With Labor Day weekend marking the traditional (though not actual) end of the summer season, I fear other plans might have caused some of you to miss Saturday’s (Sept. 5) NASCAR Xfinity Series event at Darlington Raceway. If you did, that’s too bad, because it was arguably one of the best NASCAR-sanctioned races of this convoluted season. The final 13-15 laps were about all a hardcore race fan could ask for.
Late in the event, Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin were in a spirited battle for the top spot. Chastain had the lead, but Hamlin’s car appeared to be faster. Both drivers brushed the wall and each other as they sparred back and forth. Fenders clanged, tires smoked and the laps remaining ticked steadily away. The question seemed to be whether Hamlin would lay a bumper to Chastain to get him out of the way. With two laps to go, Hamlin bulled his way past Chastain, but carried so much speed into the corner he walled it and bounced back into Chastain’s path. A surprised but delighted Brandon Jones bypassed both of them for the win while Hamlin slid back to fifth place at the finish.
Yep, that is what keeps me coming back every week. Yes, the racing has been fairly tepid as of late, but you never know on any given afternoon if an instant classic is coming to a boil in the waning laps. A lot of folks have compared the end of Saturday’s Darlington race to the Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch battle at the same track in 2003. Many people still consider that one of the top-five all-time greatest finishes in NASCAR.
Those endings, my friends, is what keeps drawing me back every weekend during the season after all these decades. You might have to sit through a dozen tepid races to see a really good one, and it might be an even longer gap between the so-called “instant classics” (an oxymoron if there ever was one). But when one of those standout races occur, I want to see it live. And there’s always the chance that a weekend I decide to spend out on the lake or burning up the blue highways on the Harley might be the weekend that the fates all come together to stage a classic race.
Yeah, it’s a bit obsessive compulsive and somewhat just an ingrained habit that’s tough to break. But it’s what gets me through the week, especially in troubled times like this year.
So how come Saturday’s race turned out so well? For one thing, neither Chastain nor Hamlin were worrying about points. By simply starting the race, Chastain was assured that he was in the NXS postseason. He’s in a long, frustrating winless drought, and a win would have been nice, but he knew no matter what happened Saturday afternoon his season continued. Hamlin, of course, doesn’t compete for NXS points. So what was he doing out there?
Unlike one of his Cup teammates, Hamlin doesn’t often compete in the NXS or Truck Series events. Saturday’s race was Hamlin’s first and only NXS appearance scheduled for this year, so NASCAR fans don’t get as irritated with him as they do that unnamed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of his. Maybe concentrating on his day job pays off for Hamlin as well. He’s got six Cup wins this season and rides into the playoffs with a passel of bonus points. That teammate of his, by comparison, hasn’t won a Cup race yet this year.
The track layout at Darlington also promotes good, hard racing. Darlington is a unique 1.366-mile track, not another one of the damned-able 1.5-mile cookie-cutter tracks. The asymmetric layout with totally different corners presents the drivers with a unique challenge that has to be met every lap. (And there’s a lot of them in a 500-mile race.) Drivers are forced to find a way to go faster, but if one of them gets impudent with the Lady in Black, she’ll reach out and slap him so hard he won’t recall his middle initial for a month.
But what most often decides the winner at Darlington is the tires. The South Carolina track is located in an area noted for its sandy soil. The asphalt aggregate they use when they (infrequently) repave the joint is notably abrasive. As the tires wear at the Track Too Tough To Tame, lap speeds slow dramatically and lap times climb precipitously. Anyone can look like a hero on fresh tires at Darlington. It’s an experienced racer skilled at his craft who can manage tire wear there well enough to have something left to work with before that welcome next pit stop.
The next-generation car NASCAR had been planning to introduce next year has been pushed back to 2022. The tires on the new car design are said to be wider and lower profile. That’s all well and good. But Goodyear, and we’re presuming Goodyear is still the sole provider of NASCAR tires in 2022, needs to ensure that whatever new tires they bring to the track lose grip dramatically in as few as 15-20 laps.
Naturally, our friends at Goodyear will be hesitant to do so. They’ve faced some PR disasters in the past (particularly that one Brickyard 400 in 2008) and, just recently, they had the President of the United States call for a boycott of their products. (What the hell was that all about?) But we’ll grade on a curve for the first half of the new season as long as rock hard tires no longer flatten those curves down to the least common denominator level.
It might seem obvious a racetrack that’s been around for 70 years didn’t become a fan favorite by routinely hosting boring races. Fontana (now Auto Club Speedway) opened in 1997 to widespread derision. Anyone want to guess where that track will be in 2067? My prediction is that the California Air National Guard will be using the joint for bombing practice if California hasn’t gone ahead and fallen into the sea by then.
So why wasn’t Sunday night’s Darlington Cup race received as well by the fans though there were a great many similarities? Not to dwell on the obvious, but like his father before him, Chase Elliott, to borrow a phrase from Kenny Mayne, remains popular. Elliott was the primary victim of a late-race altercation that dropped him from the lead all the way back to a 20th-place finish. (The striking party, Martin Truex Jr., fell to 22nd in the final rundown.)
That incident seemed more accidental than monumental. Truex simply made a mistake thinking he’d cleared Elliott. In his comments after the race, Truex seemed to think that Elliott was at fault, though. He said it would have been wiser for Elliott to yield that final few inches the No. 19 Toyota needed to get by him. (True enough, as it turned out, but only clear in hindsight.) I’m sorry. A driver is supposed to simply hand over the lead to a competitor late in a stock car race? At Darlington? In the Southern By-Gawd 500? Nope. No sale there. That’s the antithesis of stock car racing, not the sport’s essence.
On a brighter note, Sunday night wasn’t the first time Elliott got taken out late in a race while running up front. Nor was it the first time the offending driver apologized for doing so and said he felt terrible about what happened. If Elliott doesn’t haul home the big trophy at the end of the season, he ought to find a whole bunch of nice casserole dinners on his front porch left as peace offerings. And, of course, he’s practically a shoo-in for that Most Popular Driver Award.
Here’s a little-recalled factoid that might win you a bar bet or at least get you a free brew. How many Southern 500s did Richard Petty win? Prior to doing the research, I’d have guessed at least a half-dozen. The King was so dominant so long and they’ve been racing at Darlington since 1950. Fact is, Petty won just one Southern 500. The seven-time champ won just three times at Darlington, and two of those wins were in the Rebel 400, the spring race at the track. Petty’s Southern 500 win occurred in 1967, and that year he was winning everything, claiming 27 victories that season, 10 of them consecutively.
Jeff Gordon has the most Southern 500 wins with six. Cale Yarborough is next on the list with five, followed by Bobby Allison with four, then Herb Thomas and Buck Baker with three. Dale Earnhardt also won the Labor Day classic three times, as well as Bill Elliott and David Pearson.
Odds ‘N’ Ends
As a rabid fan of NASCAR history, naturally I enjoy all the throwback paint schemes various drivers and teams run in the Southern 500. But this year, things might have gotten just a little out of hand. One such scheme this year might have jumped the shark just a bit.
The green-and-white paint scheme journeyman driver DK Ulrich ran in 1986 might seem an odd choice to commemorate on Bubba Wallace’s car this weekend. Here’s the backstory for those of you who might have missed it. Practicing for the 1986 World 600, Petty wrecked and he wrecked hard. The King was rushed to the hospital, and the doctors had him up most of the night doing hourly checks on his condition, including his mental state.
The No. 43 car was withdrawn from the race, and it appeared Petty was going to miss making a Cup start for the first time since 1971. Ulrich stepped into the void, offering Richard the use of his car which had, in fact, qualified for the race (albeit in the 37th starting spot). The doctors cut Petty free at about 4 a.m. that morning and dubbed him fit to race.
A pair of STP racing decals were hurriedly slapped on the rear quarterpanels of the No. 6 car, and Petty did, in fact, start the race. The grand scheme came to an end on lap 123 when Ulrich’s car with Petty at the wheel blew an engine. The King was credited with a 38th-place finish, keeping his streak of Cup starts alive.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It was a very nice gesture on Ulrich’s part. But did that scheme really rise to the level of needing a throwback reminder?
— Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) September 4, 2020
Some trends surrounding sports broadcasting, I just don’t get. Take this weekend’s Kentucky Derby. How is it you allocate five hours of air time to broadcast a race that lasts under two minutes? Well, I guess you want to interview excited fans in the stands. You’re gonna need something to fill that air time, because barring a very elderly Mr. Ed being in the event, you’re not going to get an interview with a competitor. Thankfully, when NBC cut away from a barnburner of a NXS race at Darlington on Saturday, at least they moved the coverage to NBCSN.
Early in Sunday night’s Southern 500, a milestone for one of the drivers took place without comment from the presenting network. On lap 6 of the race, Hamlin completed his 150,000th lap at the wheel of a Cup car. He’s led 10,916 of those laps.
As it seems to right about this time every year, the NASCAR Silly Season is beginning to come into focus. “Silly Season” is the part of the year where drivers and teams start announcing who will be at the wheel of which car the following year. The term originated with FOX Sports’ Mike Joy, but there’s nothing silly or joyous about it for the drivers who find themselves without a ride for the upcoming season.
This week, Aric Almirola announced he’ll be back at the wheel of the No. 10 Smithfield Ford in 2021. Brad Keselowski signed a new deal with Roger Penske to return to the No. 2 car early last month, ending speculation that he might be in line for the seat in the No. 48 car while yielding his place to Austin Cindric on the Penske team.
No driver has yet to be announced to take over the No. 48 for Jimmie Johnson, and there’s even been some wild-ass speculation that Rick Hendrick might shut the team down and only run three cars next year. Apparently, William Byron’s win at Daytona was enough to get him signed to return to the No. 24 team next year with crew chief Chad Knaus still at the helm.
One announcement for a high-profile driver still pending involves Clint Bowyer, who is also being eyed for a spot in the broadcast booth next year.
I found it curious that Tony Stewart went on record as saying that, in his opinion, Kyle Larson has suffered enough punishment for using a racist term during an iRace. Could Larson be getting eyed up as a possible replacement for the No. 14 car? And would SHR be able to line up a sponsor to back that team given the vileness of Larson’s comment in these hyper-politically correct times? I can say one thing for certain; I’m not leaving Frontstretch to try to write a press release for SHR welcoming Larson back to the sport.
Out on the road today I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
Little voice inside my head said don’t look back
You can never look back
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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