NASCAR Crash Course: Why It Doesn’t Matter That Flashback Weekend Was A Beating At Darlington
As it turns out, the NASCAR Throwback Weekend at Darlington Raceway, a tribute to famous racers of the past, included return races with him. Just nine cars finished in the first lap of Sunday’s Goodyear 400 – a total rarely seen since the advent of NASCAR’s short sprint stage racing format adopted in 2017.
In fact, it was the fewest leading cars for a 400 mile race on this track since 1998, as the sport reintroduced the 750 horsepower, low downforce pack here. The results up front turned into a rout when Martin Truex Jr. won the second stage by a whopping 14 seconds, dominating the event leading 248 of 293 laps. A brief late charge from Kyle Larson was the only challenge Truex had all day with only one other driver (Kyle Busch) finishing on the same stroke.
“It’s a boost right there,” Truex said after crossing the finish line.
The race was a reminder of Truex Coca-Cola 600’s record breaking performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading 392 of 400 laps in 2016. Soon after, a wave of NASCAR changes aimed at making racing on intermediate tracks more exciting. Slower speeds and less need to apply the brakes took driver skills out of the equation at Darlington.
“My brother-in-law was there last night,” Truex said. “And he kind of told me that the reason we’re moving away from weak downforce is my fault. So I guess I did it again. He’ll tell me tonight when I get home, show.
“So sorry, not sorry.”
Should Truex’s snoozer force NASCAR into panic mode? Of course not. A warm, smooth track in Darlington led to some quality racing along the pylon. Higher speeds meant you could see cars fighting for control and Darlington stripes gathered on the right side. Sometimes the mere visual of cars fighting for control is pretty exciting; a battle for the 20th can be just as exciting, if not more, than what’s going on up front.
Truex has established an advantage over its competitors which they will need to figure out by September. But history tells us they will! This track has not posted a back-to-back winner since Greg Biffle in 2005-06.
So let’s leave it alone. At other places, like Homestead-Miami Speedway, the lower power package has led to better races. But on a historic track like Darlington, an egg-shaped oval that has raced NASCAR since 1950, there’s something to be said for leaving an old crown jewel in the driver’s hands.
“I feel like I can make more of a difference when we’re in the low downforce package, especially on these bigger tracks,” Truex said. “I’ve always been a guy who did a lot of my riding with my right foot and the brake pedal, and the 550 tracks are pretty much open, not all the time, but if you have to lift, usually are dead in the water.
“It’s really hard to get your car to do different things when you can’t let go of the accelerator.”
Green: William Byron. Truex may have the wins (top three in the series), but Byron has something every championship contender needs: consistency. Sunday’s fourth place is the first Hendrick Motorsports driver to record 10 consecutive top 10 results since Jeff Gordon in 2007. It’s impressive for a driver with great off-road distraction, revealing that on Mother’s Day week his mother will be undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.
Yellow: Richard Childress Racing. This team has only led 17 laps this year between Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick. Still, Reddick’s 12th place finish at Darlington, along with stage bonuses, put these two drivers competing in the playoffs in a field of 16 drivers loaded with top talent. They are on track for 30 Top 10 rankings, almost double their 2020 total.
Red: Kurt Busch. A wreck not entirely from Busch’s manufacture (see: light touch of Bubba Wallace) left him 35th at Darlington and sat 28 points behind last place in the playoffs. Comments after the race after that fireball showed flashes of old, fiery Kurt: “Our car doesn’t do what it should in traffic and I can’t get aggressive.” Owner Chip Ganassi, I think this former NASCAR champion is talking to you.
Speeding ticket: Phil Surgen. Ross Chastain’s team manager has developed a top 10 car of the season for Darlington. So why, inexplicably, did he fall to 15th asking his driver to make one less pit stop during the last 63 laps of the first stage? The old tires let Chastain lead 10 laps, but in the end he was one lap behind, exceeding the pace of the leader by more than two seconds. What a waste of momentum for a team (a top 10 this year) that really needed it.
We’ll forgive any mistakes this week in honor of some awesome Darlington rollback programs. The winner for me this weekend was Corey LaJoie, whose 1990 retro edition was a perfect match for Alan Kulwicki’s old Zerex Ford right up to the pre-race outfit.
The winner of the NASCAR fan vote went to Erik Jones, who honored the late John Andretti with Richard Petty Motorsports. Andretti, who died last January of colon cancer, won his second and final Cup race at Martinsville Speedway for the No.43 Petty in 1999 with this program.
A handsome runner-up goes to Brandon Brown, whose # 68 NASCAR Xfinity Series was an almost perfect match for Dale Jarrett’s # 88 UPS who raced on the Cup circuit from 2001-2008.