5 burning questions for Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN)

Grown Up Race?

One trend that’s occurring lately are that tracks with aged surfaces are being won by veteran drivers. Just look at Richmond last year. 41-year-old Denny Hamlin ended a then streak of 12 straight winners that were under the age of 30 in his April 2022 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 4th. Then, 46-year old Harvick won the return trip.

Truex had the race won this past spring before a late race caution.

Richmond, was a throwback type of NASCAR race. Darlington has been that way too. While Joey Logano won the spring race last year, it’s not like he’s not a veteran of the sport. He’s been full time since 15 years now and has made over 500 starts in the series. So while he’s in his early 30’s, it’s not like he’s too far off in the experience department as these 40-year-olds.

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 5 of the last 7 races at Darlington have all been won by a driver who’s now in their 40’s. 13 of the last 15 races all saw veterans win. Erik Jones is the lone exception.

Cautions are typically limited and teams have to try out different strategies.

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.

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.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 09: Cars race past the grandstands 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. Entering last year, 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 in 2021 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.

Last year, there were 24 lead changes in this very race and 21 in the Southern 500.

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?

It’s been better.

Does it stay that way and can you find areas to pass on?

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 third 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: 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)

Can Toyota Regain Darlington Glory?

Coming into last season, Toyota had won 7 of the last 10 Darlington races including 4 of the last 6. They were however shutout (0-for-2) last year. Can they recapture that glory this weekend? The thing is, it’s not like they were all that far off last season.

Toyota drivers combined to lead 92 of 293 laps in this very race last May and if not for a late race crash that pretty much took out their entire fleet while running in the top five, they like would have won that day. Then, in the Southern 500, both Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had problems while leading in the closing laps.

Toyota drivers led 213 of 367 laps that night for which combined, they totaled 46.2% (305 of 660) of all laps led here a year ago.

Which leads me to wonder if they’ll dominate this weekend. They enter having scored two straight wins in back-to-back weeks via two different drivers (Truex Jr and Hamlin). They have four wins already this season with Bell and Reddick also having won in 2023. Can they capture a fifth?

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 10: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, enters his car in the garage areaduring practice for the NASCAR Cup Series United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 10, 2023 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Can Larson Finally Win Darlington?

Kyle Larson is starting to rack up race wins. The thing is, while he’s been close, he’s never won on the Lady in Black before. Does that change on Sunday?

The two-time 2023 victor, was 36th and 12th last year. But I also can’t ignore three straight runner-up’s prior and two third place finishes in a three race span even before that. He led 45 laps in 2016, 124 laps in 2017, 284 in 2018, 44 in 2019, 156 in the 2021 Southern 500 and 30 in this race last year. All he’s missing is a win…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s