We watched to the end of the Darlington race, and that didn't happen last year.
It wasn’t the same sort of giddy hope-for-the-future feeling I had after attending the first NASCAR Camping World truck series dirt-track race at Eldora Speedway, but I’ll admit I came away with a comparable warm-and-fuzzy feeling after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
My first visit to Darlington was memorable – I flew to Charlotte, rented a Pontiac with warped front brake discs, drove it to Hendrick Motorsports, and waited downstairs while Ray Evernham, then at his peak as crew chief for Jeff Gordon, reamed the troops at a meeting at the top of the stairs.
Evernham, still pissed about something – I never asked – said, “Let’s go! Can I drive? What’s wrong with these front brakes?”
And I heard a lot about our destination, Darlington Raceway, from a man who prides himself on being a historian when it comes to NASCAR. We got to the track early, and Ray asked the guard at the gate if he could make a couple of laps. We drove around slowly, wordlessly, looking at the thick walls that had never lost a fight. “This is a wonderful place,” Evernham said.
Die of old age
NASCAR seems to have a habit of allowing older tracks like North Wilksboro or Rockingham die a slow, natural death, and many of us thought that would be the case with Darlington, after it lost its traditional Labor Day date.
But look what happened: Darlington got Labor Day back, and to sweeten the pot, there was a delightful “throwback” theme that had period-piece paint jobs on a lot of the cars – and those teams who didn’t participate, likely because their sponsors didn’t get it, should be ashamed – as well as some neat old-new team uniforms and some effective gimmicks, like Kyle Larson running the Mello Yello paint scheme, and wearing a curly Kyle Petty wig.
NBC really bought in, too, from the old peacock logo to the announcing crew for the first part of the race – Ned Jarrett, Ken Squier and Dale Jarrett. Wonderful. Inspired. And executed with just the right tone – not too precious.
So we watched the race. And watched, and watched, and dozed, and woke up when we heard, “….spinning toward the apron!” Which we heard a lot. The low-downforce configuration combined with Darlington’s sandpaper surface made for interesting, if not exactly competitive, racing. I would have liked to have seen it go green to the end, and see who could survive on down-to-the-cord tires, but the late caution leveled the field.
Bottom line: A good time was had by all, though still, midnight? Really? That’s a lot of time to commit to, both in person and at home. But we made it to Carl Edwards’ back flip, and just beyond. If this was Darlington, 2014, that wouldn’t have happened.