The track known as "Too Tough to Tame" and "the Lady in Black" has a rich NASCAR history that goes well beyond the "Darlington Stripe." Darlington Raceway in South Carolina is the home of NASCAR's first 500-mile race back in 1950, the site of Bill Elliott's Winston Million victory in 1985, and the track where the closest finish in NASCAR history happened in 2003. In 2011, a surprise win by Regan Smith made him the sixth driver to get his first Cup Series win at Darlington, and in 2013, Jeff Gordon, now in the 21st year of his career, makes his 700th start on May 11 in the Bojangles' Southern 500 and tries for his eighth victory at the track.
Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch were the two combatants in that 2003 Darlington struggle that ended with a 0.002-second margin of victory for Craven, who has fond memories of the battle and what it not only meant to him, but to the fans.
"When I won, it was really all about winning at Darlington," said Craven, now an ESPN analyst, in a recent NASCAR teleconference. "It was absolutely that important, and the competitors that have competed at Darlington, they understand it's different than anyplace we compete. It tests you in a way that other tracks don't test you. But…the race has become much bigger to me than just the trophy. It wasn't about on that day, it wasn't about being a fan of mine, it wasn't necessarily about being a fan of Kurt, it was really about being a fan of racing, because since I've retired, it seems as though it's all that anybody wants to talk about when I cross paths with them."
Busch, who now drives for Furniture Row Racing, is with the team that took that surprise win with Smith in 2011. "I'm really pumped up about this weekend," said Busch in the teleconference. "Drivers can say that each week, but with Furniture Row's win there, with my hunger to try to win at Darlington and get those .002 of a second back, it's going to be a good weekend, I really feel it."
Another driver who is looking for a good weekend is Gordon, who will become the 15th driver to make 700 starts in the Cup Series. "I've been fortunate to race this long and have the type of career I've had," said Gordon. "It's really cool to see that this will be my 700th start, but it's not something I really paid attention to. It's hard to believe I've run that many - especially consecutively."
The first 699 starts have included four Cup Series championships, 87 wins, 416 top 10 finishes and 72 poles. In 32 races at Darlington, he has seven wins and 21 top 10s, plus three poles.
"They repaved Darlington a few years back, so it's not the same track it used to be 10 years ago," said Gordon. "But it's still one of those tracks where you have to push hard but be patient. And it's still one of those tracks you must respect."
Respect for Darlington almost ceased in the mid-2000s, as NASCAR was looking to bring new tracks into the sport and pushing old standbys like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham to the side. History was on Darlington's side when NASCAR decided to take away just one of the track's races instead of both - that drivers still want to be known as a "Southern 500 champion" speaks volumes for the 60-plus-year-old track.
"It's critical that we look at Darlington the same way that baseball looks at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, because geographically it might not be perfect," explained Craven. "If you look at the design of the racetrack from an aerial view, it might not be perfect. But…the way that the track tests the driver, there's not a driver that's carried a NASCAR license that wouldn't rank the track among the toughest that they've ever competed at. And that means something, and it's important that the fans understand that, and I think that they've certainly gotten that message loud and clear because of the way the drivers approach that weekend."
Craven continued, "If, for whatever reason, the sport lost Darlington, it would have lost one of its pillars. It's not to say that the foundation of NASCAR would have been compromised, but there would have been a vacancy. I mean, there would have been an absence that every single competitor would have felt."
Added Busch, "Our sport saw a tremendous amount of growth from the mid-'90s to the mid-2000s, and to have Darlington survive the storm, it shows its strength all on its own on how unique it is. And to be the Southern 500, it ranks more important than the other tracks that have fallen to the wayside…Darlington is a challenge in so many ways, it's unbelievable. And this weekend we're going to have the Generation 6 car go for a qualifying lap around this track, and there's going to be drivers talking about holding it wide open through turns 1 and 2. It's going to be a phenomenal ride, and what type of track could produce this type of challenge? There is no other track. Darlington shows its strength, and the Lady in Black will always shine through."
Sources: "Transcript: NASCAR Teleconference with Kurt Busch, Ricky Craven," NASCAR Media, May 7, 2013
"Storylines: Darlington Raceway," NASCAR Media, May 6, 2013
Paula is a freelance writer and photographer who specializes in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at Examiner.com and Skirts & Scuffs.
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