Turns out NASCAR Throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway, an homage to famous racers of the past, included some throwback racing along with it. Just nine cars finished on the lead lap in Sunday's Goodyear 400 -- a total rarely seen since the advent of NASCAR's short sprint, stage racing format adopted in 2017.
In fact, it was the fewest lead-lap cars for any 400-mile race at this track since 1998 as the sport reintroduced the 750-horsepower, low-downforce package here. The results up front turned into a rout as Martin Truex Jr. won the second stage by a whopping 14 seconds, dominating the event by leading 248 of 293 laps. A brief, late charge by Kyle Larson was the only challenge Truex had all day with only one other driver (Kyle Busch) finishing on the same straightaway.
"That's an ass-whupping right there," Truex said after crossing the finish line.
The run was a reminder of Truex's record-setting Coca-Cola 600 performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway, leading 392 of 400 laps in 2016. Shortly thereafter came a flurry of NASCAR changes geared toward making racing at intermediate tracks more exciting. Slower speeds and less need to tap the brakes took driver skill right out of the equation at Darlington.
"My brother-in-law was over last night," Truex said. "And he pretty much told me the reason we're going away from low downforce is all my fault. So I guess I did it again. He'll tell me tonight when I go home, you did it again, you stunk up the show.
"So sorry, not sorry."
Should Truex's snoozer up front force NASCAR into panic mode? Of course not. A hot, slick track at Darlington led to quality racing up-and-down the pylon. Higher speeds meant you could see the cars fighting for control and Darlington stripes collected on the right-hand side. Sometimes, the visual alone of cars fighting for control is exciting enough; a battle for 20th can be just as exciting, if not more so, than what's going on up front.
Truex has established an edge over his competitors they'll have to figure out by September. But history tells us they will! This track hasn't posted a back-to-back winner since Greg Biffle way back in 2005-06.
So let's leave it alone. At other places, like Homestead-Miami Speedway, the lower-horsepower package has led to better racing. But at a historic track like Darlington, an egg-shaped oval that's run NASCAR since 1950, there's something to be said for leaving an old crown jewel in the driver's hands.
"I feel like I can make more of a difference when we're in the low downforce package, especially on these bigger tracks," Truex said. "I've always been a guy that's done a lot of my driving with my right foot and the brake pedal, and the 550 tracks you're pretty much wide open, not all the time, but if you have to lift, usually you're dead in the water.
"It's really hard to make your car do different things when you can't let off the throttle."
Green: William Byron. Truex may have the wins (a series-leading three), but Byron has something every championship contender needs: consistency. Sunday's fourth-place finisher is the first Hendrick Motorsports driver to post 10 straight top-10 results since Jeff Gordon in 2007. It's impressive for a driver with a major off-track distraction, revealing on Mother's Day week his mom will undergo treatment for a brain tumor.
Yellow: Richard Childress Racing. This team has led just 17 laps on the year between Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick. Yet Reddick's 12th-place performance at Darlington, along with stage bonuses, put both these drivers in playoff contention within a 16-driver field loaded with top-tier talent. They're on pace for 30 top-10 finishes, almost double their total from 2020.
Red: Kurt Busch. A wreck not entirely of Busch's making (see: slight contact from Bubba Wallace) left him 35th at Darlington and sitting 28 points behind the final playoff spot. Post-race comments after that fireball showed flashes of the old, fiery Kurt: "Our car isn't doing what it needs to do in traffic and I can't get aggressive." Owner Chip Ganassi, I think this past NASCAR champion is talking to you.
Speeding Ticket: Phil Surgen. The crew chief for Ross Chastain put together a season-best, top-10 car for Darlington. So why, inexplicably, did he stumble to 15th by having his driver make one less pit stop during the final 63 laps of stage one? Old tires let Chastain lead 10 circuits, but by the end of it, he wound up a lap behind, running over two seconds off the leader's pace. What a waste of momentum for a team (one top-10 finish this year) who badly needed it.
We'll forgive any mistakes this week in honor of some awe-inspiring Darlington throwback schemes. The winner for me this weekend was Corey LaJoie, whose 1990 retro edition was a perfect match for Alan Kulwicki's old Zerex Ford all the way down to the pre-race attire.
The NASCAR Fan Vote winner went to Erik Jones, who honored the late John Andretti with Richard Petty Motorsports. Andretti, who died last January of colon cancer, won his second and final Cup race at Martinsville Speedway for Petty's No. 43 in 1999 running this scheme.
A nice runner-up goes to Brandon Brown, whose NASCAR Xfinity Series No. 68 was a near-perfect match for Dale Jarrett's UPS No. 88 that ran on the Cup circuit from 2001-08.