Long: Darlington provides crossroads for NASCAR and its choice should be obvious

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – On a weekend that reaffirmed a sport’s history and tradition, the Southern 500’s biggest impact on NASCAR could be the future.

Fifteen accidents, one spin, and three late lead changes provided a rewarding experience for fans even in a race that topped four hours and lasted 30 minutes longer than the epic “Gone with the Wind.’’

Not only would Darlington Raceway founder Harold Brasington give NASCAR its first superspeedway in 1950, but his track reaffirmed the sport’s need to run a low-downforce package 65 years later.

“I really think we’re at a bigger crossroads than most people realize,’’ winner Carl 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.’’

The races this season at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington have shown how “idiot-proof” – Denny Hamlin’s words – driving a Sprint Cup car has become.

Consider what happened in the two races this season with reduced downforce:

  • There were a record number of cautions at Darlington (18) and Kentucky (11)
  • Twenty-three of the 29 cautions (79.3 percent) were for accidents or spins.
  • Kentucky had a record number of lead changes (13) and Darlington’s 24 lead changes Sunday were its most since 2008.

Wrecks and racing. What else is needed?

“I think wrecks are good,’’ said Hamlin, who finished third. “Wrecks are good because we made our cars so idiot-proof over the last four or five years. The tires were as hard as a rock, (and) the cars are so stiff that 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 creates action, which is what the sport needs and seeks. At least for one night, the notion of a race lasting well beyond three hours was not a significant issue.

“Were the fans entertained?’’ said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer said when asked about the race’s duration. “When I looked down (from the control tower) from Lap 10 toward the end of the race, they were on their feet. So, I think if you asked most of the race fans here tonight if they enjoyed four-and-a-half hours of racing action, I think they would say yes.

“For us, it’s always about the entertaining racing on the track. I think the drivers delivered that.’’

O’Donnell said officials will meet with drivers, teams and manufactures soon to discuss the package with the plan of announcing next season’s rules by the end of the month.

It’s hard to imagine that the low-downforce package won’t be prevalent next year after all that has been shown in two races.

As downforce is further reduced – a desire drivers want – talent will matter more. While that’s not to take away from recent champions, this rule package will test drivers. Younger racers will face obstacles they haven’t in this series and older drivers will be challenged in ways they haven’t in years.

“If we keep going this direction and taking the downforce away and taking aero influence away, you’re going to have to step up your game as a driver,’’ Edwards said. “You really have to. You’ve got to dig deep. You’ve got to manage the tires. You’ve got to work better with your crew chief. It really makes it a lot of fun. That’s the stuff that to me that stock car racing is about.’’

It’s just like what many of the Hall of Fame drivers in attendance Sunday had to do in their careers.

So why shouldn’t this generation’s racers face similar demands as those who went before them?

On a weekend where history was embraced, it seems only fitting.