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NASCAR throwback weekend becomes signature event

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Darlington is again honoring NASCAR’s past with a field full of iconic paint schemes.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

There was trepidation among some Sprint Cup teams going into the inaugural Southern 500 throwback weekend Darlington Raceway hosted a year ago. Not every prominent driver incorporated a vintage paint scheme, and there were some who wondered if this idea of celebrating NASCAR’s past would merely be a one-time thing that would come and go.

Any reservations quickly vanished. Instead what unfolded was a communal way to honor and celebrate the sport’s rich history. So well received was the promotion, it instantly became a signature event on the NASCAR calendar with everyone from drivers to fans, crew guys to executives reveling in what the weekend symbolized.

If something can become a tradition in so little time, a race filled with retro paint schemes has accomplished that. And in the second edition that takes place this weekend at the historic South Carolina track, the enthusiasm is comparable to rush week in college, when most everyone cannot stop talking about what’s to come.

On Sunday, more than 90 percent of the 40-car field will run a paint scheme specifically designed for this weekend. That’s roughly a 20 percent increase from 2015 when notables Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and eventual race winner Carl Edwards were among those who opted out.

“Darlington could be forever a throwback weekend,” Earnhardt said on The Dale Jr. Download podcast on Monday. “Whatever anybody’s interpretation is of a throwback, just let Darlington forever be that weekend where we kind of celebrate the past. I love this whole plan. I love this whole promotion.

“This program is going to keep getting cooler and cooler. It’s great for Darlington and it adds to the history.”

Knowing he wanted to pay homage to Buddy Baker’s classic “Gray Ghost,” Earnhardt sorted over old photos of the car to assure his No. 88 looked nearly identical to the same numbered car Baker drove to victory in the 1980 Daytona 500. With a few minor exceptions, the finished product is strikingly similar.

To further fit the theme, Earnhardt’s sponsor, Nationwide, will have the logo it used in 1980 on the hood. The only setback is Earnhardt won’t get to wheel the “Gray Ghost,” as he’s been sidelined since mid-July with a concussion. Hendrick Motorsports lured Gordon out of retirement to substitute.

“I wanted to drive that car,” Earnhardt said.

Such is the popularity that some sponsors began conceptualizing what they would do in 2016 almost immediately following the 2015 Southern 500.

MillerCoors, which sponsors Team Penske and driver Brad Keselowski via its Miller brand, welcomed the idea of a throwback weekend last year, placing the iconic Miller High Life scheme Bobby Allison used in his 1983 championship-winning season on Keselowski’s car.

“It’s great for us because we have so much history and heritage in the sport,” MillerCoors sports and entertainment marketing director Justin Bailey told SB Nation. “From our standpoint, it was, ‘Hey, we need to be part of this.’”

This season, the beer company is going in a different direction. Keselowski will not bring back a design from yesteryear, but a predominantly white 1972 Miller Lite livery featuring a lighter shade of blue and gold piping. As it and other teams utilized to great fanfare in 2015, Penske crewmembers will again be outfitted in era-appropriate hats and uniforms.

“We love what Darlington has done,” Bailey said. “When you got there last year and looked around and saw some of the teams that weren’t running throwback, they looked out of place.”

So popular is the throwback idea, teams have been able to use the weekend as a selling point to recruit sponsors once involved in NASCAR to return solely for Darlington.

Roush Fenway Racing signed a deal with Hooters where the same paint scheme that adorned Alan Kulwicki’s car in 1992 will be sported on Greg Biffle’s Ford. In a fitting touch, Biffle’s No. 16 car will also have “Underbird” written on the nose, just as Kulwicki, an owner-driver on a limited budget who improbably won the title 24 years ago, had on his Ford when he won that season’s championship.

Another former mainstay NASCAR sponsor, Tide, partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing to support Matt Kenseth. Proctor & Gamble, the maker of the Tide brand, had been exploring a return in some capacity after a 10-year absence, and the retro concept fit its marketing strategy.

In addition to promoting a current product (Tide Pods), Kenseth’s No. 20 car will also honor Proctor & Gamble’s 20 years previously spent in the sport. Former driver Darrell Waltrip, who won the 1989 Daytona 500 with Tide as his sponsor, Ricky Rudd, who drove for the company from 1991-1999, and Ricky Craven, whose Tide-backed car edged Kurt Busch in the closest finish in Sprint Cup history to win at Darlington in 2003, were all included during the unveiling earlier this month.

“Fans love throwback races and games across every sport,” brand manager Amy Krehbiel told SB Nation. “But, the throwback race has special meaning for us this year. We’re celebrating our 70th anniversary this year, so there couldn’t be a more fitting time to participate in a throwback race for a brand that has such great history in NASCAR.

“We felt it fitting to give the fans who have been loyal to the brand for so many years what they have been asking for at such a highly-anticipated race.”

JGR’s involvement demonstrates how almost universally the weekend is now embraced. Last year, the team was admittedly reluctant to partake, as only one of the organization’s four entries (Denny Hamlin) had a throwback scheme.

“As a team we’re hesitant to go to our sponsors on an early program like that and ask them to change their paint schemes,” JGR president Dave Alpern told SB Nation. “Because what you don’t want to do, is get a sponsor with that significant of an investment to change their paint scheme and show up and find out only 10 or 15 cars changed their scheme, and [the event] didn’t grow legs like you hoped.”

But having witnessed the magnitude of the throwback weekend and the energy it created throughout the industry, Alpern said there were no qualms with JGR participating this go-round. Now, all four cars will have special schemes on Sunday.

Beyond Kenseth, deciding the paint schemes for its other three drivers was rather straightforward and formulated in conjunction with its partners. Alpern described it as an “organic process.”

For Busch, it is the design longtime sponsor Interstate Batteries had on Dale Jarrett’s car when JGR was founded in 1992; for Edwards, it made sense to recognize former JGR driver Tony Stewart -- who won two titles during his tenure with the team and is retiring at the end of the season -- utilizing the scheme he’s primarily associated with; and for Hamlin, he will again integrate a design linked with NASCAR Hall of Famers who’ve run the No. 11 previously, this time Waltrip as opposed to Cale Yarborough last year.

“That was one of the coolest track promotions I’ve seen in my 25 years [in NASCAR],” Alpern said. “It was awesome.

“It was a no-brainer we’d be involved this year. There wasn’t a lot of selling. The lightbulb went off for everyone and we’re just going to pencil in retro for Darlington.”