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Sprint Cup Series

Plenty of praise for Darlington's throwback weekend

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To understand the rejuvenating effect of NASCAR's throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway, observe the example of Leonard Wood. After the Sprint Cup Series drivers' meeting, the legendary engine builder and mechanical innovator emerged from the Wood Brothers team hauler with a retro change of clothes -- a vintage red-and-white No. 21 shirt, white work pants and white Converse Chuck Taylors.
The spring in his step was a literal one. Wood, just two weeks shy of his 81st birthday, jumped in place, a kid again with a broad grin forming on his face.
Wood's near heel-click came with good reason, a personal celebration of the return of the Southern 500 to its rightful early September spot on the NASCAR calendar. There was plenty to cheer about, from a near full house in the packed grandstands to compelling racing from front to back.
To put a bow on another Labor Day classic, here are 10 things that went right this weekend:

-- Tradition returns. While calls have been made to alter the landscape of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, Darlington should remain untouched. Renewing Labor Day weekend as a grand festival of speed in the South Carolina sandhills represents all that is right with stock-car racing, recognizing both NASCAR's roots and the track's role in launching the speedway era during the sport's earliest years. While NASCAR places an emphasis on innovation and the direction of technology, the look and feel of yesteryear in a decidedly low-tech weekend felt just right at one of the sport's greatest Meccas.
-- Chase pressure. The secondary effect of Darlington's return to Labor Day was its renewed impact on playoff implications. With the grueling Southern 500 in place as the next-to-last race in the regular season, Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup hopefuls had no option to coast in the waning moments before the 16-driver field is set.

RELATED: How the Chase Grid looks after Darlington

-- Industry support. Putting on a themed event of such magnitude requires a massive buy-in from all corners of the NASCAR community -- tracks, teams, drivers, sponsors, manufacturers and partners. The overwhelming embrace of the retro ambiance -- with a majority of teams participating in the fun -- showed what is possible when all of the moving parts come together with a common goal. The united push toward making throwback weekend a roaring success bodes well not just for preserving the sport's history but for moving the sport forward.

RELATED: See all the throwback paint schemes from Darlington
-- Reunion of legends. A who's who of stock-car legends from the NASCAR Hall of Fame received some of the biggest cheers in the Sprint Cup drivers' meeting and pre-race ceremonies. Once-fierce rivals -- with legendary names Petty, Allison and Yarborough -- were reunited as old friends on Darlington's sacred grounds. For racing purists, watching the sport's pioneers trade stories and exchange greetings was swoon-worthy. Field of Dreams stuff, for sure.

PHOTOS: Best images from Darlington

-- Subtle touches. The little things mattered over Labor Day weekend, with those seemingly minor details adding cumulative momentum to the vintage vibe. Darlington piped in music from the 1970s over its public-address system all weekend. Ned Jarrett's distinctive voice was used to narrate the drivers' meeting video presentation. Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports shared best-dressed honors with their crewmembers' classic duds. The original winged "NASCAR International" logo graced every car. Seamless and subtle, it all clicked.

RELATED: Lots of throwback looks at the track
-- Media mix. NBC Sports' participation deserves special mention, from the use of retro graphics and groovy garb for its on-air talent, but most notably for returning broadcasters Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett to the booth, joining fellow Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett to call the race. Hearing legendary voices officiating the action was like a comfy chair and a cup of cocoa all in one, and NBC did right by all three with an extended stint on the microphone. The weekend's other big wins came through social media, where NASCAR's primary handles offered Polaroid snapshots and grainy VHS-quality videos in keeping with the throwback theme. The hashtag #NASCARthrowback trended nationally as a result.

WATCH: Legends join the NBC booth to call part of the race
-- Raves for rules. The second use this season of the reduced-downforce aerodynamic rules added to the retro aura, producing an old-school scrap that rewarded driver ability as much as it did top-notch equipment. If the Darlington package stands as a prelude to what the 2016 aero rules might become, the potential for more jockeying and passing throughout the pack holds promise.

RELATED: Reduced-downforce package successful at Darlington
-- Tire opportunities. The combination of softer-compound Goodyears on a rough surface provided more shades of classic Darlington, placing a premium on drivers' management of tire wear and on teams' strategy with their allotment of 12 sets of new rubber. But the tiremaker's other contribution was a bold, white stencil logo on the sidewalls that complemented the throwback atmosphere.
-- Lengthy Labor Day. Making races shorter has been a common refrain, voiced by fans and drivers alike. More howls might be heard after Sunday night's 4 1/2-hour marathon, but downsizing to a Southern 400 would be heresy. Winning Darlington is supposed to test both driver and car. It's supposed to be hard. It's a formula that's seemed to work for 66 years and doesn't need changing any time soon.
-- Tradition continues. Darlington Raceway president Chip Wile spent a sizable part of Sunday extending thank-yous to all comers for making throwback weekend a collaborative achievement. All indications point to retro racing at Darlington becoming an annual event, with the potential for growing bigger and better in 2016 and beyond. Racing is often serious business, but Darlington showed that it's OK to savor the fun of it all. It's not often that a debut results in a home run. Here's to Darlington swinging for the fences again next year.

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