Denny Hamlin knows how the narrative around Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway is going to play out.
“I thought from a statistics standpoint, they’re going to say it’s not a good race because Truex dominated, but it was a driver’s racetrack today,” Hamlin said after the checker.
He wasn’t wrong. Drivers had to put in a hard day’s work in the Goodyear 400, and the race was everything a NASCAR event should be. The outcome was largely in the hands of the drivers. Car control mattered because of the aero package (more on that in a minute). Tire management mattered. Focus too, because, the wall was just inches away from delivering the famed ‘Darlington Stripe’.
It’s not uncommon to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to a race. Fans aren’t afraid to tag NASCAR officials like Steve O’Donnell and president Steve Phelps on social media to let them know what they think – sometimes in quite colorful terms. Talk radio fills many hours with listener phone calls and opinions.
But there was plenty of discussion around Darlington because the aero package had changed. For the first time in years, NASCAR had teams revert to the high horsepower, low downforce package. A package that some drivers say makes them feel like they can make more of a difference.
Naturally, some liked it, and some didn’t. Most of the complaints centered around single-file racing, how many cars were on the lead lap, and how big a lead Martin Truex Jr. had. Those folks were looking at the wrong things.
High horsepower at Darlington, in the heat of the day, was the right call. Stop for a moment, and zoom the camera lens out. Take it off the one car that it’s focused on and look at the bigger picture. Look at drivers wrestling their race cars, and see how the pace started to drop off throughout a run and how survival mode took over. Buy a scanner and listen to drivers complain about their cars while their crew chief figured out a pit strategy to maximize fresh tires.
“It was slick,” said Hamlin. “This package was really slick, and I knew before the day started that the cars were going to feel terrible, just feel absolutely terrible – even when you’re good. That was the case most of the time; even when I was catching Truex Jr. there at the end of the first stage, the car was all over the place bad.
“That’s the high horsepower, low downforce. Just sliding all over the place. It was a lot of fun to drive. You had to work for all 400 miles at this racetrack.”
Truex whipped the field. It happens. Teams work their asses off to dominate races, and even those events that are deemed some of the best in the sport likely had one driver who was head and shoulders above the rest. It just so happens this aero package is where Truex has made a living in recent years.
“I love low downforce. That’s all I’m going to say,” Truex said. “I love it. I feel like, especially this year, all three races we won have been with this package, so obviously the guys and girls at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) are doing a great job. But for me, you look at ’16, ’17, ’18, low downforce, we very well could have won all three championships. We were right there in all three and won a lot of races.
“Big fan of this kind of racing. Really enjoy it. (Sunday) was a heck of a challenge. I did come on the radio one time and say I’m really surprised how slow it feels and how slick it is. I was leading and driving away from the field, and I’m like, ‘this thing is sliding everywhere’. It’s pretty amazing just how much this track changes year to year, every time we come back. It gets more difficult with the wear of the pavement.
“I would say that we probably have less downforce now than we’ve ever had here because some of the rules changes since ’17 or ’18. We probably have less downforce than we had then, even with building new cars and working on them to get them better and better and better. Really, really just a fun day, a big challenge, and just got to give it up to my guys for giving me a great car and doing all the little things right.”
Want to argue about passing? Again, zoom out. There is an art to racing at Darlington, a 1.366-mile oval with two unique ends of the racetrack. Drivers work hard to set up passes there. There needs to be some form of give-and-take in the corners to avoid collisions. Things are tight at The Lady in Black.
While Truex was leading 248 of 293 laps, Kyle Busch was methodically coming through the field after cording a right-rear tire and spinning on lap 22.
“There was a lot of slipping and sliding,” Busch said. “The grip level was so low that I think everybody was really, really tentative and just trying to hang on most of the day, so it was hard to get alongside somebody or race alongside somebody. Guys did do that, and all it would do is bring in everybody behind you and get people to pass you. Just a lot of sliding.”
Man, low downforce, high horsepower is the package we need to be racing every weekend. Despite some bad luck and losing laps in the garage, this was the most fun I’ve had driving a Cup car in a while. Our #LenniePond throwback scheme was on point! Off to Dover next 💪 pic.twitter.com/7cemfhmwRC
— Josh Bilicki (@joshbilicki) May 10, 2021
Having 88 passes for the lead and continuous three-wide battles are unrealistic. So too are 15-car pileups every week. Are those things entertaining? Maybe. But that doesn’t always equal good racing. Cars five-wide going into Turn 1 off a restart is a fleeting moment. It isn’t going to last an entire race. Driver talent, engineering, and team execution do. Racing is art, and like any great art piece, know what to look for to appreciate it.
While the so-called “good old days” were before my time, the highlights from those races seem to lack the variables that folks point to for what makes a good race. Friendly reminder, most of the races back in the day had leaders winning by multiple laps over second. But as the saying goes, don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
If there are cars on track, there will be a debate over what’s good racing. It seems like a good idea to embrace and appreciate what those holding the steering wheel are saying, though.
“It was fun,” Kyle Larson said. “It definitely took a handful of laps to get used to. I was going down the straightaway, and then everybody was lifting a lot sooner than I thought I needed to, and so I adjusted to them and backed my entry up, and I felt like I got a little bit better loading into the corners then. And then the exit was sliding around a lot.
“A lot of fun. I don’t remember honestly how the high downforce was because I didn’t get to run here last year, but it was fun to be here during the day, my first daytime Cup race here, so it was cool to do that, and yeah, had a lot of fun slipping and sliding.”