The Southern 500 at Darlington is fast approaching this weekend and it made me wonder, “Is the Southern 500 now the most popular race on the NASCAR circuit?” Darlington is in a very unique situation where it seems that each year since the introduction of the “Throwback Weekend” concept the race keeps gaining popularity.
We know that NASCAR fans are nostalgic and seeing these guys in throwback schemes in both the Xfinity and Cup races is a welcome sight. I love these drivers paying homage to drivers of the past or even to their own older paint schemes. The atmosphere for this race just makes the Southern 500 “feel” different. Drivers, crew members, and even driver’s wives and girlfriends get in on the fun. I think that’s part of what makes this weekend so special now in addition to the throwback schemes. The atmosphere around the entire weekend just feels fun. NASCAR can certainly use a little more “fun” in it’s vocabulary.
It’s interesting that NASCAR really tried to get away from it’s southern roots over the past 25 years but now they are fully embracing the Southern 500 weekend in Darlington. NASCAR quit going to Darlington twice after the 2004 season and moved it’s lone race to earlier in the season for the next 10 years. How could the Southern 500 be ran anytime other than Labor Day weekend many asked? Eventually, NASCAR listened and returned to it’s Labor Day roots in 2015 which launched a fan renaissance at the fabled Lady in Black.
Good marketing by ISC, Darlington Raceway, and NASCAR led to tremendous fan reception during the first race back in it’s old Labor Day spot in 2015. That goes to show that listening to the fans at times can go a long way. For many years fans begged NASCAR to bring the Southern 500 back to it’s rightful spot and it has been a rousing success ever since.
In today’s NASCAR landscape I can objectively say there are a few races that would likely be in the running for most popular race. At one time, Indianapolis was in that running but the novelty there has worn off and it is just another race to many fans. That still leaves a few good contenders.
Obviously the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the season in NASCAR and is always anticipated as it kicks off the year. However, the overall interest in the Daytona 500 has seemingly waned over the past few years just a bit and I think while it’s certainly the most anticipated it’s not the most popular. Factor in many fans feel the winner of the Daytona 500 is often a crap-shoot I think it knocks it down a peg.
At one time I think the answer to this question was the Bristol night race. It was the hardest ticket to acquire in NASCAR and people willed their tickets to family members after their death. The waiting list to get season tickets was several years long and the night race at Bristol was on almost every NASCAR fans bucket list. Then they reconfigured the track and lost a bit of the magic that made Bristol so popular. I will say the past couple of races there have been very good and that interest seems to be picking back up but it’s not back to it’s old status by any means.
I think the races at Martinsville and Talladega are fan favorites each year. But with both tracks having two races each and neither really having one that seems more important than the other it cancels them out in my mind.
That brings me to Darlington. Arguably it’s the hardest and most unique track on the circuit. Old school NASCAR fans appreciate the history and tradition of the speedway and younger fans seem to also enjoy the throwback weekend concept. The past couple of years many fans have began to dress up in their own “old school” attire and Darlington is now very unique in it almost has a Halloween type vibe with so many people dressing up in retro apparel. When you win at Darlington it’s not a fluke either. I think many fans appreciate the difficulty of the track and feel that winning the Southern 500 is special.
There’s something about the Labor Day Southern 500 weekend at Darlington that just makes everything seem right in the NASCAR world. For one week we aren’t talking about the Big 3, the rules packages, or other outside news that takes away from the race. No sir, on Southern 500 weekend we all get to let our hair down and have a little fun reminiscing about days gone by and seeing a lot of drivers run some really cool paint schemes honoring the history of the sport. To me, that helps Darlington have a leg up on the other races on the schedule and truly makes it the most popular race of the season.
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