The Southern 500 is one of the most coveted Crown Jewels of the NASCAR Cup series schedule. This event is one of the oldest races, held on one of the oldest tracks making old school nostalgic energy tangible by the throwback paint schemes used to harken back fuzzy memories of cars and drivers no longer with us. Labor Day weekend in NASCAR means something now, and the industry, media, and fans coming together to embrace this concept has been nothing short of amazing. Moreover, Darlington Raceway has produced numerous memorable finishes, and the 2020 Southern 500 on Sunday night gave us one more.
By Darlington standards, the 2020 Southern 500 was fairly safe with fewer accidents and incidents, and maybe a few less Darlington stripes due to the higher downforce aero package. Martin Truex Jr appeared to be the clear favorite, winning both Stages 1 and 2 and still keeping decent speed on old tires. After a late race caution mixed up the field, Chase Elliott grabbed the lead for the final dash to the checkered flag. Truex worked his way back to 2nd place and seemed to be waiting for the right moment to make his move for the lead and the win. Darlington is a difficult track to make a “clean” pass so no attempt to take the lead was a sure thing. Going into turn one with around 15 laps to go, Truex pulled the trigger and went for a pass on the inside. Truex’s number 19 slid up the track to attempt a completed pass, but certainly wasn’t “clear” and caught the front bumper of Chase Elliott’s number 9 sending both cars hard into the wall. With the 9 and 19 damaged and with tire issues, they were both quickly dispatched by the lead lap cars and Kevin Harvick went on to win the race. For what seemed like a high octane moment in the playoffs that would result in harsh words or perhaps even some physical altercation between drivers after the race, both Elliott and Truex seemed calm and somewhat understanding to both the stakes and circumstances involved that caused such an unfortunate incident. This high road approach was good enough for the folks on the track, but many fans on social media had other ideas.
The fan reaction in the moments following the incident and the end of the race was….a bit shit if we’re honest, and that’s putting it lightly. Chase Elliott fans as a whole are considered some of the most passionate, however more than a few Chase fans (and fans of all sorts for that matter) aimed their disappointment wantonly towards fans of Truex, other fans offering a neutral opinion, or pretty much anyone that just happened to get in the way. This was a two way street soon enough as a veritable Bellagio show of pure venom was spewed all across the interwebs no matter which driver you favored. Upset about Chase Elliott? “Get lost, fanboy.” Want to defend Truex? “Bet you’d back a war criminal, too.” Wanna call it a racing deal? “Grow up snowflake.” The athletes themselves with millions of dollars and public legacy on the line found a way to take a tough moment in stride but some spectators with no skin in the game took this as a personal attack on their well being. Sunday night’s vitriol certainly isn’t the first to go “over the line” but the vibe was less about fan emotion and more towards feeling a need to personally defend the actions of their favorite driver like they themselves were on the payroll. If you’re a fan of other sports, think about that guy at the sports bar (ok let’s be honest with ourselves, Applebee’s) who always talks about their favorite NFL team using “we” pronouns and opines about free agency as if they were in the room with the GM and player. We get it, Jeremy, you’re three years behind on the child support and you really didn’t like that 3DRB the Steelers picked up….but your 9 year old daughter shouldn’t be sitting at the bar, half priced Riblets be damned! It’s that exact same energy here, but hidden under a slightly less pathetic cloak of reasonable doubt.
Is this really what we want NASCAR fandom to be? The choices of the publicly engaged race fan shouldn’t have to boil down to “over zealous vicarious fanatic” or “Bubba Wallace misfortune masturbator,” but that’s all that seems to be coming through the static right now. This isn’t a call to action, or a case against being a specific passionate fan. Anyone who’s thinking about trying NASCAR is told to “watch a few races and pick a driver,” and nothing about that should change. But if the only options of sharing your opinion are to attack other fans or wish misfortune on people we disagree with, then maybe we need to think about a race day social media freeze. Maybe race day needs to be a more solitary reflection, keeping our knee jerk reactions to ourselves until there’s a chance to cool off. If we can’t keep our emotions in check, maybe it’s time to close out the apps and put down the phone as the laps click off on race day…or at least until we get a damn clue.
Follow Matt on Twitter for more NASCAR hot takes and surely an argument or two.