The White Zone: Low-downforce excellence

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As the laps ticked away, Kyle Larson capitalized on Martin Truex Jr. dealing with lap traffic. With eight laps to go, he came upon the lapped cars of Ryan Newman and Tyler Reddick. The former of whom is notoriously difficult to overtake.

“Well, they’re both really aggressive drivers, so I didn’t want to get stuck behind them because I knew if I didn’t clear them then, I would definitely not have an opportunity to get by or get close to Martin,” he said.

So what does he do?

Thread the needle!

That’s an impressive pass just by itself, but combine that with worn out tires and a car on the razor’s edge of handling, Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway showcased driver talent and intuition, thanks to the low-downforce package.

The White Zone: Darlington demonstrates excellence of low downforce

Some background

For the last decade, NASCAR walked the fine line of balancing entertainment with actual sport. Since 2017, it skewed more towards the entertainment spectrum. Be it stages, playoff points, inconsistent usage of competition cautions, etc.

The most polarizing pivot to entertainment came in the form of the high-downforce package.

In short, the goals of this aero package was to bring the cars closer together and all but create restrictor plate racing at tracks other than Daytona and Talladega.

And…it’s been very hit and miss.

Sometimes, it worked. Sometimes, it didn’t. And when it didn’t work, it REALLY didn’t work.

After running high-downforce at Darlington the last two years, NASCAR announced that the Cup Series would run the low-downforce package at “The Lady in Black.”

DARLINGTON, S.C. – MAY 9: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Throwback Chevrolet, Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, and Chris Buescher, driver of the #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 9, 2021, in Darlington, South Carolina. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The White Zone: Darlington demonstrates excellence of low downforce

A showcase of driver talent

For over three hours, Sunday, drivers balanced aggressive driving with tire management and ill-handling cars, thanks to the low-downforce package.

“I was going down the straightaway and then everybody was lifting a lot sooner than I thought I needed to, and so I adjusted to them and backed my entry up and I felt like I got a little bit better loading into the corners then,” Larson said. “And then the exit was sliding around a lot.”

So much that a few times during the broadcast, you could hear the screech of tires from loose cars in the turns.

Even the race leader wasn’t safe from trouble, as Kyle Busch spun out from the lead in the opening laps of the Goodyear 400.

Sunday at Darlington provided not a race of who could hold down the gas pedal the longest, as the high-downforce race require. Rather, it provided a race where driving ability and intuition stood out.

Whether it’s the aforementioned Larson overtake, or Truex putting on a clinic.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – MAY 9: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 9, 2021, in Darlington, South Carolina. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Unlike Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this year, Truex spanked the field while driving on the edge of control and tire wear for over three hours. In the process, he reminded or demonstrated to the uninitiated just what an underrated wheelman he is.

“Today was a heck of a challenge,” Truex said. “I did come on the radio one time and say I’m really surprised how slow it feels and how slick it is. I was leading and driving away from the field, and I’m like, this thing is sliding everywhere.”

Yes, it wasn’t the best race ever. Yes, it wasn’t a great race, either. But not every race needs to be.

Sunday was a showcase of driver talent and intuition ruling the day. A day where we could definitively gauge how talented these drivers are.

And with people criticizing NASCAR for being too homogenized and not a proper showcase of actual sport, the league needs more low-downforce package days like this.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth.

TOP IMAGE: Sean Gardner/Getty Images