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.”

 

Alpha Prime Racing’s road woes don’t keep team from competing

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SONOMA, Calif. — Alpha Prime Racing owner Tommy Joe Martins laughs. He can. His Xfinity Series cars all are here at Sonoma Raceway.

At one point last week, it was not certain if his team’s cars would make it to Portland International Raceway.

“It was probably the toughest professional week I’ve had of my NASCAR career,” Martins told NBC Sports on Friday at Sonoma.

MORE: Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma

The Alpha Prime Racing team had both its trucks break down and one of its haulers have mechanical issues last week on the way to the Pacific Northwest.

“We basically sent four pieces of equipment on the road and three of them broke,” Martins said.

For a time, the car Sage Karam is driving this weekend at Sonoma was left in a hauler in Kansas City because there wasn’t room in the dually Martins sent. It had room only for the car that was needed at Portland and other equipment. Karam’s car, which was to be a backup at Portland, was left behind.

“It’s a very helpless feeling when you feel like your stuff is stuck on the side of the road,” Martins said.

He still has one truck still in St. Louis and another in Oregon. Martins estimates the mechanical issues will cost his team about $50,000 when everything is totaled.

Trouble started well before the team left its Mooresville, North Carolina, race shop for Portland.

The Xfinity Series race at Charlotte was scheduled to run May 27. Rain forced that event to be rescheduled to May 29. Martins said the team had planned to send its trucks to Portland on May 28. With the race pushed back to the 29th, the travel schedule tightened.

It got worse.

After the Xfinity race started, rain came. With the Coca-Cola 600 scheduled for 3 p.m. ET that day – after being delayed by rain from Sunday – the rest of the Xfinity race was pushed back until after the 600. That further tightened the window on Xfinity teams to make it to Portland.

The Xfinity race ended around 11:30 p.m. ET on May 29. Alpha Prime Racing’s haulers left the shop around 6 a.m. ET on May 30.

The two trucks traveled together until issues in St. Louis.

The truck hauling the Nos. 44 and 45 cars had engine issues in St. Louis. The other truck kept going until it had mechanical issues with its hauler in Kansas City. The air bags on the hauler failed.

So, Alpha Prime Racing had a truck that worked in Kansas City with a hauler that didn’t and a truck that didn’t work in St. Louis with a hauler that did.

The truck in Kansas City went back to St. Louis to attach to the hauler and take those cars and equipment to Portland. Martins then had to find something to haul the stranded equipment in Kansas City and a driver. He eventually did. A dually left North Carolina for Kansas City. Once there, what fit in the dually was taken to Portland and what didn’t, including Karam’s Sonoma car stayed behind.

Yet, more trouble was headed for Martins and his team.

The truck that had gone back from Kansas City to St. Louis to take hauler that worked then broke down about 200 miles from Portland.

“I laugh knowing that we’re on the other side of it,” Martins said Friday of all the issues his team had transporting cars and equipment across the country.

“We’ve started to make plans and corrections for it not happening again,” he said.

That hauler that was left in Kansas City? It was repaired and transported to Sonoma, arriving earlier this week.

“Our guys are troopers,” Martins said. “Both of our (truck) drivers were just awesome about the whole thing. … They went through hell week as far as driving somewhere, fly back and pick something up, drive again and now are going to have to do the same thing getting back.”

When the garage opened Friday at Sonoma, Alpha Prime Racing had all its cars.

“I don’t think we had any major issues here, so that was good,” Martins said.

The focus is back on the track. Karam was 24th on the speed chart in Friday’s practice, leading Alpha Prime Racing’s effort. Dylan Lupton was 32nd. Jeffrey Earnhardt was last among 41 cars.

After Saturday night’s race, the team heads back to North Carolina for a well-earned weekend off.

Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma

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SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Xfinity Series practice at Sonoma Raceway.

This is the first time the series has raced at the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California. Teams got 50 minutes of practice Friday.

Larson led the way with a lap of 90.392 mph. He was more than a second faster than the rest of the field.

MORE: Xfinity practice results Sonoma

Sheldon Creed was second on the speed chart with a lap of 89.066 mph. He was followed by AJ Allmendinger (89.052 mph), Cole Custer (89.020) and Ty Gibbs (88.989).

Larson, Allmendinger and Gibbs are among seven Cup drivers are entered in the Xfinity race. Aric Almirola was seventh on the speed chart with a lap of 88.750 mph. Ross Chastain was ninth with a lap of 88.625 mph. Daniel Suarez was 16th with a lap of 88.300 mph. Ty Dillon was 33rd with a lap of 86.828 mph.

Anthony Alfredo will go to a backup car after a crash in practice. He was uninjured in the incident that damaged the right side of his car.

Qualifying is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday. The race is scheduled to begin at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

Anthony Alfredo’s car after a crash in Xfinity practice Friday at Sonoma Raceway. He was uninjured. (Photo: Dustin Long)

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

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The Xfinity Series will compete for the first time at Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This is one of eight road course events on the Xfinity schedule this season.

Seven Cup drivers are scheduled to compete in Saturday’s race, including AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, who won last year’s Cup race at this track Allmendinger has won 11 of 25 career road course starts in the Xfinity Series.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Sonoma Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: Golden State Warrior Patrick Baldwin Jr. will give the command to start engines at 8:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:20 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 7:35 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Earl Smith, team pastor for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers, at 8 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by 9-year-old Isis Mikayle Castillo at 8:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 79 laps (156.95 miles) on the 1.99-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 20. Stage 2 ends at Lap 45.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 8 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard on goprn.com. … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 72 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: This is the first time the Xfinity Series has raced at Sonoma.

 

NASCAR Friday schedule at Sonoma Raceway

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The Xfinity Series makes its first appearance Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Xfinity teams, coming off last weekend’s race at Portland International Raceway, get 50 minutes of practice Friday because Sonoma is a new venue for the series.

Seven Cup drivers, including Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, are among those entered in the Xfinity race. Suarez won the Cup race at Sonoma last year.

Xfinity teams will qualify and race Saturday at the 1.99-mile road course.

Sonoma Raceway

Weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)