NASCAR: Has Darlington’s throwback weekend run its course?

Darlington, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)
Darlington, NASCAR (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images) /

Since 2015, NASCAR has made one of its Darlington Raceway dates a “throwback weekend”, and it quickly became a tradition. After nine years, is it becoming stale?

There are few things that NASCAR fans enjoy more than a good tradition at a classic track on the same date each year. Whether that is the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day Weekend or the Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway the Thursday before the Daytona 500, fans love having certain dates to look forward to every season.

While the two aforementioned traditions have been longstanding, NASCAR’s annual “throwback weekend” is a newer one that has joined the list of the Cup Series’ greatest weekends. Since 2015, NASCAR has held throwback weekend during one of its two Darlington Raceway dates (or its only Darlington date, prior to 2021).

The race’s festivities involve teams and drivers paying homage to the sport’s history by running famous old paint schemes, having drivers dress up in vintage attire, and even having legendary drivers and commentators in the TV booth.

This tradition has created an environment where old fans can be reminded of the “good ol’ days”, while also educating younger, newer fans about NASCAR’s past.

Who could forget when Austin Dillon brought Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s bright silver Goodwrench No. 3 paint scheme back to life in 2018, or when Kyle Larson ran a Mello Yello paint scheme to honor Cole Trickle from Days of Thunder in 2015?

How about when the retiring Jimmie Johnson mixed Earnhardt’s, Richard Petty’s, and his own paint schemes and fonts together to create a true seven-time champion car in 2020?

There have even been some odd, funny, and downright bad throwbacks, too. Look no further than Kurt Busch’s 2019 throwback to his personal 1969 Chevrolet Camaro.

While these kinds of schemes may make you cringe, they still create memories for fans and add to the luster of the weekend.

But there are problems beginning to emerge with NASCAR’s throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway.

Of course, nothing is ever perfect. Even the strongest and most popular of traditions in any sport, country, or culture have their flaws. Throwback weekend is no different. However, a lot of it is self-induced.

Since the dawn of NASCAR’s Next Gen era in 2022, not only is the overall complexion of the car completely different, but so are the paint schemes. How so? The placement of the car numbers on the two side doors.

In an effort to allow for higher sales of sponsorship space on the cars, NASCAR mandated that all teams must move their car numbers forward. As a result, this has negatively impacted Darlington’s tradition.

This new number placement rule makes throwback paint schemes look less authentic. How can you call a scheme a “throwback” if the position and sometimes even the fonts of the car numbers are different than the originals, while all the empty space is either left as an eyesore, or filled with logos that shouldn’t be there?

Then you have teams that don’t participate. Of course, most teams do choose to run throwback schemes, but recently, some teams have elected not to. This season, Richard Childress Racing teammates drivers Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon, plus Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., all ran their “regular” 2023 paint schemes.

While Richard Childress Racing made a funny joke by saying that Busch was throwing it back to his first win for the team at Auto Club Speedway earlier this year (which he effectively was), the team were very clearly just running their regular design with Lucas Oil.

That trio’s unwillingness to run an older NASCAR paint scheme of any kind, much like the number placement rule, takes away from the entire idea of a weekend which is intended to pay respects to the sport’s heritage.

Is the shelf life of Darlington’s NASCAR throwback weekend starting to expire?

Over the last few years, some of NASCAR’s traditions have been altered, or even scrapped altogether.

The Brickyard 400, which was run on the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval from 1994 to 2020, was controversially switched to the infield road course, while the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, which had traditionally been run on Independence Day Weekend, was moved to a late August date to conclude the regular season.

While fans might often disagree, changes to traditions are not always a bad thing. Indianapolis had put up subpar racing for years, and during a time when the appetite for road course races was exploding. And from a competition and drama standpoint, Daytona’s summer date wasn’t in as significant of a spot on the schedule as it is now.

There is no doubt that the throwback weekend tradition is going to need some changes, but it is a very different tradition when compared to those mentioned. Changing its date or its host track isn’t going to solve its problems. Instead, some of the rules, guidelines, and procedures surrounding it need to be altered.

First of all, the aforementioned number placement needs to be changed back to NASCAR’s traditional style for a race: at the center of both doors. This will make the throwback schemes feel more lively, authentic, and real.

Secondly, and more importantly, NASCAR should introduce a mandate that every car that weekend must run a paint scheme from a specific year or era of NASCAR’s choice. For example, all 36 cars would be forced to run a 1985-inspired scheme for next year’s throwback race.

This would prevent teams from running their own designs, getting rid of the excuse that the number of available throwbacks is running thin, and also create an entire 1980s-styled theme for the weekend.

The schemes don’t even have to be classics. Even if they are bad, it will make older fans laugh and think, “I remember how bad that scheme was”, and newer fans laugh and think, “how did they design that back then, and say it looks good?”

Whatever the look, it would either create, or reinvoke, memories for everybody, and it would keep the tradition fresh every year. That is the whole point, right?

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Should NASCAR opt not make any changes moving forward, the problems seen over the past few years will continue to get more prominent, and they will eventually cause throwback weekend to fall victim to irrelevance.