Ah, Darlington. The Lady in Black. The Track Too Tough to Tame. Old school. I like it.
After a rare off weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to the track this weekend at Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles Southern 500 and the third annual throwback weekend. This is one of the most anticipated race weekends of the season. And with only two races remaining until the playoffs begin, you have yourself a lot of hype for Sunday.
WHAT: Bojangles Southern 500 (501.3 miles, 367 laps. Stages of 100, 100 and 167 laps)
WHEN: Sunday, September 3. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 6:30 p.m. on NBCSN
WHERE: Darlington Raceway, 1.33-mile egg-shaped oval in Darlington, South Carolina
FAVORITES: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (7/2), Kyle Larson (9/2) and Denny Hamlin (7/1)
LAST YEAR’S WINNER
In a race dominated by Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. got by the No. 4 after a late-race pit stop blunder for Harvick and Co. It was Truex’s first career Southern 500 win, and it gave Furniture Row Racing their second-ever victory in the prestigious event. It was Truex Jr.’s second win of the 2016 season.
Kevin Harvick’s fast lap of 177.730 mph (27.669 seconds) around the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval in his No. 4 Busch Beer Throwback Ford put him on the pole for Sunday evening’s event. The pole is Harvick’s second at Darlington (2014), fourth of this season and 21st of his career.
Defending winner Martin Truex Jr. will start second, with Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones rounding out the top 10 starters when the green flag flies on the 40-car field.
Some other notable starters include Matt Kenseth in 11th, Ryan Blaney in 12th, Clint Bowyer in 16th, Jimmie Johnson in 18th, Chase Elliott in 20th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 22nd.
THROWBACKS, THROWBACKS AND MORE THROWBACKS
The highly-awaited throwback weekend is finally here. Anyone and everyone with a pulse and/or ounce of racing in their blood is as excited as can be, for good reason.
Ever since Darlington Raceway, one of the oldest tracks in NASCAR history, announced this program for the start of the 2015 season, it’s been a home run. Drivers, teams and fans have gone above and beyond to adapt to the theme. The cars are gorgeous. You can check out a complete list, plus there are some other XFINITY and Camping World Truck throwbacks.
I have a few favorites of my own, but I honestly love all of them. When the modernity of the sport meets the old-school look, albeit for one weekend, it’s a perfect marriage. Plus, some guys are getting in on the throwback action in terms of personal attire.
Just to wet your appetite, here’s Brad Keselowski wearing a wig to honor Rusty Wallace and Ryan Blaney going full stache squad because he feels like it. Again: this is fun, people.
THE HOME STRETCH
The Bojangles Southern 500 comes on the heels of an off weekend in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, only the second and final one throughout this 2017 season. From Darlington on out, it’s full steam ahead. No more breaks, no more off weeks. All work.
Twelve races remain (including Darlington), and they’ll be run in 12 weeks. With college football starting up this weekend, the NFL right around the corner and MLB playoff race heating up, it’s becoming time for NASCAR and NBC to start looking a little more closely at the ratings.
The decrease of ratings, viewership and attendance has been a talking point for anybody in the sport for the better part of the last decade. Like it or not (I don’t), it’s a reality. And the fact that one of the biggest races of the year this weekend is not on NBC doesn’t help matters.
But the new playoff format could bring in more eyeballs as the season winds down into October and November. With teams and drivers alike tired after the ensuing three-month stretch to close the season, they all want to raise the newly announced Monster Cup trophy at season’s end at Homestead-Miami Speedway and be crowned champion.
A RACE OF ATTRITION
The Lady in Black is one of those tracks that chews up tires—but she doesn’t tell you how much she’s going to chew them up and when. She also makes you run up high, because that’s where she’s fast. But she has a wall that’ll get ya. Give you that patented Darlington Stripe every time.
That’s why veterans usually grace Victory Lane after 500 grueling miles in one of the longest races of the season at Darlington. It’s about staying alive and not messing up rather than being too aggressive too early. Just ask Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. All three veterans, all three happened to win this race for the past three years.
But it doesn’t stop there. Get this: in the past 11 years, this race has seen 11 different winners. Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Regan Smith, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. have won the Southern 500 from 2006 to 2016. Will that trend continue to 12? Only time will tell.
As stated this week on Victory Lane, I’m going with my gut and taking Matt Kenseth to punch his playoff ticket and win his second career Southern 500. But if it’s not him, it might be one of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. Denny Hamlin has the best average finish in the last three races of anybody, and won the XFINITY race on Saturday afternoon as well. Plus, with Kyle Busch being the hottest driver in the sport, a JGR Toyota could end up in Victory Lane easily.