Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we live in strange times.
It’s forced NASCAR to make seemingly unprecedented scheduling decisions that see the sport attempting to hold four Cup Series races in 11 days, with the second scheduled to take place tonight at Darlington. A third is set for Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway followed by another Charlotte race on May 27.
While this all seems new, such a compact schedule is simply a throwback to NASCAR’s past, which is appropriate for Darlington.
The last time the Cup Series had four races in 11 days was in 1971, the year before NASCAR’s Modern Era began. That season the Cup Series held 48 races.
From July 14-28, the series competed at Albany-Saratoga (N.Y) Speedway, Islip (N.Y) Speedway, Trenton (N.J.) Speedway and Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. Richard Petty won all four races. Only Albany-Saratoga, a dirt track, and Fairgrounds Speedway still exist.
Should tonight’s Darlington race not be rained out, it would be the 34th Cup race held on a Wednesday, but the first since 1984.
That race was the July 4 event held at Daytona that Richard Petty won for his 200th career victory. The last Wednesday race held somewhere other than Daytona was the 1971 race at Albany-Saratoga.
Other Wednesday/Darlington racing factoids:
– Nineteen drivers have earned victories in races held on Wednesdays. Ten of them are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
– The drivers with the most Wednesday victories are Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett with five each.
– This would be the first time that Darlington, Charlotte (May 27) and Martinsville (June 10) would host a Cup Series race on a Wednesday.
– The starting lineup of tonight’s race features an inversion of the top-20 finishers from Sunday’s race. Since 2000, the only driver to start a Darlington race from 15th-20th and win was Erik Jones in last year’s Southern 500 (he started 15th).
– Jones has yet to finish outside the top 10 in four Cup starts at Darlington
– Only three drivers in the Modern Era (since 1972) have earned their first Cup win at Darlington: Terry Labonte (1980), Lake Speed (1988) and Regan Smith (2011). Speed’s and Smith’s wins were their only Cup victories.
Only a week later, on May 7, The Intimidator returned the favor. But his revenge didn’t come on a superspeedway. It occurred on one of Martin’s specialities in the mid-90s — a road course.
From 1989-98, Martin was an ace on road courses. In his first 10 starts at Sonoma Raceway, he placed in the top three five times, including a win in 1997. At Watkins Glen International, he never finished outside the top five in the same time span, winning three consecutive races from 1993-95.
Earnhardt, on the other hand, only broke through for a road course win once in 47 attempts during his Cup career, which included 20 starts and 13 top fives at the defunct Riverside International Raceway.
The breakthrough happened at Sonoma and occurred in typical Intimidator fashion.
Martin led 64 of the first 70 laps in the 74-lap event. Earnhardt had led none. But on Lap 70, Earnhardt loomed in Martin’s rear-view mirror as Jeff Gordon looked on from third place in almost a mirror image of the week before.
Earnhardt didn’t let up. He almost gave Martin a shove as they entered the Carousel with two laps to go. After Martin slipped in oil, Earnhardt dove to his inside and emerged with the lead as they exited Turn 6.
Earnhardt led the rest of the way, never receiving a real challenge, aided by Martin and Gordon nearly getting together in Turn 11 coming to the white flag.
“I was as careful as I could be the last lap without giving Mark a chance to get back to me,” Earnhardt said in the next day’s Charlotte Observer. “I knew I was close to getting my first win on a road course and I didn’t want to blow it after trying for so long.”
Earnhardt was asked if would have been able to pass Martin cleanly if not for Martitn’s slip in the Carousel.
“Clean to me is not putting him out of the race track,” Earnhardt replied. “Now why did I say that?”
Also on this date:
1955: Junior Johnson overcame two spins to lead 123 of the final 136 laps and win at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway. It was the first of his 50 career Grand National victories.
1972: David Pearson passed Bobby Isaac with three laps to go to win at Talladega. A young rookie from Franklin, Tennessee, named Darrell Waltrip competed in his first Cup Series race. He started 25th but fell out on Lap 69 due to a blown engine. Also in the race was country singer Marty Robbins, who placed 18th and was voted rookie of the race. Robbins later was disqualified for an illegal carburetor.
1983: Darrell Waltrip lapped the field to win a Cup race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway over Bobby Allison. The race was named after Marty Robbins, who died the previous December at 57 due to complications from a heart attack. Robbins made 35 Cup starts from 1966-82. His only start at the Nashville short track was his first career start.
2005: In an overtime finish, Greg Biffle overtook Ryan Newman and beat Jeff Gordon to win the first night race at Darlington.
2011: On old tires, Regan Smith held off Carl Edwards to win at Darlington to claim his first and only Cup Series win and the first NASCAR win for Furniture Row Racing, which had been competing since 2005. After being involved in a late wreck, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch got into a post-race altercation that saw Harvick reach into Busch’s car and Busch drive away, pushing Harvick’s car into the pit wall.
Matt Kenseth among notable Cup Series substitute drivers
Substitute drivers, whether for one race or longer, are nothing new for NASCAR.
Here’s a look back at some notable substitute drivers in the Cup Series. What better place to start than with Kenseth himself?
Matt Kenseth subs for Bill Elliott, 1998
Two years before his rookie season in the Cup Series, Kenseth was competing full-time in what was called the Busch Series. In September, the 26-year-old Kenseth was called in to drive Bill Elliott’s No. 94 McDonald’s car at Dover while Elliott attended his father’s funeral. Kenseth finished sixth in his Cup debut.
Richard Childress Racing tapped Kevin Harvick to replace Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt’s death at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick made his Cup debut the following week at Rockingham and would win at Atlanta in his third series start. He competed full-time in both Cup and the Busch Series that year, winning Cup Rookie of the Year honors and the Busch championship.
Jamie McMurray subs for Sterling Marlin, 2002
In September 2002, Chip Ganassi Racing chose Jamie McMurray to sub for Sterling Marlin after he was injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway. McMurray made his Cup debut on Oct. 6 at Talladega. A week later, he won a race at Charlotte. After finishing out the last six races of the season, he went full-time with Ganassi in Cup in 2003.
Less than a year after he retired from NASCAR competition, Jeff Gordon was back in a race car. Gordon and Alex Bowman were enlisted by Hendrick Motorsports to split time in the No. 88 Chevrolet as Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovered from a concussion. Gordon made eight starts while Bowman made 10 and nearly won the playoff race at Phoenix. Bowman’s performance helped him earn the No. 88 ride full-time after Earnhardt retired at the end of 2017.
Ernie Irvan replaces Davey Allison, 1993; Kenny Wallace/Dale Jarrett sub for Irvan, 1994-95
The mid-90s were a difficult time for Robert Yates Racing and the No. 28 team. On July 13, 1993, Davey Allison died from injuries sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. After skipping the next race at Pocono, Robby Gordon and Lake Speed shared the No. 28 over the next four races. Ernie Irvan took over the ride permanently, making his first start in the Southern 500.
Irvan made it through the first 20 Cup races in 1994 before being critically injured in a crash in practice at Michigan in August. Irvan wouldn’t return to the Cup Series until October 1995. Kenny Wallace finished out the 1994 season in the No. 28, making 10 starts. Dale Jarrett took over the ride full-time in 1995, and would be teammates with Irvan when he returned in the No. 88 (they would swap numbers in 1996).
Matt Crafton subs for Kyle Busch, 2015 Daytona 500
When Kyle Busch fractured his right leg and left foot in a crash in the 2015 Xfinity Series season opener, Joe Gibbs Racing turned to Matt Crafton to drive the No. 18 Toyota in the Daytona 500. Then a two-time Truck Series champion, it was Crafton’s first Cup Series start. He finished 18th.
Four years earlier, Busch missed one Cup race due to suspension. He was parked for the rest of the weekend at Texas Motor Speedway by NASCAR after he intentionally wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution during a Truck Series race at Texas. Michael McDowell was chosen to race in Busch’s place. He finished 33rd.
When Tony Stewart broke a leg in a sprint car crash in August 2013, Stewart-Haas Racing turned to 54-year-old veteran Mark Martin to take his place. Martin drove the No. 14 car for 12 of the last 13 races to close out a Cup career the began in 1981.
Darrell Waltrip subs for Steve Park, 1998
Dale Earnhardt turned to three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip in 1998 to sub for Steve Park after he suffered three fractures in a crash at Atlanta in March. Waltrip made 13 starts in the No. 1 Chevrolet, which included his final career top five in a race at Auto Club Speedway.
There are substitute drivers, then there’s “Super Subs” like Regan Smith. Here’s how much substitute work Smith has gotten over the years.
– 2012: Drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two races late in the season as Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.
– 2014: Subbed for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen following Stewart’s sprint car incident that killed Kevin Ward Jr.
While the Most Popular Driver in the NASCAR Cup Series won’t be announced until Thursday, NASCAR on Wednesday revealed winners of the most popular drivers voting in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Trucks Series.
In voting by NASCAR fans, Justin Allgaier earned Most Popular Driver honors in the Xfinity Series for the first time in his career.
Meanwhile, Ross Chastain was named Most Popular Driver in the Truck Series, also for the first time in his career, earning the honor on his 27th birthday.
Driver of the popular No. 7 Chevrolet, the 33-year-old Allgaier extends JR Motorsports’ domination of the Most Popular Driver award in the Xfinity Series to a record eight consecutive years. Elliott Sadler was the top vote-getter from 2016 through 2018, preceded by Chase Elliott (2014-15), Regan Smith (2013) and Danica Patrick (2012).
Allgaier reached the Championship 4 round for the third time in the last four years, including winning at Phoenix – the 11th win of his Xfinity career – to assure his spot in the championship race at Miami. Allgaier finished fourth this past season in the Xfinity standings behind Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer.
And then there was Chastain, who has the popular nickname of the “Melon Man” due to being part of his family’s watermelon farm business in his native Florida.
Chastain entered the 2019 season not even planning to run a full season in the Truck Series. But when it became apparent that he would have the best chance at a championship in a Truck, Chastain and Niece Motorsports announced in June he would switch and declare to earn championship points – and a bid for the Most Popular Driver – in the Truck Series.
Chastain ultimately finished second to series champion Matt Crafton.
Chastain wound up competing in a total of 77 overall NASCAR races in the 2019 season: 23 in the Truck Series, 19 Xfinity races and 35 Cup events. He won three races in the Truck Series and a fourth checkered flag in the Xfinity Series.
Run at the front and hope the wreck is behind? Run at the back and hope to avoid the carnage?
The package used at Talladega and Daytona this season punches such a big hole that drivers say the closing rate between cars is quicker than before. That gives cars trying to block less time to make their move. Be late and it can lead to a wreck.
As it has at Talladega and Daytona this year.
“There’s been many evolutions in racing and blocking is one for me that I’ve had to evolve with, but blocking is a part of our sport now on a weekly basis,” Kevin Harvick said. “It’s not just here. I mean, you see it at the mile-and-a-half race tracks.
“You’re just going to have wrecks blocking. Sometimes you’re going to make a bad move. It’s just something that’s a little bit newer in the pace of the car that’s approaching you and the style of block and how you throw it, but we’re going to wreck from a block because it’s just become part of what we do.”
Three wrecks this year at Talladega and Daytona can be traced to blocking at the front of the field.
“When you have the smaller spoiler, you’re able to get in front of them, that lead car would get the push before that (trailing) car would actually get to the back bumper of the lead car,” Joey Logano said. “Now, it seems like the trailing car can get to the back bumper and then some (with the larger spoiler), so the blocks have to be quicker and have to be precise. Even once you block them it doesn’t mean it’s over because now they’re still on your bumper and they’re pushing you around. It’s more challenging from that standpoint.”
The late April race at Talladega debuted this package and saw a crash at the front of the field early in the event. Bubba Wallace was third when he and Ryan Blaney, running second, got out of shape and triggered a crash that damaged six cars. Wallace said the accident was a result of “the amount of runs and the force of it. All I was trying to do was just some wreck avoidance.”
The Daytona race in July saw two crashes that started at the front of the field because of blocking.
Late in the race, Austin Dillon, in the lead, blocked as Clint Bowyer went low to try pass. They made contact, triggering an 18-car crash.
Dillon notes that blocking is a part of speedway racing.
“You’re going to do it,” he said. “Somebody has got a run at you at the end of the race. There’s not much else you can do. You can give up certain times of the race, but if it’s a last-lap situation you’re going to be held accountable for the actions you make and you’re going to feel bad if you go home not making the block that could win you the race … or you’re going to feel bad if you’re wrecked. I’ve been on both sides of it. It’s speedway racing. That’s all I have to say about it.”
“What was it ’08 when (Tony) Stewart won blocking Regan Smith?” Newman said of the fall 2008 Talladega race where Smith crossed the finish line first but Stewart was given the win because Smith went below the yellow line. “Stewart got the win and blocked Regan and everything was fine. Here we are 11 years later still talking about the same thing. Does it do any good to talk about it?”
“I can’t stand blocking,” Harvick said. “We didn’t use to penalize the blockers very much. It was always the guy that was trying to make the move. So, you know, the guy had a lane … Johnny was trying to win the race. You can’t blame for him for trying to block. I like when the blockers get called. I don’t like it for Johnny Sauter. You’ve got to have a lane to race.”