Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – In a one-of-a-kind NASCAR tradition, the venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway’s “Throwback” race weekend allows the sport’s best of today to honor the greats of yesterday.
With the nod to the sport’s great history, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 (Sunday, September 1, 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) continues to be a must-see event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar for fans and a highly-anticipated race for the competitors – both in the garage with special paint schemes and on the race track with only two regular season races remaining to set the 2019 Playoff field.
Fans have a chance to vote for what they consider the best car at recreating the sport’s historic vibe. Voting continues until Aug. 30 on NASCAR.com and, judging by the effort teams have put into this unique weekend, deciding for whom to back is no easy task.
Among the compelling nods to the past, defending Darlington race winner Brad Keselowski will be steering a black No. 2 Team Penske Ford with a paint scheme that pays tribute to the car’s former driver, NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace.
The famous No. 2 is from Wallace’s 1996 season – a five-win campaign – one of 11 multi-win seasons in Wallace’s celebrated Cup championship career. Keselowski drove a tribute to Wallace’s 1990 car – the No. 27 owned by Raymond Beadle – to his first Southern 500 win a year ago.
The previous season, 2017, in Darlington’s throwback race, Keselowski drove a paint scheme honoring one of Wallace’s “favorites” – a car the Hall of Famer nicknamed “Midnight.” That car was so special to Wallace that he included it in his NASCAR Hall of Fame exhibit in 2012. Wallace drove that car – as both a Pontiac and Ford – in his two winningest seasons – a 10-victory effort in 1993 and an eight-win mark in 1994.
Two-time Darlington winner Denny Hamlin will also be honoring a NASCAR Hall of Famer, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will look like three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip’s former race car. For six years Waltrip drove a No. 11 race car, and while Hamlin concedes Waltrip was often the rival of his favorite driver growing up – Bill Elliott – Hamlin was eager to pay respects to Waltrip this way.
“I grew up a huge Bill Elliott fan and he was one of the toughest competitors, Darrell Waltrip was,’’ Hamlin said at his car’s unveiling in June. “One of my best friends at the time, we grew up watching racing and his favorite driver was Darrell Waltrip. So we would always be sparring back and forth each week whether it be at school or where, talking about his driver versus my driver.
“I’ve grown to really like Darrell and everything he represents, and to give 40 years of his life, not only to racing, but he transformed the sport in so many different ways, that’s just an honor to be able to know him and see him off into the sunset.’’
One of the cars receiving a huge amount of worthy attention and social media buzz in recent weeks is Bubba Wallace’s No. 43 Petty Motorsports Ford, which will carry the livery of the late Adam Petty at Darlington.
Instead of the famed “Petty Blue” normally outfitted on the No. 43, the car will be orange, green, purple and yellow – the paint scheme of Adam Petty’s race-winning car from the 1998 ARCA Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Petty, son of Kyle and grandson of Richard, was killed in May, 2000, at the age of 19 in a practice session accident at New Hampshire Motor Speedway just as his promising young career was taking off.
“It’s truly an honor and top throwback that I’ve been a part of and knowing the history behind the Petty family and Adam’s vision and seeing it come to life at Victory Junction,’’ Wallace said at the unveiling ceremony earlier this month. “I think this really speaks for Adam and what his vision was. I was too young to know him and I feel like we would have had a great time to grow together to bring this organization back to where it needs to be.’’
Three of the four Stewart-Haas Racing Fords will race with the paint schemes of team owner Tony Stewart from when he won his three Cup championships (2002, 2005 and 2011). Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Ford will carry the livery from Stewart’s 2002 season when the soon-to-be-inducted NASCAR Hall of Fame selection won three races and his maiden Cup championship.
SHR driver Daniel Suarez will steer the No. 41 Ford in Stewart’s 2005 championship livery. Stewart won five races and earned 25 top-10 finishes in 36 races that year, a personal best top-10 mark for the champ.
And lastly, veteran Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford will resemble Stewart’s 2011 championship winning car. It was one of the most dramatic title runs in NASCAR history with Stewart – who had been winless in the regular season – hoisting five trophies in the 10-race Playoff, including the Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale winner’s hardware. The three-time champion would retire from fulltime Cup racing five seasons later.
“It’s really cool to see all three of these cars together,’’ Stewart said when the team unveiled the looks earlier this month. “I’ve got all three of these championship cars, but not together, so to see these race at Darlington will be really cool and bring back a lot of memories. It just makes me smile.’’
For other competitors, the opportunity to emulate a paint scheme is truly personal. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, for example, will honor their own racing fathers – NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott on Chase’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and legendary sprint car driver and NASCAR competitor Dave Blaney on Ryan’s No. 12 Penske Racing Ford. Both drivers’ cars will carry the paint schemes from their father’s former rides.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones will also invoke a more personal throwback. His No. 20 Toyota will carry a paint scheme similar to the car he drove in his rookie Late Model season.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will also be fielding a sentimental throwback – his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will carry the same colors and design as one of the off-road trucks he raced before landing his opportunity in NASCAR’s big leagues. Johnson ran the truck – nicknamed “Butch – in several Baja 1000 Trophy Truck class races in 1995, earning the SCORE Rookie of the Year honors as a 20-year old in that division.
In addition to these throwback looks, here are some other highlights to anticipate from Sunday night’s grid:
Kyle Busch’s championship-leading No. 18 Toyota will pay tribute to Bobby Hillin Jr. – the two drivers both having “Snickers” sponsorship; Hillin in 1990 and Busch since 2008.
Paul Menard’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford will carry a tribute to the legendary team’s co-founder Glenn Wood – the NASCAR Hall of Famer having passed away just this January.
Alex Bowman’s No. 88 will feature the late Tim Richmond’s livery. Richmond, who drove a season and a half for Rick Hendrick, won 13 career Cup races and was one of the biggest auto racing stars in the 1980s, competing in both NASCAR and IndyCar.
William Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will carry the colors of Tom Cruise’s race car in the famed “Days of Thunder” motion picture.
Corey LaJoie (Dale Jarrett), David Ragan (David Pearson) and Ryan Preece (Ron Bouchard) are all honoring some of the sport’s most famous winners in their cars.
And Austin Dillon will recognize his team owner and grandfather Richard Childress driving a black-and-gold No. 3 Chevrolet similar to what Childress drove in the late 1970s before another RCR driver, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, famously took over the car.
Not only will fans have a chance to take in some NASCAR history this weekend, but the competitors themselves seem so genuinely connected to the paint schemes they will race, and also eager to check out their competitors’ once-a-season looks as well.
The opening Monster Energy Series practice is at 2:05 p.m. ET on Friday, with qualifying set for 2 p.m. ET on Saturday (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).