When I wrote my first column just over a couple of months ago, I professed my love for all things traditional in racing.
So you know I loved everything that happened in Darlington in the Southern 500 this past weekend. From the great throwback paint schemes – and after seeing them on track, the Miller High Life Bobby Allison scheme was my favorite – to the awesome facial hair, to the Dazed and Confused-inspired soundtrack on NBC’s broadcast, it was the perfect weekend.
Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett were masterful. I could listen to them talk racing for days. Kudos to NBC for making that happen for fans. NASCAR’s communication team did an awesome job with the throwback content, including using a Polaroid camera to take pictures then taking pics of the classic shots to their Instagram accounts.
I think it is an understatement to say that returning Darlington to the traditional Labor Day date was a hit. After 12 years of schedule limbo (Darlington and Rockingham lost their second dates with the release of the 2004 NASCAR Cup schedule. Rockingham would lose its only race in 2005), the Track Too Tough to Tame showed why it is still one of NASCAR’s premier facilities. For the first time in a while, the excitement at a race was palpable and it reached NASCAR’s traditional fan base – a group that NASCAR hasn’t exactly reached out to over the last decade.
I sound like I am caught up in the hype of the paint schemes, old T-shirts and hats and Aric Almirola’s sweet Fu-Manchu and Squire’s docile tones. But let me assure you, I would be writing a completely different column had the race not matched the hype. The lower-downforce aerodynamic package and the softer-compound Goodyear (and NASCAR sticking to its limit of 12 sets per team) led to the best throwbacks of all: great damn racing. Amid all of the buzz, the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers put on one of the best races of the last five years.
The tires and the aero rules made Darlington too tough to tame again. There were a record number of cautions. There were passes for the lead (I know, that’s a novel idea in today’s NASCAR). There were crossover moves and everyone had a “Darlington stripe” by the time the race ended. The tires were good for about five laps, so drivers were getting what they could get while before the tries turned into a slick, gooey mess. That is the racing that I remember at Darlington and Rockingham, where tire management was always at a premium.
The fans loved it. The media loved it. The drivers loved it.
“This separates the race car drivers from those that pretend,” said Brad Keselowski, who dominated much of the race, only to finish second to Carl Edwards. “Some might say that’s too much work. I love it. You want to see the mark of some fun? Just look at the right sides of our racecars.
“There’s no paint left on any of the cars that finished up front.”
Not surprisingly, race winner Carl Edwards was all praise of the racing.
“I don’t think I can get in trouble for how much I liked it, but I loved it. This is as good as it gets,” Edwards said. “This is what it’s about, we’re sliding cars, tires are falling off – this is the style of racing – if there’s any chance we can run this in the Chase, I hope we can do it.
“It was an awesome day.”
My hope is that NASCAR looks hard at using this package for 2016. More than anything NASCAR has done in the last 20 years, it puts the race and the cars back in the drivers’ hands. Let’s make good racing the norm, not the “white squirrel” that you only see occasionally.
NASCAR you have found the formula to revive your sport. Let’s not just make it a throwback, because, in the words of Ken Squier, what we saw in the Southern 500 was, “simply dazzling.”
— Andy Cagle writes a weekly column about NASCAR. Follow him on Twitter @Andy_Cagle.