Monday, September 7, 2015

Time machine

This was old NASCAR, on a humid night in South Carolina that hinted even the weather gods had been sucked into the Wayback Machine. Race cars slipped. Race cars slid. Race cars bent themselves into odd shapes against the concrete of the cranky old Lady, rubbed against its walls so often another nearly-forgotten relic proudly made a reappearance.

Ladies and gentlemen ... say hello again to the Darlington Stripe.

It's the place where the paint's been scraped away on the right side of a stock car running the high line at Darlington, aka the Lady in Black. And it was a sight for sore eyes.

With the Southern 500 returning to its rightful place on Labor Day weekend, NASCAR decided to embrace everything that made its product great after long years of running away from it. That it was a resounding success might have been understating it.

According to Ryan McGee of, officials judged the grandstands were "nearly full," a refreshing look these days when waning interest and attendance reminds NASCAR every week that the glory days have passed. And that refreshing look happened because, yes, there was a throwback date and throwback paint schemes and old-timers posing in front of those paint schemes they made famous. But mostly, the look happened because NASCAR finally gave the racing back to the racers.

A low-downforce setup with softer compound tires made the cars as hard to wrestle around Darlington as they were back in the day, and both the fans and the drivers loved it. Unquestionably, the computer models and other technological hoodoo of the last 30 years have produced better machinery, but they've also produced a lot of Tournament of Roses parades. And largely that's because the engineers and crews have gotten so good at what they do that driving a Cup car these days is more about keeping the thing pointed straight than anything else.

The guys with the best engineers, crew chiefs and R&D usually prevail, in this new NASCAR. And that's not what brings out the fans. Best Laptop Wins, after all, doesn't exactly get the blood pumping.

But last night, throwback weekend included throwback racing, and, surprise, surprise, it was some of the most entertaining racing of the season. The guys who couldn't handle it crashed, same as the old days. The guys who could went to the front. And in the end, it was a guy (Carl Edwards) who had to come from two laps back who won it.

Look. NASCAR is never going back to Rockingham or North Wilkesboro or any of the other hard-scrabble places where it made its bones. It's a national brand now, and it's going to follow strategies that will keep it a national brand. That's why you won't see it ever again trotting out the Confederate flag, because you don't broaden your fan base by clinging to the discredited relics of a wanna-be nation founded on the principle of human bondage.

But there is the past, and there is the past. And here's hoping Brian France and the rest of them recognize that the part of the past that we saw on display Sunday night still works, and is the best way forward for the sport.

They gave it back to the drivers last night, and the magic came back with it. Thus endeth the lesson.  

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