Darlington will put NASCAR's low-downforce aero package to the test, which could become a staple at races in 2016 if proved successful this weekend.
This is not your father’s Darlington.
Don’t be fooled by the throwback paint schemes that harken to a bygone era when the Southern 500 was an unbroken tradition at the Lady in Black.
This Southern 500 is about NASCAR’s future — not its past.
With the return of the low downforce aerodynamic package and a more suitable tire from Goodyear, Sunday’s Bojangles Southern 500 could offer fans a preview of the 2016 Sprint Cup rules packages.
“There’s a lot on the line for that race,” said NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
“We’ll sit down with all our OEM partners, the race teams, talk through all the data we saw from all the races that we’ve run — including the 2015 package — and take a look at what’s the best path forward, not necessarily one package for the entire year, but look at what works on specific racetracks and then go quickly to work and announce something here in the short term.”
When Darlington Raceway first confirmed the return of the Southern 500 to its original Labor Day date after a 12-year hiatus, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
The sultry Pee Dee summers contribute to a hot, slick racing surface which has aged gracefully since it was repaved in 2008. Competitors must first race the track — and then each other.
Enjoy the retro liveries now, because as the race unfolds, most of these creative paint schemes will be marred by “Darlington stripes.”
But before the first throwback design debuted to celebrate a late summer Southern 500, the focus for Darlington switched to a low downforce aero package. A sampling of the configuration at Kentucky earned rave reviews particularly from the competitors.
Some not convinced
Still, pundits cautioned not to embrace the package just yet. Some noted that Kentucky’s worn out asphalt typically encourages solid racing for an intermediate track. Others pointed to the potential of a Brad Keselowski blowout before miscues thwarted his early dominant performance (where he led half of the first 124 circuits).
Yet as O’Donnell said, there is a lot riding on Sunday’s race. NASCAR, race teams and Goodyear have worked overtime to develop a competitive product for the race track. However, unlike the hype surrounding the high drag aero configuration entering Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, the early Darlington buzz has shifted from competition to throwback themes — including cars, hats and t-shirts — which is curious, considering the industry-wide preparation for this event.
Goodyear had not one but two tire tests at Darlington prior to this weekend. The genesis for this weekend’s tire combination dates back to a Charlotte test with the low downforce last December — and a subsequent test at CMS in March. At the first Darlington test in early June, only the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team played with the low downforce package. Goodyear returned on June 30 for the confirmation test with three Cup champions — Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski — running the low downforce configuration.
Along with Goodyear, both teams and the sanctioning body have data from running this package (sans tires developed specifically for the configuration) at Kentucky to transfer this weekend’s event.
Putting on a show
It’s understandable why the industry remains cautiously optimistic. NASCAR has been fooled by its data before.
And while this is not your father’s Darlington, if the competitors are as exhilarated as was the case at Kentucky the Track Too Tough to Tame could once again live up to its name for generations to come.
With less downforce — created by a 3.5-inch spoiler (reduced from eight inches last year) and a 1.75-inch shorter front splitter overhang and 13-inch smaller (25-inch) radiator pan from this season’s package, Carl Edwards expects “the cars able to race around each other and to put more of the speed into the drivers hands.”
“With this aero package we are taking to Darlington, I’m really excited about the opportunity to slide the car around, and really manage the balance and the tires and the setup,” Edwards said. “I’m excited about it.
“The way we’ve been running lately and the way this package drove at Kentucky, I mean to me, Darlington is going to be like Christmas in September.”