NASCAR tradition is back at Darlington Raceway as they’ll race the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend for the first time since 2003, something that used to be a constant dating back to the track’s first NASCAR race in 1950.
Why NASCAR ever changed the date to begin with – money elsewhere – we’ll never fully know, but at least they finally did the right thing and gave it back to the people.
In addition to getting some tradition back, we also get to see a new aero package for this race. It’s actually not new since we saw it at Kentucky, but new in the sense for Darlington and what we’ve been accustomed to seeing all season. The cars will have around 1,000 pounds less down force with a spoiler that is 3.5 inches shorter than normal and also smaller splitters.
The initial reason for the change was to slow the cars down and more importantly create more passing. The first time around with the package at Kentucky was a smashing success – maybe the best race of the year.
Darlington is a much different layout with four differing volatile turns that caused many of the past greats to call it The Lady in Black. The lady gives out Darlington Stripes to anyone who touches her walls, and every driver in their career has received one.
A few of the teams took part in a Goodyear tire test in June with the new package and have a good feel for the set-up needed, but there’s one big difference they’ll have this weekend that they didn’t have in the test.
“There are some unknowns for the rules package,” Kevin Harvick said earlier this month at the Darlington media day. “All the cars haven’t been on the race track at the same time, so there are a lot of things that could make it an interesting race.”
Harvick captured his first Darlington win last season on the way to his initial Championship and would like a repeat of both accomplishments in 2015. Last week at Bristol he finished second, which gave him a career-best 17 top-five finishes on the season. He really is on an amazing run and appears to be in championship form again, but he still hasn’t won since Phoenix in March.
When this aero-package was introduced at Kentucky, it seemed to be to the benefit of Joe Gibbs Racing, which had all four of its drivers finish in the top-five. It might have been the best race of the year just because of the easy passing. Kyle Busch would win and then also take the checkers in the next two races after. He hasn’t won since Indianapolis in late July, but teammate Matt Kenseth took over by winning two of the past four (Penske Racing’s Joey Logano won the other two, and he also finished second at Kentucky).
Kenseth won this race in 2013 in his first year with JGR and finished fourth last season, but it’s teammate Denny Hamlin who has been the most consistent over the years. The lady seems to like him a lot – maybe even love him – and has allowed him to average a 6.9 finish over his career, including a 2010 win.
This will be Jeff Gordon’s 35th and final Darlington start and he has tamed it the most among actives with seven wins. It could be argued his legend was born when he became the only driver in track history to win four straight Southern 500’s from 1995-98. His last win came in 2007 and he’s looking for his first win of 2015. Once comfortably sitting as one of the 16 prospective Chase drivers, he now sits 15th with two races to go before field is set.
With the Race to the Chase being a major theme the next two weeks, you’re going to see drivers like Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer scratch and claw to try and gain the automatic berth by winning. Gordon is almost in that category as well.
I’m really at a loss as to why car owner Rick Hendrick would let Gordon go out as an also-ran in his final year. Why couldn’t he order a couple of teammate Jimmie Johnson’s cars into the No. 24 stable? Johnson, by the way, has three Darlington wins, the last in 2012, with an 8.4 average finish over 16 starts.
This is a tough track, which makes it fun to watch. The added excitement of the Chase and new aero package make it must-see racing on Sunday night, Sept. 6. There are so many factors that lean to JGR dominating this race, so might as well go with its driver that has the best track record and he’ll fetch a nice price.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].