The top 5 drivers along with an upset Dale Earnhardt Jr. give post-race comments.
RELATED: Answers on multiple packages " Darlington's throwback gallery Perhaps somewhat overshadowed by all the talk about Darlington Raceway 's "throwback" platform this weekend is the return of NASCAR's low downforce package, incorporating aerodynamic changes first unveiled at Kentucky Speedway earlier this year. Three significant changes have been incorporated into the Sprint Cup Series package for Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 (7 p.m. ET, NBC/Live Extra, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR) that differs from the package used in the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky in July. The Darlington spoiler will be 3-1/2 inches (instead of 3 inches) and the splitter will feature a 1/4-inch leading edge. Also, the tires to be used at Darlington were built specifically for this particular low downforce package. The build was determined after a one-day test in July with drivers Matt Kenseth ( Joe Gibbs Racing ), Brad Keselowski ( Team Penske ) and Tony Stewart ( Stewart-Haas Racing ). There is no change in the size of the splitter extension panel, which was set at 25 inches for the Kentucky event. Driver feedback, for the most part, was positive following Kentucky. But Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Kenseth, noted that differences in the two tracks and other considerations would have an impact this weekend at Darlington. "It's going to be a lot different … because we haven't run at Darlington at this time of year in a while," he said. "… Darlington is unique anyway -- you run right around the fence, which makes it difficult to pass, but I thought the aero package was good and we were able to work on the car and find some speed and nothing negative with it." Fellow Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards said he's looking forward to putting the low downforce package back on the track. "The way we've been running lately and the way this package drove at Kentucky, I mean to me Darlington is going to be like Christmas in September. I'm pumped," he said. So About Those Tires The tire combination selected by Goodyear will feature the same left-side tire code used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year with a right-side tire code that was run at Kentucky. "We had a very minimal change in grip at Kentucky from what we raced there in 2014," Greg Stucker, Director of Race Tire Sales for Goodyear, told SiriusXM NASCAR on Wednesday. "Just a little bit more grip on the left-side tire, and the results of that particular event I think were very, very positive. "I think the low-downforce package showed a lot of potential. I think a lot of people walked out of there thinking that was a really nice package. It certainly reduced grip, put a lot of control back into the drivers' hands. Did a lot of things that I think people were looking for." Stucker said a "considerable amount of grip" has been added to the Darlington tires, with hopefully will offset some of the aerodynamic grip lost with the aero changes on the cars. "The reduction in downforce going from the standard 2015 (package) to the low-downforce package increased lap times by about three-quarters of a second, 7/10ths to 8/10ths, something like that," he said. "That much slower. When we put the grippier setup on, it gave us about that same 7/10ths to 8/10ths back." A December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2014 actually provided some of the initial data for the low downforce tire build. "We went back there again in March of this year to confirm that tire package for a low-downforce setup that at the time was thought to be run in the (Sprint) All-Star Race," Stucker said. "So we had a lot of work done in a similar configuration. Historically Darlington and Charlotte are similar. We run the same right-side tire there, slightly different left. But it gave us a real good starting point for where to go back to Darlington so we did that." Riding a Blue Streak The teams and track officials aren't the only ones on board with this year's "throwback" theme for the Bojangles' Southern 500 . Even Goodyear is going retro, returning to a logo design used in the 1970s. At that time, the logos and markings on each tire were hand-painted -- that won't be the case this weekend -- "but they'll definitely have the looks of what we ran back in the '70s," Stucker said. "We had not yet gone to Eagle on our race tires. They were still called Blue Streak Specials." The yellow Goodyear lettering seen on today's Goodyear Eagle tires came into use in 1992.
Presenting NASCAR content from around the web Editor's note: On Wednesday at noon ET, "High 5" will present some of the best NASCAR-related content from around the web. 1. The forgotten few Fans, drivers and most everyone in the NASCAR industry is looking forward to this weekend's Sprint Cup showdown at Darlington Raceway . With the Southern 500 returning to its iconic Labor Day weekend time slot and teams rolling out awesome throwback schemes every week, the anticipation for an old-school weekend of racing is growing each day. RELATED: See all Darlington's throwback paint schemes But what schemes did drivers leave out? In an article on ESPN.com, Ryan McGee selects the top 11 schemes that would have been brilliant choices for this weekend. Among them? The pink No. K-2 of Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte 's No. 18 rides that featured assortments of bad movies. Takes a strong man to pull that color off! Click here to read the entire list of forgotten schemes. 2. We all scream -- or dance -- for ice cream ! People get real serious about their dessert. Especially these football players from Rutgers University. In the team's final preseason training camp session, the offensive and defensive players competed against once another in an epic dance-off for .... ice cream . Hey, who doesn't like their sweet treats? Kyle Busch would probably agree with that. 3. Spongebob hits the stage Coming to a Broadway theater near you: The Spongebob Musicial . Who lives in a pineapple under the sea — and soon, on Broadway? http://t.co/2SoNeQxEPm — Mashable (@mashable) September 1, 2015 Yup, Mr. Squarepants himself is leaving the comforts of Bikini Bottom for "The Great White Way." And he's in good company, too. The musical production incorporates the talents of several big-name artists, including John Legend, Steven Tyler, Cyndi Lauper and David Bowie. It's a good thing NASCAR nabbed some time with Spongebob & Co. prior to his rising stardom. 4. Who let the dogs out? The El Paso Chihuahuas, Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, had a bit of a hairy situation on Saturday during the team's Wiener Schnitzel race (Yes, that's a thing -- and no, it wasn't with chihuahuas for whatever reason). One of the canine contestants escaped from the confines of the competition and took a Victory Lap around the field. Read the entire story on the dog's awesome adventure here . Once the laughter died down, we couldn't help but notice the similarities between this pup's "Freedom!" moment and a certain rabbit situation that took place at Bristol Motor Speedway not too long ago. RELATED: Truck practice red-flagged for rabbit on track 5. Most valuable players NASCAR is a team sport. It takes an entire race shop to build, perfect and send race cars to the track each week -- and a heck of a driver/crew combination to take the checkered. But in an article from Sport's Illustrated's "Beyond the Flag," Christopher Olmstead looks at the stars of race teams -- the drivers -- and chooses the Most Valuable Players from each squad this season. And it's some tough competition: Dale Earnhardt Jr ., while the fan favorite, doesn't even make the cut. Click here to see all the picks.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (August 31, 2015) – Below is a look at some of the top statistical performers at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina going into the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on September 6 (7 p.m. ET on NBC). DARLINGTON-SPECIFIC STATISTICS Greg Biffle (No. 16 Ortho Ford) · Two wins, three top fives, six top 10s; two poles · Average finish of 12.800, eighth-best · Average Running Position of 10.597, fifth-best · Driver Rating of 105.7, fifth-best · 296 Fastest Laps Run, sixth-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.175, fifth-fastest · 2642 Laps in the Top 15 (71.7), seventh-most · 326 Quality Passes, second-most Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota) · One win, two top fives, six top 10s · Average finish of 13.600, 11th-best · Average Running Position of 8.995, third-best · Driver Rating of 106.1, fourth-best · 236 Fastest Laps Run, third-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.348, third-fastest · 3134 Laps in the Top 15 (85.1), third-most · 374 Quality Passes, series-most Dale Earnhardt Jr (No. 88 Valvoline Chevrolet) · Four top fives, nine top 10s · Average finish of 11.200, sixth-best · Average Running Position of 11.404, seventh-best · Driver Rating of 94.3, eighth-best · 110 Fastest Laps Run, eighth-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.954, ninth-fastest · 2650 Laps in the Top 15 (71.9), sixth-most · 312 Quality Passes, fourth-most Carl Edwards (No. 19 ARRIS Toyota) · Three top fives, seven top 10s · Average finish of 13.100, ninth-best · Average Running Position of 13.732, 11th-best · Driver Rating of 91.0, 12th-best · 151 Fastest Laps Run, fifth-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.807, 12th-fastest · 2262 Laps in the Top 15 (61.4), 12th-most · 287 Quality Passes, eighth-most Jeff Gordon (No. 24 3M Chevrolet) · Seven wins, 19 top fives, 23 top 10s; three poles · Average finish of 7. 400 , second-best · Average Running Position of 7.629, series-best · Driver Rating of 112.7, series-best · 262 Fastest Laps Run, 12th-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.593, series-fastest · 3356 Laps in the Top 15 (91.1), series-most · 314 Quality Passes, third-most Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Sport Clips Toyota) · One win, four top fives, seven top 10s · Average finish of 6.889, series-best · Average Running Position of 8.644, second-best · Driver Rating of 107.1, second-best · 186 Fastest Laps Run, 13th-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.315, fourth-fastest · 2849 Laps in the Top 15 (86.0), second-most · 303 Quality Passes, sixth-most Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Jimmy John's/ Budweiser Chevrolet) · One win, four top fives, seven top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 16.300, 12th-best · Average Running Position of 14.772, 12th-best · Driver Rating of 93.1, 10th-best · 167 Fastest Laps Run, second-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.885, 10th-fastest · 2531 Laps in the Top 15 (68.7), ninth-most · 267 Quality Passes, 10th-most Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) · Three wins, nine top fives, 12 top 10s · Average finish of 8.800, third-best · Average Running Position of 9.992, fourth-best · Driver Rating of 106.8, third-best · 256 Fastest Laps Run, 11th-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.443, second-fastest · 2789 Laps in the Top 15 (75.7), fourth-most · 291 Quality Passes, seventh-most Kasey Kahne (No. 5 HendrickRideAlong.com Chevrolet) · Three top fives, four top 10s; four poles · Average finish of 17.500, 13th-best · Average Running Position of 10.665, sixth-best · Driver Rating of 97.9, sixth-best · 230 Fastest Laps Run, series-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.069, seventh-fastest · 2597 Laps in the Top 15 (70.5), eighth-most · 233 Quality Passes, 13th-most Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Dollar General Toyota) · One win, three top fives, ten top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 10.100, fourth-best · Average Running Position of 13.487, 10th-best · Driver Rating of 93.2, ninth-best · 123 Fastest Laps Run, 10th-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.814, 11th-fastest · 2382 Laps in the Top 15 (64.7), 11th-most · 264 Quality Passes, 11th-most Ryan Newman (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) · Seven top fives, 11 top 10s; one pole · Average finish of 11.300, seventh-best · Average Running Position of 11.409, eighth-best · Driver Rating of 95.8, seventh-best · 64 Fastest Laps Run, seventh-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 160.086, sixth-fastest · 2778 Laps in the Top 15 (75.4), fifth-most · 259 Quality Passes, 12th-most Tony Stewart (No. 14 Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1 Chevrolet) · Four top fives, 12 top 10s · Average finish of 10.900, fifth-best · Average Running Position of 14.805, 13th-best · Driver Rating of 88.1, 13th-best · 105 Fastest Laps Run, ninth-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.791, 13th-fastest · 2153 Laps in the Top 15 (58.4), 13th-most · 311 Quality Passes, fifth-most Martin Truex Jr (No. 78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet) · One top five, three top 10s · Average finish of 13.111, 10th-best · Average Running Position of 13.116, ninth-best · Driver Rating of 92.1, 11th-best · 127 Fastest Laps Run, fourth-best · Average Green Flag Speed of 159.992, eighth-fastest · 2153 Laps in the Top 15 (65.0), 10th-most · 278 Quality Passes, ninth-most The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2015 Top 10 at D arlington Raceway Rank Driver Races Poles Wins Top Fives Top 10s DNFs Average Finish Driver Rating 1 Kevin Harvick 18 1 1 4 7 1 17 93.1 2 Joey Logano 6 0 0 0 2 1 23 77.9 3 Dale Earnhardt Jr 20 0 0 4 9 1 14.3 94.3 4 Brad Keselowski 6 0 0 1 2 0 14.3 84.7 5 Jimmie Johnson 16 0 3 9 12 1 8.4 106.8 6 Martin Truex Jr 9 0 0 1 3 0 13.1 92.1 7 Matt Kenseth 21 1 1 3 10 1 16 93.2 8 Kurt Busch 18 2 0 2 5 1 17.9 81.6 9 Denny Hamlin 9 0 1 4 7 0 6.9 107.1 10 Jamie McMurray 14 1 0 3 5 1 16.1 82.6 * – Based on last 10 races at Darlington Raceway (2005 – 2014). Darlington Three Year Average Finishes Of Drivers Currently 17th – 30th In The Standings Points Pos. Driver 3 Yr. Average Finish (2012 - 2014) 17 Aric Almirola 21.0 18 Kasey Kahne 20.7 19 Greg Biffle 10.0 20 Austin Dillon 11.0 21 Kyle Larson 8.0 22 Danica Patrick 27.0 23 Casey Mears 25.7 24 AJ Allmendinger 24.0 25 David Ragan 33.0 26 Sam Hornish Jr . * 0.0 27 Tony Stewart 9.0 28 Trevor Bayne * 0.0 29 Ricky Stenhouse Jr . 19.0 30 Justin Allgaier 23.0 * Sam Hornish Jr . and Trevor Bayne have not made starts in the last three seasons at Darlington in the NSCS. Statistical Advance At Darlington Raceway : History · Darlington Raceway was built as a 1.25-mile paved superspeedway in 1949-1950. · Darlington Raceway hosted the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first on asphalt on Sept. 4, 1950 – 75 cars competed in the event - Curtis Turner won the pole at 82.034 mph, and the race was won by Johnny Mantz (Plymouth, 75.250 mph, 6:38:40) . · The track was re-measured to 1.375 miles in 1953. · The track was re-configured to 1.366 miles following the spring race in 1970. · The track was repaved in 1995. · The 2005 race was the first Saturday night race at Darlington. · The track was repaved again prior to the 2008 season. Starts · There have been 111 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington Raceway . The 1.366-mile track has hosted the fifth most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points paying races. · 709 drivers have competed in at least one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway ; 428 in more than one. · NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty leads the series in starts at Darlington with 65. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 34 starts; followed by Tony Stewart with 22. · Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in average starting position at Darlington with a 6.824. · Jeff Gordon (6.8), Ryan Newman (8.6) and Kasey Kahne (9.1) are the only active three drivers with an average starting position in the top 10. · 125 different drivers have made NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career debut at Darlington Raceway . Poles · Curtis Turner won the inaugural Coors Light Pole Award at Darlington in 1950 in an Oldsmobile with a speed of 82.034 mph. · 48 drivers have Coors Light poles at Darlington, led by David Pearson with 12. Kasey Kahne leads all active drivers with four. · Nine drivers have won consecutive Coors Light poles at Darlington. Kasey Kahne is the only active driver with consecutive Coors Light poles (2005-2006). · David Pearson holds the record for most consecutive poles at Darlington with five (1975 - 1977). · Youngest Darlington pole winner: Kurt Busch (09/02/2001 – 23 years, 0 months, 29 days). · Oldest Darlington pole winner: David Pearson (09/06/1982 – 47 years, 8 months, 15 days). · Eight drivers have posted their first career NASCAR Sprint Cup pole at Darlington Raceway : Cotton Owens (1957), Fred Lorenzen (1961), Bill Elliott (1981), Ken Schrader (1987), John Andretti (1995), Kurt Busch (2001), Elliott Sadler (2003) and Clint Bowyer (2007). Wins · 47 different drivers have won at Darlington Raceway , led by David Pearson with 10. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins; followed by his HMS teammate Jimmie Johnson with three. · Six drivers have posted their first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at Darlington Raceway : Johnny Mantz (1950), Nelson Stacy (1961), Larry Frank (1962), Terry Labonte (1980), Lake Speed (1988) and Regan Smith (2011). · Youngest Darlington winner: Kyle Busch (05/10/2008 – 23 years, 0 months, 8 days). · Oldest Darlington winner: Harry Gant (09/01/1991 – 51 years, 7 months, 22 days). · Hendrick Motorsports has the most wins at Darlington in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with 14. Manufacturer Wins Chevrolet 41 Ford 28 Mercury 10 Oldsmobile 6 Dodge 5 Pontiac 5 Buick 4 Plymouth 4 Hudson 3 Toyota 3 American Motors Company 2 · 11 different manufacturers have won in the NSCS at Darlington; led by Chevrolet with 41 victories; followed by Ford with 28 and Toyota has three. · 20 of the 111 (18.02%) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington have been won from the Coors Light pole; the most recent was Kevin Harvick in last season’s event. · NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson has won from the pole four times at Darlington – the series’ most. · The Coors Light pole starting position is the most proficient starting position in the field, producing more winners (20) than any other starting position at Darlington. The outside front row (second-place) has produced the second-most wins (17). Wins · 37 of the 111 (33.3%) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington have been won from the front row: 20 from first-place and 17 from second-place. · 96 of the 111 (86.4%) NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Darlington have been won from a top-10 starting position. · Six of the 111 (5.4%) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Darlington have been won from a starting position outside the top 20. · The deepest in the field that a race winner has started at Darlington is 43rd by Johnny Mantz in 1950 – the inaugural NSCS event. · 13 drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series have posted consecutive wins at Darlington; Dale Earnhardt (1989-1990) and Jeff Gordon (1995-1996) are tied for the series-most in consecutive wins at Darlington with three each. · All seven active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners at Darlington Raceway participated in at least two or more races before visiting Victory Lane. Among active drivers, Kyle Busch won at Darlington in the fewest previous appearances (three). · Matt Kenseth competed at Darlington Raceway 19 times before winning last season; the longest span of any the six active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners. · Tony Stewart leads the series among active drivers with the most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Darlington without visiting Victory Lane at 22. Additional Finishing Position Stats · Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty are tied for the series most runner-up finishes at Darlington with eight each. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in second-place finishes at Darlington with four. · Richard Petty leads the series in top-five finishes at Darlington with 25. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 19; followed by Jimmie Johnson with nine. · Bill Elliott leads the series in top-10 finishes at Darlington with 35. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 23; followed by Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart with 12 each. · Denny Hamlin leads all active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in average finishing position at Darlington with a 6.889. · Three active NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers have an average finish in the top 10 at Darlington: Denny Hamlin (6.8), Kyle Larson (8.0) and Jimmie Johnson (8.4). Track/Event Specific Stats · Since the advent of electronic scoring the closest margin of victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Darlington Raceway is the (03/16/2003) race won by Ricky Craven with a MOV of 0.002 second over Kurt Busch . The MOV is tied with the 2011 Talladega race as the closest finish in the NSCS since the inception using electronic timing and scoring. · There have been four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races resulting in a green-white-checkered finish at Darlington Raceway : 2005 (367/370), 2011 (367/370), 2012 (367/368) and 2014 (367/374). Additional Finishing Position Stats · Eight of the 111 races at Darlington Raceway have been shortened du
RELATED: Darlington throwback paint schemes Darlington's throwback theme for Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 already is a hit with racers and fans alike, bringing out the creativity in the industry with special paint schemes and providing opportunities to honor great racers who have gone before. But what if along with those throwback paint schemes, like Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s Valvoline No. 88 nod to Cale Yarborough and Clint Bowyer 's No. 15 salute to recently passed Buddy Baker, we could actually bring back the NASCAR legends themselves for this one race. Who would you pick? Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman could fill the whole 43-car field with legendary race car drivers. He won seven premier series championships with Richard Petty and an eighth with Terry Labonte , competing against some of the most storied personalities in the sport. "Damn, I've seen 'em all. I don't know …" Inman said of trying to choose just one driver to place in a throwback ride. "Earnhardt Sr. was good there you know." Bowyer, too, wished Earnhardt Sr. could join the field at the 2015 Southern 500. "Obviously for me it would be Earnhardt for me because we lost him, you know. That's first and foremost. Anyone you ever lost is who you'd want to bring back." But Bowyer said bringing back the man with the most wins (47) and most poles (47) at Darlington, David Pearson, would be the ultimate measuring stick for today's Sprint Cup drivers. "Pearson … man, what a character and just a genuine badass and an aggressive and successful racer. Anytime you have someone who's successful in the sport you make a living in, you want to be able to see what he had, what he's made of and see how you stack up." Eddie Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing , fondly remembers those days with Pearson driving the No. 21 Purolator Mercury. Pearson drove for the Woods Brothers from 1972-79 and won seven times at "The Lady in Black" during that span with two runner-up finishes. "That was his place," Wood said of Pearson's dominance at the South Carolina track. "The hotter the better for David. He liked it HOT, so we'd have to run in the daytime for him." RELATED: Drivers, officials, fans pumped for throwback weekend Inman attributed some of Pearson's success at the track also called "Too Tough To Tame" to his ability to take care of his equipment. This was extra difficult, as Inman recalled, because the track promoter sometimes would put bear's grease on the track between Saturday's practice and Monday's race. Blue laws prevented NASCAR from running on Sundays in South Carolina then. "Pearson just had a knack for taking care of the car. He always had a good car too," Inman said. "At least most of the time. For Darlington we put bars under the fenders. You knew you were gonna hit the wall, so we just put bars in and just bolted them to the right side. But the guard rail wasn't smooth like it is now. And they'll wear the sides out this time with the low downforce package." Aside from the drivers who racked up at the track, including Richard Petty and Buck Baker, Inman said Parnelli Jones' performance at Darlington had lasting impact on the racing there. "Parnelli Jones came out here in maybe 1956 or 57 was the first one to really use the high bank to what it is now. I remember him just sliding up to the fence. He didn't finish, of course." Jones crashed at Darlington in both 1956 and 1957. He finished 50th in a field of 70 cars in 1956 in the No. 1 Torrance Motors Ford and 34th in the No. 11 Ford owned by Oscar Maples in 1957. In 1958, Jones did finish the Southern 500 running, coming in 18th in a field of 48 cars during his last race there. The list of great performances at Darlington is nothing short of epic. Just the list of winners sends any racing fan on a long ride down memory lane: Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Fred Lorenzen, Bobby Allison, Fonty Flock, Neil Bonnett, Benny Parsons, Harry Gant. How would they stack up against Jeff Gordon , the active driver with the most wins at Darlington (seven)? "Herb Thomas and Buck Baker were both really good ," Inman added to the list. "But Herb had it as good as anyone in those old Hudson Hornets that Marshall Teague built, and I think he won in a Chevrolet, too." Now that would be an entirely different kind of throwback idea. Run at Darlington again in restored Chevrolets, Fords, Hornets, Plymouths, Pontiacs and Dodges.
RELATED: Chase Grid " Chase Bubble Watch Kyle Larson spent three intense days at Homestead-Miami Speedway last week logging laps, studying data and working on what could potentially be the most important homework assignment of his career. So far. Knowing that the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion will be crowned at the Nov. 22 season-finale at the 1.5-mile speedway, the test session -- a two-day Goodyear tire test followed by a one-day open test -- was an essential learning tool. Thing is, Larson, last year's Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year, still has to earn a spot in the 16-driver Chase field to even be among the title discussion by the time the series heads back to the South Florida track to race. And time's running out. Only two chances remain to grab one of the playoff spots -- this week at Darlingon and next week at Richmond. Because Larson is not currently ranked among the top-16 in the points standings, his only chance of earning a Chase berth is winning a race and making his first career trip to a Sprint Cup Victory Lane. It's crunch time, and Larson knows it. "We know we have to win," Larson said. "And still right now, we have to find some more speed to compete for a win. We've been close a couple times this year just based on strategies. "It could happen even with just two races left. We tested at Richmond earlier in the year and it went well. I always run just outside top-10 at Richmond and I thought I learned a lot (at the test). So we've got good stuff for Richmond, and Darlington is a track I like a lot." Having his season's fate decided in such dramatic fashion wasn't exactly what Larson or others predicted. Larson was widely considered a shoe-in for a title run -- at least a playoff berth -- after an impressive rookie season. A natural talent from the same kind of open-wheel background as three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart and four-time champ Jeff Gordon , Larson has emerged as one of the sport's new young headliners and is widely regarded as future championship material. Now the 23-year-old must seal the deal. "I'm definitely surprised it's come down to this," Larson said while waiting out a rain delay last week at Homestead. "The way both Jamie (McMurray, CGR teammate) and I ended last year, we thought we'd be a contender this year. "We've been fast but just haven't had any luck at all this year and that's been really frustrating. When we have speed in the cars we run in top-10. At Bristol, for example, we blew two front tires. Last year we'd run way worse but have better finishes." WATCH: Rough night for Larson at Bristol There's no denying it's been a no-luck, hard-knock kind of season despite the team's best efforts. While Chip Ganassi Racing 's other Chevrolet driven by McMurray is in promising position to earn a Chase position based on points, it's been a tough road for the team's second-year driver. Larson's third place at Dover in May is his best finish of the season and only top-five showing after a rookie year when he was regularly mixing it up at the front of the field, posting five top-three finishes, including three runner-ups. He's had only two top-10s in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet since Dover this spring, and his four DNFs equal the number he had all of last year. But there is encouraging news to consider, and Larson has not conceded a thing. His No. 42 Chevrolet was easily one of the best cars in the Chase last year with six top-10 finishes in the final 10 races, including a streak of five consecutive as the postseason kicked in. MORE: Larson's Darlington 'Days of Thunder' throwback scheme Should Larson earn a playoff chance, he feels the team should be strong down the stretch. "Last year I thought we were running better at this point in the season than we are now," Larson said. "But a lot of the tracks in the Chase I really enjoy running at and I think that's part of why we had success in the Chase. "I think we'll be good again this year in the Chase. It's just right now, we're not in it." He added quickly: "That could change." MORE: Who's most likely to win way into Chase?
RELATED: Complete Darlington schedule " Darlington's throwback schemes Officials with Darlington Raceway and International Speedway Corp., which owns the South Carolina facility, should be congratulated for their efforts leading into this weekend's Bojangles' Southern 500 .The retro-themed weekend has been the talk of NASCAR in recent months, garnering more attention than any event outside of the season-opening Daytona 500 back in February. Copious amounts of content -- print, Internet and broadcast -- have been devoted to this weekend's race. And rightfully so. The fact that the program coincides with the return of the historic event to the Labor Day weekend is icing on the cake. When the seed for the throwback plan was planted, there was no indication that this year's race would be return to its long-held September date -- the 2015 schedule wasn't officially announced until August of '14, and track officials weren't privy to potential changes much earlier than that. After a one-year dalliance with a November stop in 2004, the 500 had a nine-year run on Mother's Day weekend in May where it did well. Last year's race was held in April in yet another schedule shuffle. But the Southern 500 in April or May is not the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. "Having the extra time from last April until Labor Day this year has been really helpful because truly it's just a small group of people that have put this together," Chip Wile, President of Darlington Raceway , said recently. "And it's been a learning process but it's been really fun." The platform is the kickoff of what Wile describes as a five-year plan to revitalize the track’s lone NASCAR race weekend, which includes Saturday's XFINITY Series race as well as Sunday's Sprint Cup event. For decades, the Southern 500 was considered one of the most difficult races on the series' circuit. The track's unusual shape -- a 1.336-mile layout with distinct differences between Turns 1-2 and 3-4 -- favors no particular driving style. Winners are often determined by a combination of skill and good fortune. The oppressive heat and humidity that hung over the track nearly every September race weekend took its toll as well -- the list of drivers that required relief at some point is a lengthy one. That difficulty, combined with the fact that the track is the oldest paved speedway to host NASCAR events (it opened in 1950), earned Darlington a lofty position in NASCAR's early years. The race is still considered one of NASCAR's crown jewel events -- along with the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 . But the praise for this weekend's program shouldn't stop with track officials. Teams have bought into the idea wholeheartedly, developing amazing throwback paint schemes, many of which honor some of the sport's legendary drivers and organizations. Sponsors and various stakeholders, such as Goodyear, have gotten on board. Broadcast teams will incorporate the throwback platform into their programming. It's been a win-win situation for everyone involved. It also couldn't have come at a better time. Wile and his group wanted to make his track's lone Sprint Cup race stand out above the crowd, and it certainly seems as if that has been accomplished. Darlington isn't the only track that's been able to develop an idea that resonates with those in the sport as well as those in the stands. Not as large in scope but certainly just as entertaining, the annual night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in August generates interest not only for the competition on the track, but its pre-race show is perhaps the most popular on the schedule. Anchoring the program are drivers entering the track to music they have chosen and the Motor Racing Outreach effort that has children of drivers and other personnel singing the National Anthem (an idea generated by former track president Jeff Byrd). The product on the track remains of primary importance, and fortunately that's been a constant at Darlington -- the racing there rarely fails to excite and entertain. And if there's a bit of a history lesson included, so much the better. "I really love the history and the heritage of the sport," former championship-winning crew chief Ray Evernham said. "I think it's really important if we're going to bring new fans, younger fans, that demographic, they've got to understand why. When you start telling some of the history and the tradition, and showing that, I think it gets people really interested. "Now they understand why people are so passionate about it or why somebody will come sit in the same seat for 50 years or why we work so hard on these cars. I think it's really important that we go back and show the steps that it took to get here in order to engage new fans." And there's no better place or time than Darlington Raceway . On Labor Day weekend.
RELATED: CMS plans '24-day salute' for Gordon There will be a slightly different look to the frontstretch when NASCAR teams travel to Charlotte Motor Speedway in October for Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series events. Track engineers and turf specialists began the process this week of installing a 6-foot wide "transition barrier" between the pavement and the grass area that separates the racing surface from pit road. The border, which consists of a sand/soil mix with rye grass and will be the same level as the asphalt, is expected to decrease the likelihood of damage to a car should it travel off the racing surface and onto the infield grass. "The goal is to create something similar to a fairway to rough transition you might see on a golf course," Scott Cooper, Vice President of Communications for CMS, told NASCAR.com. "If a driver gets pinched down, he or she should have a good opportunity to get back on the track without suffering too much damage to the car." Current ride-height rules have Sprint Cup cars much lower than in previous years, and damage to splitters and other front-end pieces of the cars often occur after nothing more than a spin through the grass at some facilities. Crews will put down approximately 140 tons of the sand/soil mix to complete the project. Only the grass transition barrier will be lower – the infield grass beyond the 6-foot area where sponsor and track logos normally appear -- will be unchanged. "Hopefully, this will create another 'Pass in the Grass' opportunity," Cooper said, referencing Dale Earnhardt's brief run through the infield grass en route to winning the series' 1997 All-Star Race. Contact between Earnhardt and Bill Elliott as the two battled for the lead sent Earnhardt's blue-and-yellow No. 3 briefly off-track; Earnhardt maintained control of his car and remained the leader as he shot back up onto the racing surface. CMS will host the Bank of America Sprint Cup Series race Saturday, Oct. 10. It is the first race of the Contender Round in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup . The Drive for the Cure 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series race is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 9.
RELATED: Dale Jr. proud of JRM teams Josh Berry will make his first NASCAR XFINITY Series start of 2015 for JR Motorsports on Sept. 11 at Richmond International Raceway . Berry will pilot the No. 88 Chevrolet in the Virginia529 College Savings 250 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The No. 88 car will carry sponsorship from Speedco for the race. "We're happy to be able to put Josh in our XFINITY car again at a track he has some laps on to allow him to show what he can do," JRM co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr . said in a release provided by the team. "I felt like he performed well last year in the two races he was able to run. He's really elevated himself as a driver this year, winning at multiple tracks in the late model to earn this opportunity and I expect him to make the most of it." Berry made two XFINITY Series starts last season for JRM at Iowa (in August) and the season finale at Homestead. His best finish was a 12th-place result at Iowa. "I'm just really excited to have another opportunity to move up," Berry said in a team release. "We've had a really good season so far in the late model car, and I'm really excited to get to do another XFINITY race, especially at a race track I've been to before. I ran in the XFINITY Series twice last year and wasn't sure I would have the opportunity to do it again, but luckily Speedco came on board for this race. I'm really thankful for their support and for the opportunity Dale, Kelley, L.W. (Miller) and everyone at JRM are giving me." Berry runs a late model for JRM and has totaled nine wins this season. The No. 88 car is currently 10th in the owner standings in the XFINITY Series. Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick , Kasey Kahne and Ben Rhodes all have piloted the No. 88 car this season. Harvick has driven the team to its two wins and will be behind the wheel this weekend at Darlington in the VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Meet Todd, Official NASCAR Fan Council member of the month Name: Todd Current City: Fayetteville, North Carolina Member since: 2010 Getting to know Todd Q. Why did you join the Official NASCAR Fan Council? "I am very passionate about NASCAR and have been a fan for over 30 years. I joined the NASCAR Fan Council to have a voice and help improve this sport in any way I can." Q. What comes to mind when you think of NASCAR? What's your favorite NASCAR memory? "I am a fan of several sports and I think that NASCAR, by far, is the best sport in the world. It is filled with passionate fans and drivers. I like the fact that drivers, whether good or bad, show their passion and emotions and NASCAR allows them to. "I have attended many races over the years and have many great memories but my greatest memory was my very first Daytona 500 in 2007. It is a day I will never forget. I have continued to go every year since." Q: Do you have a favorite in any of the following categories? Driver: " Austin Dillon " Track: "Daytona" Memorabilia: "I have a ton of memorabilia but my two favorite items are a Dale Jarrett autographed diecast and an autographed Austin Dillon hat (I met him last year). My picture even made the NASCAR website from that one." Q: If you could go to any NASCAR race/track, where would you go? "A night race at Bristol" Q: What do you like to do in your free time? "I like to hunt, fish, watch NASCAR racing, and spend time with my family. We love to travel." Q: Tell us about your family. Do you have children and/or pets? "I am happily married and have two children." Q: What's your dream car? "I would have to say a Corvette." From all of us at NASCAR, we thank todd for His continued support and look forward to hearing from him in 2015! Look for Todd on the Official NASCAR Fan Council page on NASCAR.COM.