Just the name Darlington Raceway brings up a mixed bag of memories for both drivers and fans. It is definitely what you would call a throwback track, and this weekend the memories will be stirred up once again as the track that will be celebrating its 60th year will also be hosting another Southern 500.
For years the Southern 500 was one of the crown jewels on the NASCAR Sprint (Winston) Cup schedule, until the track lost its traditional Labor Day race. It seemed that the powers that be at NASCAR came up with the great idea that Darlington was falling further and further behind the times, and that the ultra-modern California Speedway could put on a better show for the Labor Day crowd.
When NASCAR moved the Labor Day weekend race from Darlington it left the track with only one race a year, in the spring. That date was moved to Mother’s Day weekend, but NASCAR scheduled the race on Saturday night as it found out many years ago that racing in the South on Mom’s special day isn’t such a good idea.
The Saturday night race has become very popular and this year it will be made better by the fact that the race will be now known as the Southern 500. It will not be Labor Day but it does bring back some great memories when the track had one of the premier dates on the schedule. The race is also the second of four straight races that will be held after the sun goes down. Richmond kicked off the stretch this past Saturday and following this Saturday at Darlington will be two consecutive weekends of night racing at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Racing after the sun sets at Darlington only adds to the excitement, as every driver will be quick to tell you that the track’s old worn-out racing surface along with its unique design makes it the toughest stop on the schedule. There isn’t another track that Darlington can compare itself to and that makes the job for both the crew chief and driver tough when trying to come up with a game plan on figuring out the track known as ‘Too Tough To Tame.’
One driver for sure that needs to have the track figured out by the time they unload his hauler is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Talladega, Richmond and Darlington are three of Dale’s favorite racetracks. The threetrack stretch started off good when he finished second at Talladega, but on Saturday night he never did get the handle on his Chevrolet and finished a very disappointing 27th.
He had been moving up in the standings as his runner-up finish at Talladega continued to move him up towards the elite-12 which will eventually make up the field that contends for the championship after the return trip to Richmond in September. In the five races leading up to Richmond, Dale Jr. had moved up nine spots to 15th, only 45 points out of the top 12, but his dismal showing on Saturday night dropped him three spots to 18th. More importantly, the distance between himself and the 12th slot in the standings widened to 87 points.
While Jr. has not won at Darlington, this is one of his better tracks as he has finished in the top 10 in half of his 14 career starts and last year’s fourthplace finish was his third top 5. He should also benefit from the success that his owner Rick Hendrick has had at Darlington as his Hendrick Motorsports teammates of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin have combined for 10 wins on the demanding track.
Jeff Gordon is an easy favorite at the track as he leads all active drivers with seven wins, but it is his overall body of work at the track that makes him the favorite to win. In 28 starts he has posted a remarkable 16 top 5 and 19 top 10 finishes.
PIT NOTES: The sport lost one of the really good guys recently when a heart attack claimed the life of David Poole. Poole covered NASCAR for The Charlotte Observer and had a show on Sirius Satellite Radio. He always spoke what was on mind, which oftentimes wasn’t what NASCAR and those in the sport wanted to hear. But that was David and that was what in many ways made him the voice of the fans. He will be missed!
Race Preview — Event : The Southern 500. Track: Darlington Raceway (1.366 mile oval, 25 degrees of banking in 1 & 2, 23 in turns 3 & 4). Date: May 9, 7:20 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Kyle Busch.