Perhaps the most highly anticipated race of the 2015 Cup season has now come and gone; my, oh my. After a lot of races, folks need a little time to digest and contemplate what went on, and some folks will give an event a thumbs up while others will take a decidedly more negative view of the proceedings. The 2015 Southern 500 wasn’t one of those races. For what it matters, and that’s not much, I found the race, and even its presentation, for the most part thoroughly enjoyable. What matters more is out there in the sometimes bleak landscape of social media, the electronic vox populi, reaction to the race was overwhelmingly positive. Likewise the stands, if not packed, were noticeably more crowded than a lot of races this season. Final TV numbers aren’t in yet as of this writing, but my guess is NBC will fare OK on this one back on the mothership for a week after NASCAR’s lonely wanderings in the vast wilderness of third-tier cable TV. (Note: overnight rating for Darlington was a 3.4, the first time the ratings have reached the threes since Indy. It was still down rather significantly from the 5.5 rating the last real Southern 500 got back in ’03. But that was then and this is now.)
Even the drivers by and large reacted positively to the race and the new aero package, particularly when combined with a new tire package where the tires started giving up grip in as little as five laps. Yep, the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend at Darlington was a hit. Just another brilliant idea by our sport’s illustrious leader Brian Z. France. (Note: If there was an emoticon to denote sarcasm here I’d choose the one shaped like a fireman’s nozzle to indicate the last sentence wasn’t dripping with sarcasm but gushing with it.) Some random thoughts on the race are presented below based on an unalterable truth. It’s still Labor Day weekend as this is written, it’s nice out and I want to get out there and enjoy it before autumn closes in. But lest I forget to include the obligatory cultural reference, remember ya’ll, heading down to South Carolina, for the Labor Day weekend show…
If there was one thing some people found a bit off-putting about Sunday night’s race (which just barely missed stretching into Monday morning on the Right Coast) it was the fact it last four hours and twenty minutes give or take. Keep in mind this was in fact a 500-mile race slowed by 18 cautions, reducing the average speed of the event to kissing close to 112 mph, the slowest at Darlington since the 1999 Southern 500 which was shortened to 270 laps due to rain. Prior to that, Cale Yarborough won the 1974 Southern 500 (at full distance) averaging 111 mph in a race that lasted four and a half hours.
I may be in the minority here, but even at that late hour I would have gladly sat through another 100 miles of racing. Folks of my sort hold these truths self-evident; no beer can be too cold, no woman can be too pretty, no rock and roll can be too loud, no Mustang can be too fast, and an exciting stock car race can’t last too long. The fly in the ointment here seems to be not the duration of the race itself, but the starting time chosen apparently at the behest of the Peacock folks. They’re so close to getting it right that let’s just hope next year the race starts at one in the afternoon as God and Yarborough intended and it concludes just in time to throw a couple steaks on the barbecue and enjoy the evening as summer’s last fireflies put on a show. (As a side note to the network some have branded Nothing But Commercials; Hey, we were all in at four hours and 20 minutes of racing, so the fans at home deserved to hear from at least the top-five finishers before you banished NASCAR to the Siberian Gulag of cable TV.)
Resolved: Task One – Move the Southern 500 back to an afternoon race. Task Two – Move the Firecracker 400 back to daylight hours , preferably 11 a.m., and run it on the Fourth of July. Task Three – Take the blueprints for the Indy/Michigan rules package to the beach, beat them with bats, burn them and bury them. Task Four – The only plates I want to see added in NASCAR next year are the fine china ones used at Brian France’s retirement dinner. He seemed to be making himself scarce this weekend. I guess his leisure suit didn’t get back from the dry-cleaners on time.
Were there too many wrecks? Well, anytime NASCAR only throws two debris cautions during an entire race (and you could actually see the debris both times!), you know it’s a caution-filled event. (Has anyone else noted that the amount of debris cautions called by the tower goes down exponentially as the races approach the end of their scheduled time slot?) But perhaps that was to be expected given the new aero package and the new tire debuting on an already notoriously tough track. Some drivers got the feel for it or had their razor sharp well-honed skills bail them out of trouble. Others… well, we used to call them field-fillers. That actually played a part in deciding strategy for the front running teams. Sure, pitting for four new tires when other teams stayed out had its charms, given a two-seconds-a-lap gap on fresh rubber, but in order to take the battle to the leaders, those drivers on fresh tires were going to have to swerve their way through the least common denominators. Sometimes that didn’t go well. I don’t watch races for wrecks, but what I did enjoy is seeing some of the leaders having their cars get out from underneath them, get sideways in tight quarters and yet somehow save it and motor happily on their way. The Brothers Busch and Brad Keselowski (among others) put on particularly masterful demonstrations of car control that were very entertaining to watch. I may be old school here, but I still like races where the best drivers, not the drivers in the best equipment, run up front. I’d love to see some tracks (Joliet, NHMS and Las Vegas come readily to mind) repaved with the highly abrasive asphalt mined in the sand hills of South Carolina with Goodyear bringing along tires that wore thin and got ornery quicker than Donald Trump.
Towards the end of the race, as drivers got the feel for the new package, some stumbled on a phenomenon we’ll probably see more of in future races run with the rules package. It seemed as though if an overtaking driver could get up on the rear bumper of the car ahead of him, he could take the air off that driver’s diminutive rear spoiler and get him loose without actually applying the chrome (and yes, I realize chrome bumpers are long gone) horn to that driver. That speaks good things about future races with this package as opposed to the “dreaded aero-push” with the current package wherein the leader with clean air on the nose of his car has a distinct advantage because when someone comes up to try to wrest the lead from him they lose the air off the nose of the pursuing car and can’t make the pass. So, if with the new package, the driver ahead has the advantage in real estate and the driver behind has the advantage of the new trick, we could see some interesting racing. Of course that applies to not only dicing for the lead but other positions on the track as well.
There’s one in every crowd. (I know because it’s usually me.) I did get a missive from a long time reader who said she was disappointed in the race because of the margin of victory. That margin is noted as .902 seconds. No, the first- and second-place finisher weren’t side-by-side beating and banging on each other like Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch in the 2003 Darlington spring race. The gap in that event was listed as .002 seconds, either the first- or second-closest finish ever depending on who is lying to you in an attempt to sell tickets that week. If I’m doing the math right (doubtful), that race was 450% closer at the end. But even in the good old days, all the finishes weren’t like that one, which is why people still recall that day. But .902 isn’t bad, and the fact the cameras could catch the top-four finishers coming off turn 4 on the final lap and not the blimp cameras is pretty good. Would I have preferred to see Keselowski get to Carl Edwards‘s rear bumper (let’s leave drivers out of this; pick any two drivers) to make a pass to the stripe? Hell yes. As I seem to recall, Edwards and Keselowski have no great love for one another based on a few instances at Talladega and Atlanta. That’s the stuff of legends. But if every race next year ends as close as the 2015 Southern 500, I promise to keep my bitching and whining to a bare minimum next year.
I may also be in the minority here, but I think the race would have been equally fun and perhaps more watchable minus the “Throwback” theme. It was tough for even hardcore fans to keep track of who was driving which car with all the one-race paint jobs. Wait a second, is that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Valvoline-inspired red, white and blue car or Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the red, white and blue actual Valvoline car? Of course, the same can be said of a lot of races, as teams ride the sponsor merry-go-round trying to keep the cash IV pumping all season long. As for the crew, yes, they were having some fun, but I was not only alive in the ’70s, but I do have some memories and I took notes on the rest. You know what, back then I usually wore blue jeans, a black t-shirt, and cowboy boots. Nowadays, well hell, I usually wear the same, though sometimes in the grips of fashion madness I’ll wear black jeans and a blue t-shirt. (A friend once commented ‘don’t you have anything in your wardrobe that isn’t the color of a bruise?)
Some additional gaffes. Hey, I love Mustangs. The pace car looked like one of the new GT350s with the flat plane engine, a lust-worthy automobile to be sure. (Ford will be sending mine for long-term testing soon.) But if you’re going to go with a ’70s theme, not having a black and gold Bandit Trans Am as the pace car was egregious. I’d have lent you mine if you asked nicely. And I’m not sure who chose the music to segue to commercials but the lack of the Boss and Bob Seger and the inclusion of the Brother’s Gibb was grating. The ’70s was cultural warfare, as the holdouts refused to cave to disco as noted in Neil Young’s “hey, hey, my, my rock and roll will never die…”
And while the topic of the race broadcast is open, it was great to see Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett back in the booth. Hopefully the regular talent was seated nearby and taking notes, particularly this Rick Allen guy. Rick, buddy, pal, take a Prozac. This is a stock car race, not a game show. Fans have invited you into their homes for the event. STOP YELLING AT US! If there’s an exciting moment in a race we’re seeing it too. The sport’s best long-time announcing crew was Bob Jenkins, Ned Jarrett and Benny Parsons. They were like three very knowledgeable friends you invited into your home every Sunday afternoon to watch the race with you. Jenkins did solid play by play. Jarrett saw situations developing before we did and pointed them out. Parsons added the color and a dash of humor. (How long has it been since a driver looks like he’s been shot out of a canyon?) They did not YELL AT US!
It was great to see a driver truly happy in Victory Lane. It was sad to see him worried about meeting NASCAR’s standards for the moment. After the obligatory back-flip Edwards clearly wanted to do his dash into the grandstands to share the win with the fans. He pointed and heads were shaken. The race had run overtime and the network people wanted a quick interview right now so they could send it to the local news in the various markets. In Victory Lane asked his thoughts on the new aero/tire package. Edwards took a moment to couch his answer noting that he was pretty sure NASCAR couldn’t fine him for saying that he really liked it. He went on to all but beg that the same package be used in the Chase. Yeah, what that guy said! And thanks to Mr. Edwards for NOT YELLING AT US!
Another sad sign of the times. Jeff Gordon fans are a bit testy right now. I found that out when I stumbled into that hornets’ nest last week in the usually innocuous Friday Faceoff column. But Sunday night Gordon appeared to have a car capable of winning. (And yes, it’s too bad it didn’t have the Rainbow Warrior scheme as part of the Throwback theme due to sponsor considerations… another sad sign of the times) but over the radio it was obvious the team wasn’t going to let “Wonderboy” off his leash. As they termed it, they weren’t swinging for the fences. They were just trying to hold onto a position good enough to ensure them entry into the Chase. I can’t put a percentage to it but my guess is there were a whole lot of those folks in the crowded grandstand who bought tickets hoping to see Gordon win his final Southern 500 and the fact the Chase system kept the driver of the No. 24 from giving it his all just sucks.
Oh, the subtle irony. Denny Hamlin’s car had some trouble getting through tech prior to the race. That car, carrying the No. 11 made famous by Yarborough, was dressed up to look like something out of Junior Johnson’s stables (other than the Toyota logos of course.) And yet some people were surprised the thing was a bit bitched up by the rule book? Somewhere the Wizard of Ingle Hollow was having a good chuckle. I recall a quote by Junior Johnson shortly after he left the sport. A naïve reporter asked him if he felt bad about how many times his teams got caught cheating. Junior grinned and replied he just felt good about how many times they’d gotten away with it.
If Keselowski seemed a bit miffed with his second-place finish interview (over on Gulag NBCSN), he probably was. He had once again dominated a race and had that final caution not flown he very likely would have won it though it looked like there was a good battle shaping up with Harvick there at the end. Thus, the race wasn’t decided on the track but on pit road. Edwards’s team had a smoking fast pit stop and watched their driver exit the pits first, a position he never gave up. In that regard, Keselowski had done his part. He won the pole for the race, and thus the team got the highly advantageous first pit stall, which was of great benefit to him for much of the race. But on the final stop, the No. 2 left the pits third, though there was no obvious foul-up and it was a matter of hundredths of a second. To lose a 500-mile race by that little margin has got to be galling.
Speaking of that first pit stall, anyone remember when it fell by default to the reigning Cup champion? Dale Earnhardt Sr., a notoriously poor qualifier used that to his advantage throughout the ’80s. (Speaking of the ’80s, if that’s next year’s throwback theme it’s time to start looking for a GNX pace car now. Yeah, even a Mustang guy will admit that Buick built the baddest-ass car of the decade, and given the Regal’s domination in NASCAR in the early 80’s it gets the nod. Yeah, Buick. Nowadays the division only exists because for some reason the Chinese really like Buicks.)
Seriously, is anyone still talking about this? Some were concerned that the race at Darlington would be marred by displays of that Confederate flag BZ says he so dislikes now. It was, after all, the Southern 500. (As opposed to the old Rebel 400, which was the name of the spring race at Darlington for decades.) According to Frontstretch’s Mike Neff, NASCAR went through the infield telling fans they had to take down all flags, not just the one some folks get bothered by out of concerns for the TV types. OK, everyone had their liberal hand-wringing fits over the Confederate flag, but the issue has been consigned to the trash-bin of history in a venomous environment where “All lives matter” has been labeled a politically incorrect offensive statement. The only way the issue will be reopened is if NACAR opens that Pandora’s Box again. (And for the record, if I did still did the recaps Sunday night’s race would have gotten a full six-pack rating, the one some of ya’ll say I never handed out.)
As if the excitement of the return of the Southern 500 wasn’t enough, NASCAR fandom was all abuzz (fire nozzle emoticon) with the opening of this year’s voting for most popular driver. Who will win this prestigious honor? I’m going to go way out on a limb and predict Earnhardt Jr. edges out Danica Patrick by somewhere between a bazillion and a quazillion votes. (Maybe if they had a separate “Twinkie” category?) Personally I never vote for anything that requires me to give an email address. That’s how you end up with an inbox stuffed with spam and those charming “free pictures of naked farm girls with animals” virus-laden enticements.
As long as I don’t have to type in my email, if I get a vote, I’d say Goodyear ought to stick to the white letter tires. They just look better to someone raised on Cobra Jets, Road Runners and LS6 Chevelles back in an era when drivers were smart enough to use a Texaco road map to find their way without GPS. The change was made to yellow lettering back during the Goodyear-Hoosier tire wars. Hoosier is long gone. It’s time to go back to white letters like the ones we used to take Brillo pads to every Saturday morning.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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