DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — If Kyle Busch needed extra motivation for the Southern 500, he’s gotten it from Ernie Irvan — or, more specifically, Irvan’s paint scheme from 20 years ago.
Busch, NASCAR’s points leader, is itching to drive a Skittles-themed red car like Irvan used in 1998 when Darlington Raceway honors seven decades of stock car racing history at its latest throwback weekend.
“Seems like when we put a cool paint scheme on the car, we run better,” Busch smiled.
He’ll have plenty of competition on the track and in the garage as teams throughout the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series dress out for Darlington’s latest celebration of the sport’s deep, rich past of characters and seat-of-the-pants driving success.
For those unfamiliar with Southern 500 weekend, think Old Timers’ Day at 180 mph.
Busch has loved coming to Darlington the past few years knowing he’ll see things he may have only glimpsed in grainy race footage or photo albums. Racers and crews break out vintage clothes and modified looks with young guns like Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney sporting mustaches as part of their throwback weekend.
“I think a lot of guys really get into it,” Busch said.
And rightly so, said past NASCAR champion Dale Jarrett, who was honored by Busch’s paint scheme in the 2017 race.
“Fans like it, competitors like it,” Jarrett said. “We’ve got a whole, new era of race drivers who are very successful out there, but for them to recognize where the sport came from and why they are able to the things they’re able to do this day and time. It’s important to them and for them to jump in be willing participants.”
Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 will be trimmed out Sunday night like Rusty Wallace’s old Miller Genuine Draft car. Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 will honor Dale Jarrett’s father, Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, with the racing great’s blue color scheme on the Ford Galaxie Jarrett used to win the 1965 Southern 500. And William Byron will run in a No. 24 painted like Jeff Gordon’s memorable, multicolor rainbow racer.
“We have a lot of fun with it,” Keselowski said.
Darlington Raceway has some things to show off, too . Since the last time the series was run there, the track underwent some $7 million in improvements. Track leaders widened and modernized long-out-of-date seats and got rid of dilapidated metal bleachers — most of which looked as if they might be as old as the 69-year-old track.
There will also be a wall of honor in the front and back stretches of banners commemorating all 49 drivers who won Darlington races. “We think it’s something unique to our track,” Darlington president Kerry Tharp said.
Despite the sideshows, the centerpiece is the racing as NASCAR’s top series returns after its final week off of the season. There are two races left in the regular season — Indianapolis is the final event before the playoffs — with many drivers scrambling to lock up a win that will get them into the 16-driver chase for a title.
Kevin Harvick leads the series with seven victories with Busch right behind at six. Last year’s NASCAR champion, Martin Truex Jr., is next with four and Bowyer follows with two. Five drivers have one victory apiece and the group of those winless this late in the season include former champions — and regular playoff participants — Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski and Matt Kenseth. Keselowski has clinched a playoff spot, although he’d love to enter the postseason off the high of a checkered flag.
Jarrett, who won three times at Darlington, believes fans love the close racing on the quirky, egg-shaped track and will keep coming back for these NASCAR celebrations.
“No matter how big the sport gets or what big cities we go to, it’s important to be at places like Darlington,” he said.