NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN)

Has Throwback Weekend Ran Its Course?

When NASCAR brought out the Throwback weekend idea for the 2015 Southern 500, it was a massive hit. To be able to witness the older paint schemes on the newer cars under the lights at Darlington made a ton of sense. They kept it around through the 2020 race, but when NASCAR awarded Darlington a second scheduled race weekend again in 2021, they elected to also move the throwback weekend to that one.

See, the Southern 500 was also now a playoff race and that’s prime advertising for these race cars. I have to think that playoff sponsors/paint schemes cost a little more because of the value. So, why would a company want to waste money by having maybe a completely different color scheme on that said race car for such a marquee race in a prime spot on the schedule?

Wouldn’t there be better value to have the car open to any business and their colors for a Labor Day weekend race in primetime. Especially a playoff opener?

So, they shifted the throwback weekend to May. Now in the second year of this new plan, is it starting to become redundant?

Most of the best throwback paint schemes have been used. Now, we’re reaching here. Plus, even with “eras” supposed to be used for a theme, teams have ignored it and gone completely rogue. Some just ignore it all together and don’t even use a throwback scheme.

Which leads me back to the main question, has this great idea ran its course?

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 09: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Camping World Throwback Chevrolet, Cody Ware, driver of the #51 NURTEC ODT Throwback Chevrolet, Erik Jones, driver of the #43 STP Chevrolet, James Davison, driver of the #15 HOPEGIVERS Throwback Chevrolet, and Anthony Alfredo, driver of the #38 We Care Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 09, 2021 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Will Sunday Be a Better Race Than Recent Years?

It’s no secret, the Cup Series’ races at Darlington in recent years have been the worst ones on the track. The Xfinity Series has consistently put on a far better show. There were only 18 lead changes in 501 miles of racing in the Southern 500 the last two years. By comparison, the Xfinity Series has had nearly the same amount (17, 13, 19) in 200 fewer miles of action.

So, why the difference?

Well for starters, it’s because the Xfinity Series has been racing at Darlington in the heat of the day and the Cup races mostly at night. The Cup race last year during this weekend was all run during the day and featured 19 lead changes in 400 miles. The Southern 500 had 101 more miles but 1 less lead change too.

On top of that, the NXS races have been run with more horsepower and less downforce. Combine an abrasive track with these other two factors and you can see why the NXS competition has just been better.

Well, the Cup Series has adapted. They ran with less downforce and more horsepower last year which also likely played a factor between the May and September races. Now, they have a new car. How much of a role will that play?

Dover was a treacherous track on Monday and with Darlington being even tougher, I’d say this could be another wild race this weekend.

Dover had 1,511 green flag passes. By comparison, they had 659 last year. Darlington can become the old Darlington again this weekend which would serve guys that have dirt racing backgrounds.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 09: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 09, 2021 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Grown Up Race?

The streak ended last month. Beginning with Bubba Wallace’s victory in last year’s playoff race at Talladega and through the March COTA race, we saw 12 straight NASCAR Cup Series races won by a driver under the age of 30.

Then, 3 of the last 4 have all been won by drivers under 30 again….

41 year old Denny Hamlin ended that streak the first weekend of April with his Richmond win. He topped 46 year old Kevin Harvick by .552-seconds in the Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond (VA) Raceway. 41 year old Martin Truex Jr. was third.

Richmond, was a throwback type of NASCAR race. Maybe on throwback weekend, Darlington will look similar too.

“I think I talked to radio about that before the race. They said, This is going to be a veteran day,” Hamlin said that day. “Yeah, it’s tough to really draw a parallel to that. But when you have so many laps at a track like this that is so technical, even though it doesn’t look technical, it is, usually with track knowledge, it matters at this track.

“(Kevin) Harvick has run more laps than I have around here. But Truex, myself, Harvick, we have a ton around here. When our car is not performing how we need it to perform, we can do things to manipulate it, to maximize lap time to at least put us in the game.

“I think being a veteran of the sport probably helps in those instances.”

Darlington, like Richmond, is an older surface where you have to tip toe around the track rather than go all out every lap. While I get these types of races aren’t for everybody, this is what makes racing fun.

There’s a reason to why the last 5 races at Darlington have all been won by a driver who’s now in their 40’s. 12 of the last 13 races all saw veterans win.

Cautions are typically limited and teams have to try out different strategies. Just look at how Richmond was run. In the second stage, six cars were going to try to make it on one stop. Everyone else did it on two. While Joe Gibbs Racing had the top two cars, they were on different strategies.

It paid off when everyone pit on Lap 233 during the caution for the second stage break. Then, the first two early cautions in the final stage to go along with the different philosophies in the final 100 laps left us with what I thought was a thrilling show.

There were stops basically every 30 or so laps with two different cycles. The tire fall off made this fun.

We had 4 green flag pit cycles in Richmond which was almost equal to the amount that we had in the first 6 races combined (5) at that point of the year.

This wasn’t the typical new school race where drivers are all bunched up in the end and can just plow over cars to get by. It was spread out and technical. You had to tip toe around the track because the harder you push, the slower you go.

At tracks like Daytona, Fontana, Vegas and Atlanta, you didn’t get that separation. Phoenix had too many cautions in the end to do the same. COTA was a road course. Richmond and now likely Darlington, will see this vintage style of racing which is why qualifying doesn’t matter as much. In quals, you get 2 laps going all out. In the race, you can’t push 100% each lap.

Darlington is always that way. You have varying strategies on when to pit. Fresh tires can gain a ton of ground and speed on those going around the track on old sets of Goodyear’s. However, eventually, the new tires fade and those on old tires will pit for new and gain the advantage. Whomever can work this game the best, usually wins and usually it’s a veteran who manages his tires over the run to limit the fall off.

Can Hamlin, Truex And Harvick Get Seasons Going?

To further the Richmond point above, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. combined to take 3 of the top 4 finishing positions that day. In the case of Darlington, they’ve each combined to win the last 5 races on the Lady in Black to go along with 7 of the last 9 overall.

Hamlin, has 4 top 5’s in his last 5 Darlington starts and won that day in Richmond. In fact, he has 11 top 6 finishes overall on the South Carolina oval in his last 15 tries.

Harvick, has 11 straight top 10’s on the track. He’s never finished worse than 9th since he’s joined Stewart-Haas Racing. Furthermore, out of those 11 top 10’s, 9 of them were in the top 5 at that.

He had 63 laps led in 16 prior Darlington starts with RCR. With SHR, he’s led 729 laps in 11 races.

In the case of Truex Jr., he won this race last year after leading 248 laps, was fourth in the Southern 500 in September to go along with leading 196 laps but was caught up in a crash while battling for the lead with 14 to go in the 2020 Southern 500 too.

However…Harvick has 1 top 5 finish all season. Hamlin has 1 top 10 all year. Truex has no finishes better than 4th in 2022. They have to show up and contend this weekend.

Championship 4 Preview?

Oddly enough, Darlington has been a precursor for what the Championship 4 has looked like lately. In this race last year, 3 of the 5 spots in the top five marched to the final round in Phoenix. In the Southern 500, 3 of the top 4 spots were represented in the Championship 4 too. For 2020, it was 3-11-13-20 for the Championship 4 drivers that year in the Southern 500, but remember, Chase Elliott crashed while leading with 14 to go. It could have been at least a pair in the top four then. For the two May races, they went 4-5-13-18 in Race 1 and 1-4-6-38 in Race 2. Only reason why it wasn’t all in the top six is because Elliott again was crashed while running second on the final restart.

For 2018 and again in 2019, they put 2 Championship 4 cars in the top 4 while in 2017 it was 2-8-9-15.

With how Darlington is now a drivers track still, that’s why you’re seeing the cream rise to the top.

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