Labor Day weekend 2017 at Darlington Raceway was the best of times … and then it got better or, depending on where your personal driver allegiances lie, it got worse.
Either way, it was definitely eventful.
Let’s begin by mentioning one of the most interesting features of any NASCAR race: the outfits.
A speedway fashion statement generally consists of a T-shirt, cap or both, emblazoned with the name, car number and sponsor of the wearer’s driver of choice.
It’s generally just your normal, mainstream racing apparel, although I do have to tell you that as we were attempting to persuade overnight guests to exit the infield the morning after a particularly memorable Mother’s Day weekend at the track “Too Tough To Tame” a few years back, I was greeted at one RV door by a lovely grandmotherly lady sporting a tank top and a pair of Dale Jr. boxer shorts. That one’s kind of permanently burned into my brain.
Most of the drivers seem to truly enjoy Darlington’s throwback theme; they definitely embrace it. It’s like NASCAR Halloween, and it’s great to see competitors, who become so focused and fierce when they strap into those cars, sporting vintage fire suits and big ‘80s sunglasses with mustaches to match, laughing together and slapping one another on the back before the race. I can’t help but think that the very atmosphere itself is a throwback to the golden age of racing.
The Oak Ridge Boys, who have a slew of country hits on their extensive musical resume, did a wonderful rendition of the National Anthem. Plus, in dim light, if you squinted your eyes just right, I guess they could have looked like boys to some people …
And then there were the cars. Oh, those cars. Brad Keselowski honoring Rusty Wallace in the No. 2 Miller Genuine Draft Ford Fusion. Clint Bowyer honoring Mark Martin in the Carolina Ford Dealers No. 14 Ford Fusion. Chase Elliott honoring his dad, “Awesome Bill,” in the No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet. And, kind of hilariously, Dale Earnhardt Jr. honoring himself, in his previous XFINITY Series car, the No. 88 Nationwide Chevy.
Throwback weekend served up one headline you probably through you’d never see: DANICA PATRICK WINS! Well, it’s sort of true. Patrick’s No. 10 Ford Fusion, sporting a red-and-blue look honoring the Robert Yates Racing car that Dale Jarrett drove to a championship in 1999, was voted by fans as the best throwback paint scheme of the weekend.
My personal favorite moment of Darlington’s annual throwback weekend is the one where legendary announcers Ken Squier and “Gentleman Ned” Jarrett take over the broadcast duties, along with Ned’s kid, Dale Jarrett. It’s so lovely and nostalgic, and truly takes you back in time, but this year, there was a twist. For some unknown but highly amusing reason, Squier repeatedly referred to up-and-coming driver Erik Jones as “that Jones boy.”
“That Jones boy,” by the way, has earned three consecutive top five finishes so far this season, and became the first rookie to finish in the top five at Darlington since Kasey Kahne did it back in 2004.
Speaking of finishes, Darlington’s was a barnburner. Just when we were settling in to celebrate another easy victory for Martin Truex Jr. — who has become a real fan favorite, and deservedly so — he “kissed” the wall. Denny Hamlin then somehow managed to recover from missing pit road, going on to pass Truex and win the race, his second victory at the notoriously cantankerous “Lady in Black.” (Hamlin also won the XFINITY Series race on Saturday night, sweeping the weekend.)
“All of it was awesome,” Hamlin said after the race. “I mean, to win in the Flying 11 and to win the XFINITY race, to win the Cup race, both in very exciting fashion was a great feeling … We had great strategy, a fast car, and it all just worked out in the end. I was hoping it would. Otherwise I would have looked pretty silly after the race trying to explain why we lost.”
So to summarize, the 2017 Southern 500 weekend served up a fabulous top five list including the newly-named “Flying 11” — that was one I hadn’t heard before — a kinda-sorta win by Danica Patrick, mullet haircuts, a miss-and-kiss racing sequence that led to an exciting finish, and “that Jones boy.”
Oh, Darlington. You never disappoint.