Darlington’s hard road a landmark starting point for playoffs

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The idea that Darlington Raceway and its Labor Day weekend – always awash in tradition — should play an important role in determining NASCAR’s Cup Series champion seems like a no-brainer.

It will happen Sunday (6 p.m. ET on USA Network) when the 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs line up as part of the starting grid for the 73rd Southern 500, a race as draped in legacy, lore and lifestyle as any American motorsports event this side of the Indianapolis 500.

That the champion will take his first step on the 1.366 miles of the oldest paved track in NASCAR – driving 500 miles of hard road in the heat and humidity of a Southern summer evening in South Carolina — seems right. Appropriate, yes, even in these days of a modernized, forward-thinking NASCAR that would confound many of those who gathered at shiny new Darlington Raceway on Sept. 4, 1950, for the first Southern 500.

A street race in Chicago? A purpose-built track inside a football stadium in Los Angeles? Deciding the champion in the Southwestern desert? None of this could have been imagined in the rough-and-tumble early days of stock car racing as the sport took its first staggering baby steps on the way to becoming an organized thing.

Now, across all those years and with so many changes – especially in recent years, the sport still lands in out-of-the-way Darlington for one of its big moments.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In 2003, in a moment NASCAR’s hierarchy would come to regret, Darlington’s Labor Day weekend date – considered something of a birthright in that part of South Carolina – was moved to Auto Club Speedway in California, about as far away in distance and culture as was possible.

It was part of NASCAR’s effort to focus on bigger markets at a time when the sport was growing and gaining more national attention. Darlington was left with scattered race dates on Mother’s Day (generally considered a locked-in “off day” for NASCAR for years), in April and in November. It was a dizzying, confusing time for many steeped in the sport’s Carolinas-heavy tradition.

The Southern 500 returned to Darlington Raceway and to Labor Day weekend in 2015 and has been in that spot since then. The playoff aspect adds some dazzle and sparkle to the old place.

Here’s some of what got us to this moment across Darlington’s long history:

  • The first Southern 500, in 1950, was chaotic. The packed starting field held 75 cars, and Johnny Mantz, the slowest qualifier, won after six hours and 38 minutes of racing. Teams were in town for more than a week for practice and qualifying. Bud Moore, a crew chief/car owner who would be named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, once talked of checking into a downtown Darlington hotel for that first race and leaving a few minutes later after seeing what he called an army of roaches in his room. He slept in a tent at the track for days.
  • The late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond seemed to be at every event that happened at Darlington. He was there for the ribbon-cutting to open the track and attended many Southern 500s. Fans remember him – an eternal campaigner — wandering pit road before the start of races, shaking everyone’s hand within reaching distance. Thurmond often handed out tokens such as key chains as he made his rounds in the pits and garage area. One man remembered Thurmond shaking hands with him five times and giving him five key chains.
  • Ned Jarrett, also a Hall of Famer, won the 1965 Southern 500 by a staggering 14 laps. One of the drivers he outran that day was Cale Yarborough, who failed to finish the race because his car sailed over the wall on lap 118 after contact with another car. The incident completed a circle of sorts for Yarborough. He remembered climbing under the fence to watch races as a kid; now he had gone out over the fence.
  • In 1985, the speedway was all aflutter with talk of a million dollars. If Bill Elliott won the race, he would pick up a bonus of $1 million for winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and Southern 500 in the same year. Despite a tense atmosphere (a pair of South Carolina state troopers guarded Elliott’s garage stall much of the weekend), Elliott won the race and left town with a big check and a new nickname: Million Dollar Bill.
  • The 1962 Southern 500 resulted in one of NASCAR’s most inglorious scoring dramas. Junior Johnson took the checkered flag first, but Larry Frank and more than a few spectators and media members were certain that Frank had won the race. Hours after Johnson had enjoyed the fruits of victory lane, Frank was declared the winner by virtue of an extended scoring check.
  • The Darlington infield on Southern 500 weekend is much tamer these days, but for many years it was party central for an eclectic mix of hard-core race fans, college students, and dedicated revelers determined to stack their used beer cans higher than the gang in the next pickup. For a time, there was a jail in the infield.
  • Despite so much success across the racing map, Richard Petty won the Southern 500 only one time. That came in 1967 as part of a remarkable 10-race winning streak, a record that likely will never be broken. Three years later, Petty endured one of the worst wrecks of his career in Darlington’s spring race. His Plymouth bounced off the outside wall in Turn 4 and shot across the track before slamming full-force into the pit wall, shattering that section of the pit barrier into hundreds of pieces. Petty’s car then rolled violently down the frontstretch, his head and arms flying out of the driver-side window with each flip. The car stopped on its roof on the track. Many in the hushed main grandstand probably thought Petty had been killed. He was rushed to the infield medical center, eventually diagnosed with a broken shoulder and missed five races.
  • The 500 weekend is special for Harold Brasington III, grandson of Harold Brasington Sr., the local dreamer who built the track with his own bulldozer. Brasington Sr., who defied non-believers to build the speedway that introduced NASCAR to paved-track racing, lost management control of the speedway a few years after its opening. A later generation of track operators mended fences with Brasington, who died in 1996 at the age of 86. “After 1953, there were plenty of bitter feelings about his departure from the track,” Brasington III told NBC Sports. “I don’t think that had mellowed through the ’70s. But, as a youngster, he took me to the track. One time spontaneously he pulled up to the gate in his little pickup truck. The guard let him in. He drove me around the track just for the heck of it. He didn’t say anything, really, and drove back out. That’s the way he was with me — a man of few words. I know he would be tickled that folks have come to value the history and the special place that track has in everybody’s heart who likes it. That would be gratifying to him. His first love is there still going strong despite the threats to its existence through the years.”

 

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.

Sunday Clash at the Coliseum: Start time, TV info, race format

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LOS ANGELES – NASCAR is back and back at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Nearly three months after Joey Logano won the Cup title at Phoenix, Cup drivers return to action this weekend to run the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race on Sunday night.

This marks the second consecutive year the series has raced inside the Coliseum, which has hosted the Super Bowl, World Series and Olympics.

Details for Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum 

(All times Eastern)

HEAT RACES: There will be four 25-lap heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top five from each race advance to the Busch Light Clash. The first heat race is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.

LAST CHANCE QUALIFIERS: There will be two 50-lap qualifiers for drivers who did not advance to the Clash through their heat races. Caution laps do not count. The top three finishers in each of the qualifiers advance to the Clash. The 27-car Clash lineup will be finalized by adding one provisional spot for the driver highest in points last season not yet in the Clash field. The first of these two last chance qualifying races is scheduled to begin at 6:10 p.m.

CLASH STARTING LINEUP: To be set by heat races and the Last Chance Qualifiers. Winner of heat 1 will start on the pole for the Clash. Winner of heat 2 will start second. Winner of heat 3 will start third. Winner of heat 4 will start 4th. Runner-up in heat 1 will start fifth and so on.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver intros are at 7:50 p.m. … Invocation by Judah Smith, lead pastor of Churchome, at 8:07 p.m. … The USC Trojan Marching Band will perform the national anthem at 8:08 p.m. … Actor Rob Lowe will give the command to fire engines at 8:15 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to be waved by USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at 8:20 p.m.

DISTANCE: The Clash is 150 laps (37.5 miles) on the 1/4-mile short track.

STAGES: There will be a stage break at Lap 75 (halfway in the Clash). Wiz Khalifa will perform during the break.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the event, beginning at 4 p.m. . … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Partly cloudy with a high of 63 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the start of the heat races. Partly cloudy with a high of 61 degrees and a 1% chance of rain for the Clash..

LAST TIME: Joey Logano held off Kyle Busch to win the inaugural Clash at the Coliseum. Austin Dillon placed third. .

Catch up on NBC Sports coverage

New NASCAR season features several changes

Clash at the Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing 

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

Dr. Diandra: Muffling racecars won’t change fan experience

Drivers to watch at Clash in Coliseum

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

Looking back on 10 historic moments in the Clash

 

NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.