Throwback weekend a hit as Edwards takes Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- "Look here ... let me show how I used to do this. ... "

Barry Dodson, in a faded STP baseball cap and a T-shirt that deadpans, "I'm really excited to be here," turned and slid his hand across the hood of Aric Almirola's Ford Fusion.

All around him, pit road at Darlington was buzzing, barely 20 minutes before the green flag. Old faces in familiar places, familiar colors in new places, and smiles everywhere you looked.

On Sunday night the Southern 500, the original Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, returned to Darlington Raceway, NASCAR's oldest asphalt speedway. Labor Day weekend was the home of this event from 1950 until 2003. Now, thanks to cries of so many for so long, it is again.

How long had it been? Three of the drivers who were in the last Labor Day Southern 500 had sons in this year's edition.

"Run your hands along there. You can barely feel the edges of this, can you? And this is with decals. In 1972 you couldn't even feel that. It was totally flat, man. Totally slick. With real paint! It took a lot of work. But that's how Richard Petty wanted it, so that's how it was done."

Dodson is retired now. Old-school NASCAR fans might know him from his 19 wins as a Winston Cup crew chief, his 1989 Cup title with Rusty Wallace, his days with Tim Richmond or perhaps even his time in the then-Craftsman Truck Series.

But before all of that, he was the kid who painted The King's racecars.

"I was 19-years-old when I went to work for Petty Enterprises, my first real job, and everything I did the rest of my career I worked off what I learned there," Dodson recalled, as the men who'd hired him, NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and his crew chief/cousin Dale Inman walked by and slapped Dodson on the shoulder. "Richard made sure I did everything. He moved me through every department. I worked the metal rack. I tuned engines. And when I figured out that I'd painted cars before, then it was on."

He admired the paint job on Almirola's car, a replica of the work Dodson used to do in the 1970s. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with five other members of the 1972 crew, the team that won the fourth of Petty's seven Cup titles. That group was together for the bulk of his titles and race wins. But they don't get together much anymore.

That's what made this reunion at Darlington so special. But the Petty crew was only a small part of a much larger, more magical NASCAR weekend.

"Dude, can you believe this?"

Denny Hamlin exclaimed it with a wave, an amazed shrug, and a point to the man standing next to him. NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough, a five-time Darlington winner and local hero, is one of the legends who made the No. 11 famous long before its current pilot, Hamlin, was born.

The pickup truck that Hamlin and Yarborough rode in was one of 14 that carried a NASCAR Hall of Famer alongside a current star. Those trucks did prerace laps in front of what track officials described as "a nearly full" grandstand, fans who spent the day filling their social media feeds with photos of old T-shirts and hats they'd dug up for the day with the hashtags #NASCARthrowback and #TraditionReturns.

Ultimately, the trucks' parade laps terminated by rolling down pit road, passing a lineup of cars adorned in retro paint schemes, covering everything from the legendary (Petty's '72 STP) to the personal (David Ragan's 55 honored his father, journeyman racer Ken) to the obscure (Justin Allgaier's No. 51 red A.J. Foyt homage).

From facial hair (Kyle Larson and Almirola) to blue shoes (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) to racing-striped apparel (Clint Bowyer, the Darington Raceway staff, heck everyone) to Grand Funk Railroad's prerace concert, it all added up to one of the great marketing buy-ins in motorsports memory.

What began as a brainstorm by the track's staff and the track ownership's marketing team nearly 16 months ago became a recruitment effort that reached into every corner of the NASCAR world.

It's an industry that has sorely needed a spark, particularly among their longtime "core" fans who complain that today's stock car racing feels disconnected from the sport they fell in love with during their youth.

Early traction with a handful of teams in the summer of 2014 entered the summer of 2015 like a bus with no brakes. Over the past two weeks the unveiling of cars and uniforms and the like only added to that gathering speed. The vast majority of the field ultimately dug into the design vault.

Race week began with a tweet from Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "The teams that show up @TooToughToTame with no throwback scheme will be like those people who show up at costume parties not dressed up."

It was a post that proved prophetic.

"Did you ever think you'd see this?" a team public relations rep said, motioning to the car of Jeff Gordon, a five-time Southern 500 winner about to make his final Darlington start, all while fighting to defend one of the final slots in the postseason Chase. It was surrounded by exactly zero fans.

Meanwhile, a mob of onlookers pushed and shoved to snap photos of the car of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., winner of zero career Sprint Cup races and a Chase also-ran. Why? His No. 17 Ford sported a classic blue and gold design, paying tribute to Darlington's all-time winner, David Pearson.

Gordon's ride, while pretty, was totally out of place.

Continued the PR rep: "Anyone who wasn't all in this year will sure as hell will be all in next year."

The race itself also felt like an old-school Southern 500. It was hot. It was humid. The race was long (4 hours, 34 minutes, longer than May's Coca-Cola 600).

There were a race record number of cautions (18). A set of aerodynamic rules that focused on lower downforce, paired with a softer tire compound (Goodyear also got in on the retro movement with plain, spray-painted white lettering) had cars sliding around the egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval and kissing the outside walls to earn a "Darlington Stripe."

It seemed as though the night would culminate in a thrilling showdown between a trio of old-school racers inside of 50 laps remaining.

Brad Keselowski, who started on the pole, dominated. Kevin Harvick, the championship points leader, stalked him all night. Carl Edwards, who had to overcome early trouble that put him two laps down, scrambled into the fight.

But a caution with only 11 laps to go was followed by a time-bending pit stop by Edwards' Joe Gibbs Racing team. That put the Missouri short-track racer out front, holding off the pack on the restart and Keselowski's late charge over the final eight trips around the old track.

"This separates the race car drivers from those that pretend," Keselowski said of the night. "Some might say that's too much work. I love it. You want to see the mark of some fun? Just look at the right sides of our racecars.

"There's no paint left on any of the cars that finished up front."

And that takes us back to the prerace, with Barry Dodson and his lesson on racecar painting, just as the old-school Petty crew began exchanging handshakes and hugs with their former archenemies, the Wood Brothers Racing team.

All while Petty and Inman and Tex Powell and the Barsz boys -- in their red, white and blue retro unforms -- laughed and joked with Glen and Leonard and seldom-seen Delano Wood in their trademark 1965 red and white outfits.

Dodson grinned as he winked at the current generation of Wood Brothers, Glen's sons, Len and Eddie, also decked out in throwback uniforms.

"We'd get to the track every weekend and I had painted Richard Petty's car and Eddie had painted Pearson's car. We immediately looked to see whose car looked best."

Dodson's hand went back onto the hood, nearly five hours before it would be returned to the garage, bent, burnt and scarred after Almirola's 11th-place finish.

"See? Feel that? Smooth. It just feels fast. It feels cool."

Then the old mechanic spoke on behalf of the entire 2015 Southern 500 experience.

"It just feels right, doesn't it?"