Saturday, September 2, 2017

Feeling the Heat: Five Questions for Darlington and CTMP

Photo by Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images
By Kristen Schneider

Darlington Raceway embodies the core of NASCAR.

The sun beats down on the pitch-black pavement all day, prepping the surface for the night to come. After sitting all season, the track is ready for its shining moment. 

The anticipation is palpable, rising from fans, drivers, and other members of this sport. Counting down the months, weeks, days to this event has become the norm over decades and decades of fantastic finishes and rough racing. A Labor Day weekend for the ages.

This race never had luster, no refined quality that made it a spectacle. It just simply was, which is why we cling to it.

While the world and the sport keep moving, Darlington Raceway stays frozen in time and reminds us all a chunk of history remains.

Cup drivers gear up to take on The Lady in Black for the Bojangles' Southern 500, while Truck drivers buckle in at the curvy Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for the VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200. Here are Five Questions to pump you up for a fantastic weekend of racing.

Why are there snakes on the championship trophy? NASCAR unveiled the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy on Thursday, and it features a unique design. It includes the track layouts on the cup, with all 24 venues overlapping each other. It's an interesting design that kinda looks like snakes or perhaps spaghetti. However, I like the concept, highlighting that each track matters even if they aren't included in the 10-race playoff. It looks somewhat cluttered, but I think the meaning and representation outweighs the aesthetic.

Who excels in Canada, eh? Oh, Canada, the land of great racing and even better tackles. I'll get right to it--this will not disappoint, just like last year. You remember last year when John Hunter Nemechek beat Cole Custer, which led to an impromptu WWE match. Let's hope (or not) that tensions are this high this time around. That wouldn't be the only thing repeating, either; Nemechek's solid season leads me to believe he'll knock out another victory at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.  

Can Clements ride win momentum into his home state? Jemery Clements's win at Road America was not only a victory for his family-owned team but for underdogs everywhere. What better way to celebrate than to coming home again? Clements is a Spartanburg, SC native. Despite the city's distance from Darlington, South Carolina pride runs deep. It also helps that Clements finished eighth in last year's Xfinity race at The Lady in Black. This season has been one of moving targets for Clements and his crew; earlier this season, the No. 40 Chevrolet racked up consistent results ranging from the mid teens to the high 20s before a slight rough patch. His win last week was a breath of fresh air for Clements, and last year's success at Darlington makes me think it's just getting started.

Are these drivers feeling the heat? As we all know, 16 drivers make up the playoff participants. Three drivers inside the top 16 don't have victories. That may put some pressure on their performance. However, I don't see any monumental shake-ups happening--unless drivers on the outside looking in get their butts in gear. Currently, some names not in the playoffs include Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Let's take a guess who is experiencing the most pressure? Earnhardt is entering a danger zone with no wins; his 2017 season has been quite underwhelming. To a lesser degree, the other drivers mentioned are also having questionable seasons. Jones and Suarez have speed but need a bit extra to get into the winner's circle. Bowyer's rebounding from the past few seasons. As I said before, I don't see any major shake-ups, but they are most definitely feeling the pressure from fans, team members, and themselves. 

How does Darlington fit into the grand scheme of the sport? The Southern 500 weekend is one of the greatest weekends of the year. We all come together to celebrate the sport's history--and putting on a fantastic show is the best way to do that. That's always a guarantee at The Lady in Black. This is important to many drivers due to its history. When we talk about NASCAR's Crown Jewels, four races come to mind: the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500. As the sport goes after a new generation of fans, this race serves as both nostalgic and educational. The phenomenal racing either rewards or punishes those chasing a championship. At the end of the night, there are more angry expressions--but the sole smile is one of the biggest you'll ever see. No matter how a season goes, Darlington Raceway will always serve as a light, guiding NASCAR back to the sport it used to be. 

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