NASCAR returned the Bojangles Southern 500 to Labor Day weekend and the return brought out a full-scale wave of nostalgia from the prerace to the telecast and also the MRN call, and it showed in the obviously stout crowd. Darlington lost the Rebel 500 because of declining attendances but that region clearly would not let Darlington go, and with the Southern 500 on labor Day weekend again one can sense a defiant gratitude in fans in that area.
We take a look at the good and the bad of this Throwback Southern 500 -
The Good - The reverence paid to racing's past was pretty obvious from the start of the weekend as Rex White, Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, and Ned Jarrett were among the sport's legends getting the spotlight. Given how life works, it added poignancy that Buddy Baker is no longer with us and David Pearson is still recovering from a stroke, though I am mildly irked that short shrift seemed to be paid to the late Harry Hyde and also Tim Richmond, both 1986 Southern 500 champs - would it have been too much to ask that Chase Elliott's #25 be painted in Folgers red?
The nostalgia extended to the telecast and some of the neat throwback graphics as well as the return of Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett; MRN's throwback music intros were also a great touch.
The ultimate throwback was in the varied color schemes, especially such obscure schemes as the #11 sporting First National City Travelers Checks white on yellow, the 1978 scheme for Cale Yarborough here sported by Denny Hamlin's JGR #11. The early-80s Valvoline colors for Dale Junior, the Mello Yello #42 for Kyle Larson, and Richard Petty's retro-1972 STP colors were also standout schemes.
It showed that NASCAR should be doing this retro effort more often, notably at Talladega in October.
The Bad - Darlington in its heyday - and the heyday of Richard, David, Cale, the Allisons, Parsons, Baker, Waltrip, Elliott, Earnhardt, and Tim Richmond - was hard to pass on, and NASCAR's low downforce setup and softer tires worked as well as one could objectively expect - that is, the combination didn't make for better racing. What won the race for Carl Edwards was what has won almost all the time during the sport's Dead Lane Era - a fast pitstop effectively locked Edwards into the lead because once the green flew the leader was immune thanks to aeropush. Some of the pursuit between Brad Keselowski, who looked unpassable all night, and Kevin Harvick did get skittish as Harvick got alongside twice, but it showed both how tough Darlington is and also how bad a combo low downforce and this tire package is that Harvick tried twice and that was it - any thoughts of a 1979 Waltrip-Petty epic or even a 1980 Earnhardt-Pearson showdown went out the window.
Now I say this yet also note lower downforce is a better combo for Darlington. That the 5&5 Rule ultimately doesn't work is true enough, but for Darlington one can actually make a case that the cars are better off looser than on other tracks; the same can be said for Kentucky after the race there. The issue remains making the cars stable enough and making dirty air want to aid in passing instead of impede it.
That Rusty Wallace kept trying to sell this low downforce package on the MRN call I found a little irksome. That we've heard drivers who say they prefer this package is true enough, but looking at the big picture it isn't cut-and-dried; on the contrary we've had more than enough evidence to say the low downforce package isn't effective overall. Again it appears it can work on certain tracks; most others there has been precious little evidence in its defense.
The Postscript - Talk about fall from grace - Chevrolet has been usurped from 2015's crown by Joe Gibbs Toyotas and Penske Fords, which once again monopolized the top finishers. The top Chevys were Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, who survived a spinout and salvaged a top-ten; the same was true of Kyle Busch. What makes the fall of Chevrolet all the more graphic is the decline of Hendrick Motorsports, which has - astonishingly - been routed by its biggest customer team in Stewart-Haas Racing. One has to wonder what the factory dynamic has become with Chevy; that a customer team has routed Hendrick is by no stretch a negative for the sport, though the rumored switch of Martin Truex's #78 to Toyota reflects poorly on the Bowtie Brigade's myopia toward competitive depth.
Speaking of factory dynamics Ford's collapse was again illustrated by how much better Aric Almirola's #43 is compared to the Roush brigade, though neither organization has the muscle of the Penske squad.
There was another less flattering display of retro in this Southern 500 - in 1977 Janet Guthrie wrecked; well, 38 years later Danica Patrick wrecked.
So it was for the Southern 500 of 2015. Throwback celebration was something to behold, and a good burst of positivity to the sport.