Something just seems very right when it comes to the start of the NASCAR playoffs. The crisp fall air is almost here, even though the calendar has yet to say so, and the season comes back to tradition to start the playoff run.
It just feels right to start the quest for a championship right at a place that has so much historic value to the sport, and added to that value just a year ago.
In a year where NASCAR, and the world, stood still, this track became a calling to get back to some sort of familiarity. Two races, one week, at a track that consistently has been tough, challenging, and unforgiving. Darlington was the first track that hosted NASCAR when racing resumed, and even without having a soul in the grandstands minus the flagman, it felt right, and it just added to the mystique of the track. It became the first track to host three points-paying events on the schedule in several years, with each having a different identity.
Now, it’s the second year of the playoffs beginning at the “Lady in Black” and it feels even more different.
For one, this is not the traditional “Throwback” weekend that it has been since Darlington was reunited with it’s Labor Day weekend tradition back in 2015. Some teams are electing to run retro looks, but it feels odd when the weekend was moved to Mother’s Day weekend, even with the request of the drivers. It took away a bit of the personality this race usually has.
But, it is still Darlington. It is still the same egg-shaped oval that has caused so much grief over the years. It is tough on the drivers, the teams, the cars, and everyone at the track.
It barely gets tamed when the checkered flag waves, since someone still takes home a trophy, but even then they are worn out and tired.
Yet, is it the same track this time around?
That large black area from the entrance to the exit of turn two may say otherwise. Historically, this track is known to be harmful to tires, or skin if someone did what Dale Jr. spoke of years ago. Even after a slight rework in the mid-2000’s, the character of the track remained. But, at that point it was not as abrasive as Atlanta ended up being through this season.
Now, prominently, an entire corner literally has the “Lady in Black” attire.
That alone changes how this track will be run. With turns 3 and 4 being much slower, that grip now in the second turn becomes the key component in a fast lap. So much speed from the apex onto the backstretch now increases with the newer asphalt. And, since the fastest way around is right next to the wall, that speed is increased even more. There’s already little room for error at this place, and now that timeframe has shrank even more.
This is the exact reason Darlington is, and likely always will be, the top track in my book on the circuit. The historic value, the driving difficulty, the fan base; it all comes together to make an experience that is different, but welcoming.
Now, it signals the beginning of the championship fight. A sweet 16 in the field don the yellow spoilers and name plates, while another 24 try to take the focus away with their efforts to be a spoiler or an upset.
It’s playoff time, and that means dusting off one of the most unique and challenging tracks on the circuit. Ten races to decide a champion begins now.