a lap when a caution flew while he was on pit road, Jimmie Johnson somehow got back on the lead lap, only to have more pit issues and a near meltdown when David Ragan got into him.

Yet when the checkered flag flew, Johnson had a runner-up finish. Johnson and his team thrive on adversity, but this night was unbelievable. And if you think Johnson is unemotional, you weren’t listening to his team radio just before Ragan wrecked the first time. Most of it is unprintable, but unemotional it was not.

What… was that?

According to team radio transmissions, NASCAR actually considered holding Johnson for a lap at the time of his radio tirade, though Johnson never understood what for-rough driving or his language on the radio. At first it came across as rough driving-from in front of Ragan? The radio language, though um, colorful, was on the team’s private radio, not a network broadcast.

Johnson did threaten to retaliate but he never did, and last time I checked, threatening is not punishable (though retaliating is and should be). Apparently NASCAR figured out that nothing illegal had happened, but the possibility of a penalty had the team as rattled as I’ve ever heard them.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

10th after an up and down night. Matt Kenseth started the weekend with a blistering, record pole run. Yes, you read that right-Kenseth with a blistering, record pole run. Kenseth, a driver better known for qualifying at the back and being at the front at the end started out as his own complete opposite Saturday, starting up front and fading. But in typical Kenseth fashion, he had the No. 17 back at the front when the checkers fell, grabbing a top-10 finish.

When… will I be loved?

This week’s karaoke star award goes to whatever promoter thought that calling this race the Southern 500 was a good idea. I suppose it might be cool for the bandwagon fans to have a race named after the classic that was once the race the drivers all wanted to win, second only in prestige to the Daytona 500. As sad as it is, it appears that NASCAR has done away with what was the oldest race on the circuit for good, despite fan outcry. Renaming this race the Southern 500 does not make it so.

The Southern 500 takes place on Labor Day Weekend and was won in it’s final true running by Terry Labonte. This, race fans, was no Southern 500.

Why… doesn’t this track have two dates?

The above question naturally leads to this one. Sure the easy answer is that they weren’t selling enough tickets to support two dates, but neither do several other tracks, including the one that stole Darlington’s second date in the first place. Part of that was that the weather for Darlington’s old spring date was iffy most years and the lack of sales was understandable. NASCAR needs to run twice at the tracks that are interesting and unique, not ones that race like dogs and pander to a market. Darlington has never, ever put on a boring race.

How… do I feel about Jeremy Mayfield’s suspension for violation of NASCAR’s substance policy?

I’m not sure yet. On one hand, I am truly glad that NASCAR finally got their act together and is doing random testing and coming down hard the first time. If any sport needs a zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol, it is this one, where there are 42 other competitors and you are strapped into a 3,500-pound missile.

But if Mayfield is telling the truth about a combination of over-the-counter and prescription medications causing the positive test (and I know someone personally who had the same thing happen, so it’s entirely possible!), then I hope that NASCAR will do the right thing: make doubly, triply sure that this was the case, that that interaction could not possibly have resulted in any impairment to Mayfield’s judgment or reflexes, and reinstate him.

If it turns out that Mayfield was knowingly racing on something that could impair him in any way, I will not only lose all respect for him as a driver and person, I will also hope that he doesn’t grace another NASCAR-sanctioned track with his presence in a racecar for a very very long time. Playing so callously with the lives of 42 other people should never be taken lightly.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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