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)

Ryan Newman to be sponsored by Progressive Insurance at Atlanta

Ryan Newman
Roush Fenway Racing
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Ryan Newman and his No. 6 Ford will be sponsored by Progressive Insurance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Progressive Insurance to the team this weekend in Atlanta,” Newman said in a press release. “A major brand such as theirs fits well into the NASCAR space. Atlanta makes for a challenging and entertaining race with the differing options of the preferred line, so we’re looking forward to it with Progressive on board.”

This is the first time Progressive has been a primary sponsor on a car in a national NASCAR series.

“We’re inspired by the resolve of Ryan and thrilled to be working with him and the team at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend in Atlanta,” Jay VanAntwerp, Progressive’s Media Business Leader, said in the press release. “Racing fans, and sports fans in general, are craving live events, so everyone should be thrilled at the chance to see Ryan and his fellow drivers out on the track. Progressive’s competitive spirit is a great fit for the dynamic, fast-paced action of NASCAR, so we’re looking forward to being part of that excitement with the No. 6 car wrapped in blue and white and sporting the Progressive name. Hopefully we will see Ryan take the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.”

Newman enters Sunday’s race coming off a 15th-place finish at Bristol. In the five races since NASCAR returned on May 17 at Darlington, Newman’s best finish is 14th in the second Darlington race.

Cup drivers preparing for hotter, slicker Atlanta race after March postponement

Atlanta Motor Speedway
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It’s time for NASCAR to go racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finally.

Almost three months after it was scheduled, NASCAR will head back to Georgia for its annual race weekend at the 1.5-mile track Atlanta.

Cars were hours away from being on track on March 13 when NASCAR announced that weekend’s races were postponed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

All three national series will be in action, with the Cup Series highlighting the weekend with its race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

This is the first time the Cup Series has competed at Atlanta in June since 1965. The last five Atlanta weekends have been held in late February or early March after it was moved from Labor Day weekend in 2015.

With a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees at the start of the race, it will be the return of “Hotlanta.”

The series is preparing for the combination of warm weather and the track’s rough surface that hasn’t been repaved since 1997, thanks to petitioning by drivers.

“Atlanta is always a fun place to race because of the surface and how worn out it is,” Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release. “It has been a few years since we’ve raced there when it’s really hot to bring out just how slick the track can get, so that will be a bit of a challenge going in with no practice.”

Truex, who finished second in this race last year, is seeking his first victory of the year and his first win at Atlanta. Atlanta is one of two 1.5-mile tracks he hasn’t won at, joining Texas Motor Speedway.

Truex has failed to finish in the top 10 once in his last eight starts at Atlanta. He heads into Atlanta coming off a 20th-place finish at Bristol. Before that he had four consecutive top 10s.

“I feel pretty good about how we have ran on the bigger tracks where handling comes into play,” Truex said. “We need a little bit of speed overall, but we’ve been able to run pretty well at tracks where the surface is slicker, so I feel confident about the car we’ll unload and how we’ll run on Sunday.”

With the track’s rough surface, restarts will be vital according to Kyle Busch, a two-time winner at Atlanta.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the asphalt mix or whatever when they paved that place that now you can definitely tell the difference between the inside lane and that outside lane,” Busch said in a media release. “Also, the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside – he’s always kind of turning so that’s something to be said for it. Overall, it’s just some places are that way. Atlanta is the worst for the launch. The application of throttle to not spin the rear tires is so crucial there and it’s so easy to do when you’re in that outside lane.”

Busch was the winner of the 2013 Atlanta race, which was held Labor Day weekend. That was also Toyota’s last Cup win there.

“Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen and we’ll definitely have to be on our toes there this weekend,” Busch said. “You have to have good grip there, you have to have good (tire) fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run, yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else. So you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early (in the run) or save a little and be there late. We went there several months ago and didn’t get to race there, so expecting the weekend to be much different this time around than when we traveled there in March.”

Like Truex, Busch is looking for his first win of the year. Should they or any other Toyota or Chevrolet driver win, they would end a three-year reign by Ford on the 1.5-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won two of those races and Kevin Harvick claimed the other.

Bubba Wallace joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

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Bubba Wallace will be on today’s “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. The show airs at Noon ET on NBCSN.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Wallace is also a guest on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • 12:00 p.m. – Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills head coach
  • 12:15 p.m. – Bubba Wallace
  • 12:30 p.m. – James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar driver
  • 12:40 p.m. –  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy football head coach
  • 12:50 p.m. – Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets captain

 

Bubba Wallace encourages drivers to speak on social issues

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Bubba Wallace, at times emotional in discussing the recent killings of unarmed black men, said on the Dale Jr. Download that he needs to be more vocal on such matters and encouraged fellow NASCAR drivers to do the same.

“Through all the chaos that has gone on in the world, all of the African Americans, all of the unarmed black men and women being killed, I’ve been silent,” Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I’ve read all of them and I’ve been silent. I just felt that wasn’t my place. That was a huge mistake.”

Wallace, the only black driver competing in the Cup Series, said he’s reached out to fellow competitors and NASCAR officials and encouraged them to speak out in the days after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday, the murder charged was changed to second-degree murder. Also, three other former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.

“We have got to do better, we’ve got to step up,” Wallace said on the show about a message he sent to fellow Cup drivers. “I encourage everybody to say what they feel. … This is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’ve ever accomplished. This is something that can change on a global impact.”

Wallace also discussed a conversation he had with Chase Elliott.

“I texted him (Monday) night,” Wallace said. “I said, hey man, you’re the biggest name in our sport right now bud, like it or not. You’re the biggest name and your voice carries over much more than mine in our sport. I said don’t be silent on this please, don’t let it go under wraps.

“He was like, I know it’s tough to comment on and I’ve been trying to come up with something. What’s really going to change? I said Chase I don’t know but think about this. Imagine a follower, two followers that you have in how many you got. One is a person that is going to go hate somebody, go kill somebody today and the other one is somebody that is getting discriminated against.

“Imagine you saying something and both of those people look at that and they’re like, ‘Wow, that changed who I am today. I’m not going to hate on anybody anymore. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m going to stand up for what’s right.’

“Imagine your words changing somebody else’s life. Being silent on that they could have just (said) ‘I was waiting for somebody to tell me something.’ We have that platform and that voice to tell people we have got to stop and change our ways. That’s how to think about it.

“Could my words have helped people? Pissed off people for sure. It could have helped that one person that needed it and didn’t know it. Wow Bubba Wallace just said that, he’s my favorite driver. You know what, I’m going to change my life today because of that. That makes me feel good.”

Wallace became emotional on the Dale Jr. Download as he described seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, gunned down in February in Georgia after a white father and son followed him. They and a third man have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery’s death.

“My heart was broken and my stomach was ripped out of my body when I saw that video and even thinking about it I’m getting emotional about it now, thinking about that video and seeing how an unarmed black man … to be jogging down the street and being hunted by two armed civilians and shot and killed in broad daylight with the other guy videoing and it sounded like he was loading his gun and ready to do the same thing.

“So that’s my take on that, and I’m just like what kind of world do we live I where we hunt people and take their life away because we assume something? We assume that this is a black guy that is terrorizing our neighborhood so we’re going to go kill him? What in the hell, man? I don’t see how people can wake up and think like that.”

Wallace later said: “I’m taking an effort to understand where all the hate, where all the anger, the pain, the suffering is coming from. I’m doing my research, I’m learning about things. I feel better about speaking out about it.”

Wallace also told the story of a cousin who was killed in a police shooting in 2003 in Tennessee.

“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” he said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”

A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.

Wallace will appear on Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico on Wednesday on NBCSN. The show airs at noon ET.

The Dale Jr. Download with Wallace airs at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.