Mixing wonderful pageantry and reverence with NASCAR’s rich history, Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway wasn’t just an ode to the past but a blueprint of what the sport should look like going forward.
A racy low-downforce aerodynamic rules package that puts the control in the hands of the driver combined with an aging surface that chews up tires like Cookie Monster does cookies to craft the most memorable race of the season. The proceedings were a stark contrast to races too often determined not by which driver is better but who can best take advantage of clean air and track position.
Throughout the night passing and gritty side-by-side racing were commonplace, as drivers fought to maintain control of a car wanting to spin out thanks largely to a shrunken rear spoiler and tires that lost upwards of two seconds over the course of a run. What Darlington represented was the epitome of the style of racing identifiable to NASCAR that propelled the sport to unimaginable heights in the American consciousness.
“This is as good as it gets,” Southern 500 winner Carl Edwards said. “This is what it’s about — sliding cars, the tires are falling off.”
A frequent utterance by drivers of late is the cars had become too easy to wheel, that their ability was marginalized by an over-reliance on aerodynamics.
Brad Keselowski said Saturday he judges whether a particular aerodynamic package is suitable based on the number of single-car spins. If the number is low then drivers aren’t being challenged; the racing is too easy. Conversely, if the number swings unreasonably in the other direction, then the degree of difficulty is askew.
So what did he think of a package that generated a Darlington record 18 cautions?
Said Keselowski: “It separates the race car drivers from the pretenders, and that’s the way it should be.”
And though Keselowski’s comments are tempered some by the fact he started on the pole, led a race-high 196 laps and finished second, he wasn’t alone in offering vociferous admiration.
“I love the package,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished eighth.
“I am a big fan of this package. I think everybody is,” 14th-place finisher Jamie McMurray said.
“I like the aero package. I like the racecar,” said Jeff Gordon, 16th in his final Darlington start.
And a record number of cautions aren’t a bad thing, but a telltale sign of who can adapt and who cannot, according to Denny Hamlin.
“Wrecks are good because we made our cars so idiot-proof over the last four or five years,” he said. “The tires were as hard as a rock and the cars so stiff it’s made it to where there were no wrecks anymore. This package, you’re sliding around so much that guys are making mistakes.”
That the low-downforce package, loudly pushed for by drivers, garnered wide praise was not a surprise. It had also received exemplary grades when last used in July at Kentucky Speedway, which saw a track-record number of lead changes and a significant increase in passing.
Series officials were less enthused, however. In the subsequent days following the July 11 event, NASCAR officials publicly stated how they needed to study the data to determine if this was the package they wanted to implement gradually in 2015 or on a more regular basis next season.
What officials preferred on intermediate ovals was pack racing and drafting comparable to the product associated with restrictor-plate racing at Daytona or Talladega. They spoke almost wistfully of a high-drag aero package in upcoming races at Indianapolis and Michigan.
Except Indianapolis and Michigan were resounding duds, with the high-drag package an unequivocal disaster, as drivers couldn’t pass and single-file racing remained the norm.
Meanwhile Kentucky and Darlington produced arguably the two best races of the season. And in an unmistakable positive sign that the sport is best served with a low-downforce package and tires that quickly wear, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell spoke glowingly post-race about what unfolded during the Southern 500.
“I’m really pleased with the race product tonight,” O’Donnell said. “This certainly was a very positive night for us that we’ll build upon and take that momentum as we head into ’16.”
If there’s downside to Darlington, it’s that it is the last appearance of the low-downforce package in 2015. Wanting to stabilize its rules with the Chase for the Sprint Cup beginning in two weeks, NASCAR, understandably, will stick with the package it introduced prior to the season.
But expect the low-downforce package to be predominantly featured in 2016. That’s a positive as NASCAR attempts to energize a fan base numb to an abundant amount of tedious races not decided by skill, but by having clean air at the opportune time.
“I really think we’re at a bigger crossroads than most people realize,” Edwards said. “I think this is an opportunity for the sport to go in one of two directions. They can go the direction of making the sport competitive because the cars are easy to drive and everyone’s car is about the same and we can basically have Talladega every week, or they can go the direction of making the cars extremely hard to drive and showing the massive talent of the drivers, the crew chiefs and the pit crews.”
Devised as a way for NASCAR to reconnect with its roots, the Darlington weekend was an absolute success. But it also accomplished something else — showcasing definitively how NASCAR should be in the future.