I was once told anything over 1.366 miles was a waste of asphalt. That’s especially true this weekend when the famed Darlington Raceway returns with a time honored tradition of the Labor Day classic known by many names Rebel 500 in the past but more recently known and time honored by NASCAR fans as the Southern 500.
In 2003 NASCAR in the midst of losing long time sponsor of the sport Winston announced a schedule realignment that would move the Labor Day race from Darlington which has run there since 1950 to a newer Auto Club Speedway.
"I feel for our race fans, the folks who buy tickets, and I also want to be a good community citizen," said Darlington president Andrew Gurtis. "But the truth of the matter is, twice a year the NASCAR world is going to descend on Darlington Raceway."
Over the years that followed the move California hosted several of the Labor Day races while Darlington bounced dates around late spring to early summer until 2008 when NASCAR announced Auto Club Speedway would lose the date. Following the announcement and lacking ticket sales at Auto Club over the years the track was reduced down to one event weekend per year. This time Atlanta would get their chance to host the traditional weekend event.
"Fans have been clamoring for a Sprint Cup Series race under the lights at Atlanta Motor Speedway," said AMS president and general manager Ed Clark. "It's thrilling to bring Labor Day racing back to the south on NASCAR's fastest track. This will be a great opportunity for Atlanta Motor Speedway to celebrate our 50th year of racing."
Late in the 2014 season while speaking to the media Burton Smith chairman of Speedway Motorsports announced a change in the dates for his track Bristol Motor Speedway that would move the date with better weather let slip that part of the deal would see what fans wanted for nearly a dozen years, the return of the Southern 500 on Labor Day at Darlington Raceway.
"I think we did them a favor and they did us one," Smith said. "I think they kind of needed that Southern 500 thing back in Darlington. So going back there, I thought that was a good thing."
When Chip Wile the President of Darlington Raceway bought the news of the return it was as Christmas had come early to the NASCAR fans. Social media exploded in the hours and days following the announcements commending both NASCAR and the track for working together to bring the race back to where it belonged.
“This is a true example of Darlington Raceway, ISC and NASCAR all working together to give fans what they have wanted for many years – the tradition of stock car racing on Labor Day weekend at the Lady in Black,” said track President Chip Wile. “We can’t thank our leaders at ISC and NASCAR enough for working with us to bring back such a historic date on the 2015 NASCAR calendar.”
Now here we are nearly a year after the announcement and just days away from the running of the 65th Southern 500, everyone from NASCAR, teams, sponsors, and even International Speedway are marketing this as a homecoming game. Teams are going all in with throwback themes on cars honoring past drivers and sponsors who have graced the sport or taken the checkered flag at Darlington. NBC Sports are bringing in Ned Jarrett, Ken Squier, and Dale Jarrett to call part of the race live on national television for some old school flair.
Many of these marketing efforts thanks for Daryl Wolfe who heads up track owner International Speedway marketing department going full in to make this one of NASCAR’s biggest homecomings to date.
At the end of the weekend the fans are seeing history in the making with NASCAR giving the fans exactly what they have asked for over the past 12 years since the removal of the Labor Day weekend event. Teams are bringing some of the history of the sport and honoring the past with the schemes they will run all weekend.
Qualifying for Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 will take place on Saturday September 5th at 1:45pm and Sunday night tradition returns for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 to the track Too Tough to Tame with NBCSN taking to the air at 7:00pm with green flag set just after 7:20pm, 367 laps(501.3 miles) will make the distance.
The smiles never stop coming when a driver wins the pole for a NASCAR race. Having the edge come race day and an added confidence level are just some of the perks for being the driver that will start first for an event.
Come Friday’s events for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and XFINITY Series, there will be a new face to greet the pole award winner. Since 2010, Rachel Rupert has been that person, but that will change as a new era begins at Richmond International Raceway.
Traveling the entire schedule for NASCAR’s elite divisions, Rupert has helped celebrate poles, along with waving the green flag for qualifying. Friday’s XFINITY Series qualifying will be the first time that a new woman will be in the fire suit, as her stint in the public eye has ended for a brief moment.
Taking over the role from Rupert, it is Amanda Mertz’s time to shine.
Mertz hails from Louisville, but moved to Nashville, and served as Miss Kentucky in 2012. According to her Miss Universe page, she was formerly a registered nurse prior to becoming a correspondent for a local country music radio station. Since then, opportunities have come about, which has led her to what she calls her “dream job.”
“It is definitely going to be different because I kind of have been a shadow for a couple of months,” Mertz told Speedway Digest. “Even though I found out I was going to become Miss Coors Light a couple of months ago, I haven’t fully taken on the position until now. It is going to be different without Rachel because she and I are such good friends. I am fully prepared, and the team helped me prepare up to this week. I am just excited to embrace the role by myself. Everyone loved and respected Rachel, and I am ready to bring my own twist for NASCAR fans everywhere.”
As she transitioned out of her role, Rupert grew a close bond with Mertz. Shadowing the seasoned Miss Coors Light for the first eight races of the NASCAR season, the rookie has been absorbing as much as she can.
Earning an opportunity to be the face of one of the largest brands in America, Mertz is set to also represent NASCAR. Traveling to every race, she will host guests during race weekends, hand out pole awards, wave the green flag for qualifying sessions and interview drivers. However, there is still a big learning curve for someone that didn’t become seriously involved in following NASCAR until 2011.
“It is definitely going to be different because I kind of have been a shadow for a couple of months,” Murtz explained. “Even though I found out I was going to become Miss Coors Light a couple of months ago, I haven’t fully taken on the position until now. It is going to be different without Rachel because she and I are such good friends.
“I am fully prepared, and the team helped me prepare up to this week. I am just excited to embrace the role by myself. Everyone loved and respected Rachel, and I am ready to bring my own twist for NASCAR fans everywhere.”
While Rupert will still be traveling to some NASCAR events with her husband, Austin Peyton, who is Denny Hamlin’s manager, her final tour as Miss Coors Light came to an end at Bristol. But the two will stay close, as Mertz continuously praised the woman that has opened up the doors for her new path.
“She is literally a pro,” Mertz said. “I have learned so much from her. She did it for four and a half years, so she has a really good relationship with the drivers, the pit crews and everyone involved in the sport. She has really helped me to jump in this and take it on full force without as much nerves as I probably would have had if I didn’t know anyone going into this.”
As Mertz steps into the limelight of the NASCAR realm, she understands the opportunities that this job can create. Former Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon recently joined the Motor Racing Network (MRN) as a pit road reporter, along with additional coverage via social media. Her colleague, Madison Martin, plans to pursue a career in journalism as well after receiving a degree in communications.
“I think everyone has the opportunity with the position that I have now to venture off to do different things,” she said. “I know Rachel probably has endless possibilities now to do whatever she wants now that she isn’t Miss Coors Light. My goal right now is to be Miss Coors Light for as long as I can. Who knows what is going to happen? I’m excited about right now where I am at this exact moment.”
Officially your new Miss Coors Light & I couldn't be happier!!! Can't wait to meet everyone at the track this season! pic.twitter.com/gucyVmcvzw— Amanda Mertz (@amandamertz) April 23, 2015
Going from the four-month interview process to being named Miss Coors Light, Mertz is set to finally take over for Rupert on a full-time basis. She believes that the program is continuing to head in the right direction, with a basis already set and new ideas flowing in.
Being accepted into the NASCAR community will be the next step for Mertz. She has already seen how outstanding fans will be to her, but there are still butterflies now that she will go about her duties without help from Rupert. In order to make the transition as simple as possible – not only for herself but for fans that are adjusted to seeing Rupert as well – she will continue to do many of the procedures in a similar fashion to that of her mentor.
As she prepares for what she knows will be a strenuous job at times, she will be moving to Charlotte next year. With a hope of staying in the industry, she is thinking for the long-term. Currently, she is focused on the task at hand. However, she wants to make a difference in the NASCAR community, and she will step foot on a new era when she enters Richmond.
“I don’t know how we are going to be different, but I am fully prepared to take over the role as Amanda Mertz. I want everyone to miss Rachel and love Rachel’s stuff to do my own thing a little bit, and give it a little twist and make it Amanda Mertz as Miss Coors Light – not just a replacement for Rachel.”
Coming off of a rather lackluster season in NASCAR’s second-tier division, 2015 is set to be a lot more enticing. Dominating efforts by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars was taking place nearly each week, and that is going to change for the upcoming season.
XFINITY, which is owned by Comcast (who owns NBC), is taking over as the title sponsor from Nationwide. Not only is the logo getting a face lift for NASCAR’s version of Triple-A, but it will have plenty of fresh names in new places.
But even with all of the changes occurring, 2015 should witness a more competitive environment than ever before.
Chase Elliott, 18, dominated the XFINITY Series last year. Winning three races and having an astonishing average finish of 8.0 in his rookie season, the soon-to-be driver of the No. 24 Cup Series Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports is geared up to repeat his championship efforts. However, 2014 saw a lack of competition for the championship, especially with Cup Series drivers winning week-in and week-out.
Let’s take a look at the predictions for the top-15 in points for the NASCAR XFINITY Series for the 2015 season.
- Chase Elliott: It’s kind of cliché to pick Elliott as the champion once again considering the circumstances surrounding him. But with the amount of success he had in 2014, experience is going to help him run just as strong, if not better in 2015. With a new crew chief at the helm, we might see the reigning champion struggle at first, yet he should be on a steady pace after a handful of races into the season.
- Elliott Sadler: Making the move to Roush Fenway Racing from Joe Gibbs Racing, Sadler is expected to reemerge as a championship contender. The organization began to run stronger toward the end of last season, and Sadler will be the veteran of the team, which should propel him to success. However, he is going to need to find Victory Lane often if he wants to beat Elliott. Working with Phil Gould, the No. 1 Ford crew is going to be fast on a weekly basis, but being mistake-free will be the defying factor in their season.
- Regan Smith: Smith has been coming extremely close to winning the title for the past two years. After coming close last year to his teammate, he has more motivation than ever before to win the whole thing. However, he has experienced struggles at the intermediate tracks, which has been the difference maker against his competitors. It is going to be tough to be more consistent than he was last year, but leading just 133 laps definitely did not help his efforts.
- Chris Buescher: Buescher was exceptional late last season in the No. 60 car. This team found consistency in the latter part of 2014, and that is expected to carry over this season. Earning an average finish of 12.6, Buescher should work his way into the top 10 more frequently. Expect him to record a win or two, especially at the intermediate tracks, which have become his strong suit.
- Ty Dillon: There is just something missing at the Richard Childress Racing stable. Dillon has the potential to emerge as a championship contender this year after finishing fifth in points last year, but he will probably stay around there in 2015. Although the No. 3 team was arguably the most consistent besides the No. 9 crew, they didn’t have the speed to contend for wins on a weekly basis. The same will likely be the case this year, especially with the level of competition increasing. Expect Dillon to have only one win this year, but he will have more top fives than he did in 2014.
- Brian Scott: 2014 was Scott’s chance to have a breakout season. He did just that with 23 top 10s and an average finish of 9.3. However, he failed to find Victory Lane, and that is the difference maker. In 2015, the No. 2 team, led by new crew chief Mike Hillman, Jr., will find the winner’s circle at Chicagoland, Kentucky or Richmond. If they can win at least one event, they have potential to keep piling it on. But Scott has a pattern of struggling early each season, and that could carry on with a new crew chief at the helm.
- Darrell Wallace, Jr.: Bubba Wallace is back in the XFINITY Series. He’s finally getting the chance to race full-time, which is what he deserves. Over the course of his career, Wallace has run a mere six events in this division, so there is going to be a steep learning curve. He will have some trouble throughout the first part of the year, but with his experience in the Truck Series, he should be able to come away with a handful of top-five finishes, and about 15-20 top 10s.
- Daniel Suarez: Suarez is expected to run quite well in his first full-time season in one of NASCAR’s top-three divisions. He is going to get plenty of experience with a handful of ARCA Series races for Venturini Motorsports, along with 13 races for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series. Don’t expect him to score a victory in his first season, but three or four top fives is realistic for the No. 18 team. Gibbs’ full-time car usually struggles compared to the one that runs for the owner’s title, and that might be the case here.
- Brendan Gaughan: Winning two races last year probably wasn’t expected of the No. 62 team. He knew that he needed to win, otherwise his career could be coming to a close. Gaughan has repeatedly said that he needs to be in competitive equipment to continue racing, and 2015 should be a solid year for him. Expect him to earn a victory at an intermediate track, but inconsistency will plague this team once again. Seven top 10s just won’t do much in 2015, and he is certainly capable of doing better.
- Landon Cassill: Cassill was on the verge of breaking into the top-10 in points a few times last year. Although this team is expanding to a third full-time car, his leadership skills and added funding should provide them with more success in 2015. Mechanical issues plagued him for much of 2014, but if he can stay on the lead lap for the majority of the season, expect his average finish to increase to approximately 15th or so.
- Ryan Reed: Reed struggled throughout the entire 2014 season. Earning just one top 10 (a fourth-place finish at Daytona), the No. 16 team didn’t see much success. There were times where he ran inside of the top 10, but always had something go wrong that put him around 12th-15th nearly every week. If he can relax behind the wheel and focus on not overdriving the car, Reed has potential to run just inside of the top 10 on a weekly basis.
- Dakoda Armstrong: Lackluster is probably an understatement for Armstrong’s 2014 season. Having an average finish of 20.2 in decent equipment gave Richard Petty Motorsports a reason to split ways with him. However, resigning for a second season, Armstrong will continue to pilot the No. 43 Ford. Earning three top 10s in the final 11 races last year, he began to finally hit his stride just a bit. If he can run well once a month, he has potential to finish inside of the top-10 in points just like his predecessor, Michael Annett.
- David Starr: Starr is entering his first of three full-time seasons for TriStar Motorsports in the No. 44 Toyota. The four-time Truck Series winner will embark upon his first full slate in the XFINITY Series after running a career-high 14 events in 2014. Expect Starr to run around the top 20 for the most part, but he will have a few races inside of the top 10 with TriStar’s additional funding.
- Mike Bliss: Bliss should have another solid season in the No. 19 car. Although he’s been with TriStar for a few seasons, he has never had a year of more than two top-10 finishes. Coming off of a season with an average finish of 20.4, which is the worst since he joined the organization, Bliss should go back to finishing around 15th in 2015.
- JJ Yeley: Racing for JGL Racing, Yeley has become a team leader for this small team. After he had two top 10s in 2014, the No. 28 team should run better in 2015. Making the swap to Toyota, they had a solid run at Homestead, and that should be expected of them for the majority of 2015. Although it isn’t known if Yeley will run for points in the Cup Series for BK Racing or in XFINITY, the No. 28 car should be inside of the top-15 on a weekly basis.
- Cale Conley: Conley is going full-time in the No. 14 car this year. After running 11 events for RCR, he showed the potential to be a top-10 caliber driver. Expect him to run better than his teammates, with approximately 10 top-10 results. However, consistency has been a problem for this organization, which is going to put him back a bit in points.
- Blake Koch: Koch will get his shot at running full-time in 2015. He ran 28 races each of the past two seasons, but never had enough races to gather momentum. As long as he isn’t forced to start-and-park, Koch should run in the top-20 weekly, with a handful of top-10 finishes.
- Ross Chastain: After a breakout season in the Truck Series in 2013, Chastain didn’t run full-time last year. Earning his first career top-10 finish at Kentucky for Hattori Racing Enterprises, he earned a chance to finally race full-time in the XFINITY Series. Although he is going to be racing for JD Motorsports, Chastain should have a few Cassill-like races, where he runs stronger than the equipment he is in.
- Jeremy Clements: This family-run team has run well over the years. This will be his fifth full-time season in the No. 51 car, and he will continue to work with 1986 and 1987 championship winning crew chief Ricky Pearson. In 2014, he had two top 10s, and ended the season with 11th and 13th-place finishes, respectively. Expect him to have a solid season, but they will likely finish around 20th each week, which is solid with the limited funding that they have.
- Jeffrey Earnhardt: Earnhardt is moving over to Viva Motorsports in 2015. Jamie Dick is stepping out of the seat after running for a few years. This team usually runs outside of the top-20, but is a step up from the equipment that he drove last year. In 2014, he failed to finish inside of the top-10. However, with potential to have a solid season in 2015, expect Earnhardt to earn a pair of top 10s, plus an average finish inside of the top 25.
You can follow Joseph Wolkin on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.
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