DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — The Southern 500 will have a familiar feel, and not just because the race has returned to Labor Day weekend.
Most of the grid for Sprint Cup’s next race on Sept. 6 will have throwback paint schemes on their cars, recalling the days when greats like David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt dominated the track “Too Tough To Tame.”
At the last Southern 500 in April 2014, Darlington Raceway executives announced a campaign to tap in the track’s long history as NASCAR's first superspeedway. Track President Chip Wile said NASCAR teams were eager to participate, bringing out famous machines like the blue-yellow combo No. 17 Hall-of-Famer Pearson ran for Holman Moody four decades ago.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drive a blue-and-white Valvoline scheme from the early 1980s run by Yarborough, Neil Bonnett and Buddy Baker. Kyle Larson's No. 42 is dressed up like the classic, Mello Yellow car featured in the NASCAR inspired film, Days of Thunder.
In all, 29 teams will have a throwback design when the Southern 500 returns to the holiday weekend spot it held from 1950 through 2003.
“We weren’t really sure what the buy in was going to be from the industry,” Wile said. “It’s been incredible because it’s a unique concept and people believe in,” Wile said.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has some big racing shoes to live up to in running the No. 17 scheme of Pearson, the track’s all-time leader with 10 Darlington victories.
“You want to run well, especially with a paint scheme like this and David having won here 10 times,” Stenhouse said. “There’s some pressure there, unveiling something new.”
Denny Hamlin’s Toyota Camry will show the colors of Yarborough’s No. 11 run from 40 years ago.
Earnhardt came out to Darlington earlier this month to show off the car and do a promotional video with Yarborough, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame who won five Southern 500s—second all-time only to the six of Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt’s car owner, Rick Hendrick, has led teams to 14 win at Darlington.
“I really love the history of the sport and really enjoy paint schemes from the past,” said Earnhardt, who loves racing memorabilia. “To be able to run a car inspired by many of my racing idols is pretty special.”
Not all throwbacks will honor a past car. Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will feature a logo that sponsor Lowe's used in the 1940s and 1950s. Danica Patrick's car pays homage to Darlington's nickname as the ''Lady in Black.'' David Ragan's No. 55 features the red-and-blue striped paint scheme his father, Ken, ran while racing Sprint Cup from 1983-90. Ken Ragan ran five times at Darlington.
''I was too young to really ever remember watching dad race on the track,'' said David Ragan, who is 29. ''But he's been a big part of my career and I know he has a lot of friends in the garage who will remember seeing him in this car.''
For years, drivers have compared Darlington Raceway to the most revered venues in athletics like Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Lambeau Field, Augusta National and Churchill Downs. And it was not that long ago, the track's future looked bleak.
Darlington lost its Labor Day slot to NASCAR realignment after the 2003 event, then was shifted to Mother's Day weekend two years later - a slot that had usually been an off week for drivers to celebrate mom. But Darlington posted four straight sellouts, proving there was life left in the old track.
Organizers and NASCAR thought the time was right to tap into Darlington's rich past. They announced an effort at the last Southern 500 16 months ago to tie the past to the future, featuring Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott and his son, Chase, who'll replace the retiring Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports machine. Chase's car at Darlington will have a similar scheme as his father's car did in 1985 when he won the Southern 500 and the $1 million Winston Million Bonus.
''It's awesome they wanted to do a program like this at Darlington,'' Earnhardt Jr. said.
Around The Track
CHANGE OF BEER: Kevin Harvick's No. 4 car is swapping out its longtime Budweiser logo for one featuring Busch next season.
Both beer brands are products of Anheuser-Busch. Budweiser was a name sponsor of a car since 1983 with drivers like Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick.
Busch will sponsor the Stewart-Haas Racing entry in 20 of 38 events in 2016.
The change was first reported this week by Sports Business Journal.
MORE BUSH: JTG Daugherty Racing renews its longtime partnership with Bush Brothers & Company last week.
The A.J. Allmendinger No. 47 machine will again by powered by the company's beans. JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Tad Geschinckter he was honored to have the company's backing for several more years.