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Earning ‘Darlington stripes’




 

 

Let’s face it, at 60 years old we all start showing the signs of age, and the same can be said about racetracks.

This Saturday night the Sprint Cup Series will be making its annual stop at Darlington Raceway for the running of the Showtime Southern 500, and while the cars and paint schemes will be modern day, the same cannot be said about the racing.

Darlington plays no favorites when it comes to drivers as it is unlike any other track that makes up the Sprint Cup schedule. Its 1.366- mile length puts it in a class of its own, but it is the track’s unique layout that really sets it apart from other tracks. The track is an oval, but because of the reluctance of a farmer to sell the track some of his land during construction, the final result was an egg-shaped oval that has diff erent amounts of banking at both ends.

The diff erent amounts of banking and size of turns causes many a crew chief to lose sleep in the days leading up to this weekend’s race. Setting up a car to get into each turn equally is impossible, so crew chiefs and drivers are forced to agree on taking the approach of give and take. Both must agree on the balance of the car that will make the car as good as possible at each end of the track, without giving up too much on one particular end.

When the track was built, the speed of racing wasn’t anywhere close to the speeds that we now see at nearly every stop on the schedule. The increase of speeds that has taken place over the 60-year lifespan of the track that will include speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour at the end of the straightaway, makes every lap very difficult for the drivers that must find their way around the very narrow and tire-eating track.

When you combine the eggshaped layout, uneven banking and high speeds, it leaves the drivers with no other choice but to race the track instead of the rest of the field. There might be 43 cars that take the green flag, but the winner will tell you at the end of the race that his biggest opponent was the track itself. Stories of drivers who have wrecked while being in the lead are common enough to keep the attention of every driver until the checkered flag waves.

It may sound like it is some of the toughest racing that we will see all season long, the truth is that there is a great chance that it will also be some of the best, if not the best, racing that we will see this season. The caution flag is usually a common sight at a Darlington race, and with the double-file restarts that will be used for the first time at the track, the excitement level should be ratcheted up a few more notches as a bunched-up field can only mean more action and the awarding of a few more “Darlington Stripes”.

PIT NOTES: Jeff Gordon’s tough luck continued last week at Richmond, as he started first on yet another green-white-checkered restart, only to see Kyle Busch pass him for the win. Luck has not been on the side of the four-time Sprint Cup champion as he has led more laps this season than any other driver, but has yet to visit a victory lane. All of that may change this weekend as Gordon is one of only nine active drivers with a Darlington win. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has won seven times at the South Carolina track, including the 1997 Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. He went into that race needing a win to claim the “Winston Million,” which was a bonus program put up by then series title sponsor R.J. Reynolds, which paid a million dollar bonus to any driver who won specially selected races in the same season. A million may not sound much by today’s standards, but in 1997 it was still a big deal, and as it turned out the win also went a long way toward propelling Gordon to his second-ever Sprint (Winston) Cup title that season. In his career at Darlington, Gordon has posted 20 top 10’s, including 17 top 5’s, along with three poles in his 29 starts at the track.

CHASE NOTES: Jeff Burton said after his fourth-place finish at Richmond that he would have liked to race harder but had to look at the big picture. That’s just one way of saying that to get into the Chase you have to spend the first 26 races “points” racing. His fourth-place finish moved him up three spots to ninth in the standings, and even though it wasn’t a win, he did what he had to in order to keep his Chase hopes alive.

Race Preview — Event: Showtime Southern 500. Track: Darlington Raceway (1.366-mile eggshaped oval, turns 1&2 banked 25 degrees, 3&4-23). Date: May 8, 7:30 p.m. TV: FOX. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Mark Martin.


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