Ryan: Three thoughts on Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington

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  1. Harder is better: It wasn’t a coincidence that the track record for caution flags (18) was set during a race in which the cars and tires were more of a handful than in any race since a repaving eight years ago. Though Darlington is the toughest track on the circuit, drivers have been accustomed to the luxury of cars that are glued to the pavement and tires that seemingly were bulletproof to wear. The confluence of the low-downforce package and asphalt that became much more abrasive during a 16-month layoff was the perfect concoction for racing that drew raves from drivers for its high degree of difficulty. Has the ship truly sailed on using low downforce during the Chase for the Sprint Cup? Because at least half of the 10-race playoff (on five 1.5-mile tracks) will be haunted by the specter of the smashing successes of low downforce at Darlington and Kentucky Speedway.
  1. Chemistry with a Lady in Black: Carl Edwards’ victory marked the third consecutive season that Darlington’s 500-mile race was won by a driver and team in its first season together. Edwards is in good company considering that teammate Matt Kenseth led the circuit with seven victories in his 2013 debut with Joe Gibbs Racing, and Kevin Harvick won the championship in his inaugural year with Stewart-Haas Racing. Edwards hasn’t been in contention as often as either Kenseth or Harvick, and he won’t enter the Chase as a championship favorite as both of those stars were the past two seasons. But it probably is more than a statistical oddity that teams with such a strong rapport in their first year have been in position to win a grueling test of faith and morale. Edwards’ team didn’t give up after a tactical blunder left him two laps down early in the race, and that bodes well for the No. 19 Toyota mounting a charge in the Chase.
  1. In need of an emotional rescue: How is it possible that a race with an unprecedented amount of yellow left hardly anyone seeing red? Remaining true to a perplexing trend of the 2015 season (take a look at the lack of postrace fireworks in the previous race at Bristol Motor Speedway), there was little evidence of the postrace passion plays that typically sprout from the seeds sowed by 18 caution flags. Maybe drivers and teams were exceptionally happy about a low-downforce package that has delivered the goods just as many had promised. Maybe they were too weary from sweating their way through an exhausting race that took nearly four and a half hours to complete. Maybe they learned last year to pace themselves and avoid expending too much rage before the races really matter in the playoffs. But the hope here is the Chase will be accompanied by a cantankerous jolt of unbridled anger, despair and frustration that fuels the essence of stock-car racing – and that sorely has been missing this season