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 weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.