Ryan: NASCAR return another sign of Darlington’s resilience, renaissance

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They tried to give up on the old girl too soon.

“The Lady in Black,” the moniker given to Darlington Raceway by sportswriter Benny Phillips more than 50 years ago, is meant to reference the fearsome qualities of the most formidable racetrack in NASCAR

But it also could be applied to how often Darlington once seemed dressed for death’s door.

NASCAR stripped a race away from its first superspeedway (which opened in 1950 with a 75-car field). It ripped away its tradition-steeped Labor Day weekend (and the accompanying parade with Clint Eastwood once serving as a grand marshal).

Even the signature Southern 500 — synonymous with the South Carolina region known as the Pee Dee — disappeared for a few seasons in the mid-2000s.

But slowly (aside from a second annual Cup race), it’s all come back.

A Buck Baker tribute car was on display during the Sept. 5, 2015 return of the Southern 500 Parade in Darlington (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images).

The Southern 500.

The Labor Day race weekend (with a wildly popular new throwback tradition).

The parade through the streets of a city with roughly 6,000 people.

And now NASCAR is back, too.

At Darlington.

The 1.366-mile oval will be the epicenter not only of stock-car racing but major-league sports in the United States over a four-day stretch that never would have seemed possible even a few years ago.

Left to the buzzards when the Cup Series chased the almighty dollar and the promise of new fans a couple of decades ago, Darlington has become a lifeline to rescue NASCAR from the brink starting Sunday.

If it wasn’t so readily usable because of its proximity — along with Charlotte Motor Speedway — to help play host to four Cup races in 11 days and alleviate a backlog of 32 races that still need to be completed in the next six months, there would be a much less rosy tune coming from NASCAR executives in Daytona Beach and Charlotte.

Instead, they are singing the praises of Darlington.

“You look at unintended consequences, or in this instance, maybe opportunities,” senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said during a NASCAR America at Home episode Friday (video above). “Not only is Darlington there and available. It’s an iconic racetrack. It goes back with our roots. Of all the places you can open up, it’s a win-win for everybody. It’s got that historic atmosphere. Drivers love to race there and want to win there as well.

“So it became crucial to us to go there not once but twice, race under the lights and then be able to go to Charlotte. And both those venues really enabled us to keep much of the schedule intact on the back half because we’re able to pack those (races) within two weeks.”


There’s been a misconception that NASCAR is being opportunistic as among the first major sports to wave the green flag. President Steve Phelps and others have trumpeted the ancillary benefits of enjoying a much brighter spotlight Sunday.

But to suggest it’s the primary thrust of NASCAR restarting is as reductive as saying Kyle Busch won the 2019 championship because he had the fastest car at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This is much less about seizing the moment and much more about survival.

Brad Keselowski, in his throwback No. 2 firesuit, celebrates after winning the 2018 Southern 500 (Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

Motorsports generally isn’t built to withstand long periods of inactivity. Unlike the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, there aren’t dozens of teams owned by deep-pocketed billionaires who can wait out a shutdown. There aren’t coffers stuffed to the brim with emergency reserves of cash.

NASCAR and many other series essentially have two options: Race as soon as humanly possible, or risk extinction by remaining idle.

It’s why we’re seeing virtually every other form of motorsport (IndyCar, IMSA, Supercross, World of Outlaws, NHRA, MotoAmerica, short tracks, etc.) announce plans and schedules while the rest of the big leagues officially are mum on their next steps.

As always with the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” there is a looming danger here.

Some sports probably don’t want to win the race to be first to return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

NASCAR has built a thorough logistical playbook and will have severe restrictions on access Sunday. But the sanctioning body will be flying as blindly into its first race without fans in 72 years as the drivers will be entering Turn 1 without practice or qualifying.

“It’s a big responsibility that we take very seriously because we know we must get it right,” Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp told NBC Sports. “There’s been a lot of planning, organization and details going into this.

“This entire region and the state of South Carolina all the way to the top is very humbled and very excited that we’re able to do this. What better place in my mind to come back racing than a track that is so steeped in history and tradition?”

It’s been a trendsetter, too, since Harold Brasington built the egg-shaped oval more than seven decades ago.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway laid the groundwork for superspeedways in this country, but it’s hard to imagine a Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway if Darlington hadn’t been the blueprint for the South.

“Darlington changed the sport in 1950,” Kyle Petty said on a recent episode of NASCAR America at Home. “Darlington has an opportunity to change the sport again in 2020. This may be a glimpse into the future of how NASCAR races are run moving forward (without practice or qualifying), moving from this date to 2021 and 2022. This little place in South Carolina has changed the sport two times.”

It’s another case of pride for Tharp, a Kentucky native who proudly has called South Carolina home for 35 years.

“I think Darlington exemplifies the state in which it is located in,” Tharp said. “South Carolina is a very gritty and resilient state in my mind. It’s a handshake state. You shake somebody’s hand, and they give you their word, they’re going to live up to it. Those are the kind of people in this state.”


That self-determination also is shaded by some bloodshed and ugliness stemming from the stir of Antebellum echoes in the South Shall Rise Again.

The Civil War started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It was the first state to secede from the Union. The Confederate flag flew on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia until five years ago (after Dylann Roof entered an African-American church in Charleston and slaughtered nine people).

There also are many indicators of its resilience as a unifier.

South Carolina has survived countless hurricanes. After many body blows to its economy, it remains among the country’s poorer states, but its income growth and employment numbers rapidly were improving pre-pandemic. The state made bold shifts to tourism and major manufacturing, and Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston became bustling centers of growth.

It could be argued that the handling of COVID-19 is another example of its bounce-back spirit. In Senate testimony Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci praised South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster’s response as a model for reopening that “I almost would want to clone.”

Gov. McMaster also has been instrumental in ensuring NASCAR could restart at Darlington – another clear sign that some fans’ ill will of nearly 20 years ago has long subsided.

During what seemed would be the last Labor Day race weekend at Darlington in 2003, T-shirts reading “Money Talks, Tradition Walks” dotted the grandstands. Longtime attendees angrily described the betrayal of moving the weekend to Auto Club Speedway in Southern California as a slap in the face.

“Tradition is something NASCAR doesn’t believe in anymore,” one local told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long at the time. “The so-called rednecks who made this sport can’t go there anymore. NASCAR needs to remember who made them.”

Brad Keselowski, in a throwback No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, races William Byron, driving a No. 24 Hendrick City Chevrolet car, in two of the throwback paint schemes from last year’s Southern 500 (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

Those origins eventually were recognized, particularly with the Southern 500 being returned to Labor Day weekend since 2015. In a grassroots renaissance campaign that caught fire in the first year, Cup and Xfinity teams rolled out achingly crafted tributes to NASCAR history that have become the most highly anticipated paint schemes of the season.

“When two races went down to one, the fans and that community and this racetrack stood tall,” Tharp said. “And the crowds were still here. The stands were still full or nearly full. And then when the return to Labor Day, coupled with the throwback platform, came about six years ago, it just solidified the fact that Darlington is indeed one of the crown jewels of the sport.”

And a crown jewel of the state’s sports scene. The college football programs of Clemson and South Carolina reign supreme, of course, and Hilton Head Island has a prestigious golf tournament.

Yet Darlington remains beloved as South Carolina’s literal diamond in the rough.

“You come rolling down Highway 151 from the North Carolina area, and you go through some fields and farmland,” Tharp said. “And all of a sudden, you’re up on a really cool iconic racetrack. Darlington. It’s just a special place in a lot of people’s minds.”

And this Sunday, it’ll be a savior for NASCAR.

The Lady is Back.

Fans cheered during the return of the Southern 500 parade Sept. 5, 2015 in Darlington, S.C. (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.

 

 

Friday 5: Will fan access to in-car cameras lead to calls for penalties?

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Did NASCAR make the right decision to penalize William Byron 25 points and $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution two days after the incident happened?

It’s a question that will be answered in Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal. 

But this reaches a broader issue. With fans having more access to video elements of the sport, how much influence could or should they have in exposing potential penalties moving forward?

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted after last weekend’s race at Texas that series officials did not see Byron hit Hamlin.

MORE: Alex Bowman to miss Talladega race 

While video from the USA broadcast suggested that Byron spun Hamlin, an official could question if Hamlin brake-checked Byron and initiated the contact as opposed to Byron running into him.

That question was cleared up three minutes after green-flag racing resumed when NASCAR’s Twitter account posted video from Byron’s in-car camera that showed him running into the back of Hamlin’s car. 

After the race, Byron admitted he ran into Hamlin, although Byron said he did not mean to spin Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin had raced him a few laps earlier, causing Byron to hit the wall.

“I didn’t mean to spin him out,” Byron said after the race. “That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did.”

The in-car camera video from Byron’s car was a view that fans can have as part of a program that began with the start of the playoffs. Fans can watch in-car camera views from every car in the race through the NASCAR Mobile App and on NASCAR Drive on NASCAR.com. 

The TV broadcast did not have access to those in-car views. Miller noted that the officials also did not have access. That likely will change.

In this case, it was NASCAR’s social media account that made people aware of what Byron did. Moving forward, what if it is a fan that spots something that officials don’t catch and TV doesn’t show? What if that fan posts a video clip of an incident from a particular in-car camera? Should that lead to a penalty either during the event or days later?

Golf faced a similar issue within the last decade before stating that effective Jan. 1, 2018, the game’s major professional tours would no longer accept calls or emails from fans who think they had spotted a rules violation. Instead, the PGA Tour, LPGA, PGA of America, among others, stated they would assign at least one official to monitor all tournament telecasts and resolve any rules issues.

“It’s a tricky deal,” Ryan Blaney said. “Especially with the rise of social media and all the accessibility that the internet can give with all these live feeds from every single car, which I think is a good idea, but there could be some controversy in certain situations.”

Those watching last weekend’s Cup race posted video of a violation. NASCAR didn’t penalize Ty Gibbs after door-slammed Ty Dillon on pit road during the race. Video clips of the incident quickly showed up on social media shortly after the incident. 

Series officials typically review the races on Tuesday and that’s an opportunity for them to assess penalties on incidents they’ve gathered more information on.

NASCAR docked Gibbs 25 points and fined him $75,000 for the incident Tuesday. It marked his second penalty this year for contact on pit road. Gibbs was fined $15,000 for hitting Sam Mayer’s car on pit road after the Xfinity race at Martinsville.

Another key is issue with officiating in any sport is if it is better to be right, even if it comes a couple of days after an event, or if is something is missed during the event, then so be it?

Section 4.4.C of the Cup Rule Book states that drivers can be docked 25-50 points (driver and team owner points), fined $50,000 – $100,000 and/or suspended a race, indefinitely or terminated for a series of events, including “Intentional wrecking another vehicle, whether or not that vehicle is removed from competition as a result.”

So, even if NASCAR had penalized Byron during the event, officials could have further penalized him on Tuesday. It’s not a situation where there is either a penalty during the race or after. It can be both. 

Ryan Blaney says he would prefer a decision made in the moment and if not, let it go.

“I don’t want to have to wonder if something is going to happen days later,” he said. “I think you’ve got to take a little bit more time and try to get things right in the moment because a lot of these things can be game-changing outcomes.”

Byron’s penalty is an example. He left Texas third in the playoff standings, 17 points above the cutline. With the penalty, he’s eight points below the cutline. 

2. Race for stage points

One of the questions going into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) is what should playoff drivers do. Should they ride at the back to help their chances of making it to the finish to score big points? Or should they run at the front and go for stage points while also being at greater risk of being collected in a crash?

Kyle Larson, who is 23 points above the cutline in third place, said he doesn’t see playoff drivers riding in the back.

“There’s so many stage points on the line, and if you can get those stage points, then even if you do wreck, you’ll have a decent points day out of it,” he said. “I foresee everybody racing pretty hard.”

Should any driver ride in the back early in a stage, they’ll likely need to be in the top 10 with 10 laps in the stage to have a good chance at stage points. 

In the spring Talladega race, 75% of the drivers in a top 10 spot with 10 laps to go in either of the first two stages finished in the top 10 and scored points.

Larson scored 17 stage points at Talladega. Add that to his fourth-place finish and he left there with 50 points. Only three other drivers scored more than 40 points that race: Martin Truex Jr. (45), Chase Elliott (44) and winner Ross Chastain (42).

All four of those drivers also were in the top 10 with 10 laps to go in the race. Chastain ran no lower than fourth in those final laps before taking the lead on the final lap. 

Chastain won that race after overcoming a pit road speeding penalty in the first stage. He did not score points in the first stage.  He got his lap back at the caution for the stage break and steadily worked his way up in the second stage, finishing ninth. 

As for his plan Sunday?

“We’re still talking through them,” Chastain said. “It’s not race day yet … we don’t have to have our plan yet. It would be bad if we already had our marching orders written down and we knew what we we were doing because it needs to be a more fluid experience. We’ll see how the race starts.”

3. RCR Turnaround

In the 14 races since NBC/USA took over broadcasting the Cup season, Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have each won a series-high four races. 

RCR’s wins have been by Tyler Reddick at Road America, Reddick at the Indianapolis road course, Austin Dillon at Daytona and Reddick last weekend at Texas. 

That’s four wins in a 13-race stretch for RCR. It took the organization 192 races to win its last four races before this recent stretch.

“The new car did level playing field,” said Andy Petree, competition director at RCR. “That was one of the things. What happened over the years is that some of these mega-teams have been able to build an advantage into their equipment.”

It’s more than that. The four wins by Reddick and Dillon double what the organization had the previous fours seasons. They’ve combined for 13 top-three finishes, including a 1-2 run at Daytona in the regular-season finale in August. 

In comparison, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott — the past two Cup champions — have combined for six wins and 12 top-three finishes this season.

Reddick and Dillon also have combined 14 top-five finishes. That equals the number of top fives the organization had the previous four seasons combined. Reddick’s 439 laps led is more than the organization’s combined total (410) the past four seasons. 

“Obviously the drivers are more important now because everything is so close,” Petree said. “The drivers can make a big difference. Our pit crews have stepped it up this year. There are a lot of reasons why we have been as successful as we’ve been.”

4. Number crunching

A few things to ponder:

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the last two races with Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher. That’s more than the organization had led in the previous 105 races combined. RFK Racing’s 417 laps led this season is the organization’s most since 2013.

The driver leading at the white flag finished fifth or worse in each of the last four Talladega races that went the full distance. Erik Jones led at the white flag in the spring race. He finished sixth.

The driver winning the Talladega Cup playoff race has never gone on to win the championship that season.

Kyle Busch is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all three races at Daytona and Talladega this season. He placed sixth in the Daytona 500. He was third at Talladega in the spring. He was 10th at Daytona in August.

A stage winner has not gone on to win the event in the last 11 races.

The 19 different winners this season is tied for the most in a season all-time with 1956, ’58, ’61 and 2001.

5. 600th race

Sunday will mark the 600th career Cup race for Rodney Childers as a Cup crew chief. He becomes the 15th crew chief in series history with at least 600 starts.

He and Kevin Harvick have been together since 2014. Their 313 races together is the longest streak among active driver/crew chief combinations. 

Harvick and Childers have combined to win 37 races, including two this season, and the 2014 championship in that stretch.