DARLINGTON, S.C. -- There's just something about that South Carolina sand.
According to local wisdom, it was that fine, sandy soil of the Palmetto State's Pee Dee region that always helped give Darlington Raceway its defining abrasive characteristic. For decades the place was literally hell on wheels, and the only kind of tire strategy that made any sense was four -- anytime, every time, all the time. The asphalt was so coarse, legend holds, that you could cut your hand just by rubbing it against those finely-ground rocks sparkling through the racing surface on NASCAR's oldest big track.
All that changed before the 2008 season, when Darlington received a needed resurfacing -- the grand old lady had to be patched up with regularity by that point -- and suddenly the track's asphalt was night-black, smooth, and lightning fast. Speeds climbed, tires lasted forever, and in 2011 Regan Smith won the Southern 500 by staying out of the pits altogether, a move that would have seemed ludicrous in so many seasons past.
But that sand has a way of getting in all those nooks and crannies, just as it stows home in a chair brought back from the beach. In more recent years a startling amount of gray has returned to Darlington's surface, and Saturday night Kevin Harvick struck one for the old guard -- he took four tires on what proved the event's final pit stop, and thanks in part to a few cautions that extended the race distance, overtook those in front of him who had chosen two.
It's not altogether there, not yet. But it's getting close. Year by year, a little more of the old Darlington claws its way back to the surface, that sandy soil gradually returning this egg-shaped race track to its natural state.
"You've got to love it, gray race tracks. You can almost see the sparkle of the rocks coming out in the asphalt. That's so exciting. Maybe we need to spread the South Carolina sand on Kansas and Charlotte and all these other race tracks that haven't aged as fast as this one," Harvick said almost gleefully in the media center after recording his first career Darlington victory.
"When you start to see that gray, and you start to see the seams, and you can see the sparkle of the small rocks in the asphalt, it just makes it fun. Darlington is what it was supposed to be tonight, the cars slipping and sliding and bouncing off the walls and hard to drive. That's how you want every race track to be. You have Atlanta, you have Chicago, you have Richmond, a lot of these race tracks that are wore out. We need to go in there and maybe we need to take some of this sand and just spread it everywhere and just rub it in with something, I don't know."
It's true, in an age when asphalt holds up better than ever, and a number of other resurfaced venues have taken a very long time to build some wear back into them, Darlington is graying up faster than anyone anticipated. "It's definitely getting slicker," said runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. And that places more of a premium on tire management with every passing season.
"Absolutely," said Matt Puccia, Greg Biffle's crew chief. "Every year we come back here, it's getting a little more white and a little less black. It's starting to show its age, and I think in a couple more years, we'll see it back to where it was 10 years ago. So it's cool. It makes for tires meaning a lot."
It can also make for the unusual sight of drivers racing at Darlington not right up against the wall -- where they have basically been since the place opened in 1950 -- but further down the track. In practice Friday, spotters relayed to drivers that some teams were finding speed a few lanes down from the wall, about as alien here as turning right. But eventual third-place finisher Jimmie Johnson discovered the same thing during the race, and said it was almost certainly a function of the aging asphalt combined with this current edition of Sprint Cup Series car.
"It's a lot of fun having a lot of options," Johnson said. "I don't know why we can run so much lower on the race track. Back with the old surface, you wouldn't dare get on the apron area, and heck, I don't think I ran up in the groove but a handful of laps today. I was down on the flat the majority of the race. The asphalt is aging, but it's driving different, and I assume it's just the cars and how much more downforce we have now. But it is a lot of fun out there."
And Saturday night, it proved a real quandary for crew chiefs trying to make tire calls, particularly late in the event. Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief, went back and forth between taking four tires and two leading up to the event's final stop, and eventually settled on two -- the same strategy used by Johnson, and most others in contention. Harvick was in the minority in taking four, which proved the winning decision when two late cautions extended the length of the race.
"I think they have a gem down here, and I think it's only going to continue to get better," Letarte said of the track. "The first year (after the repave) we would have never pitted once we were inside our fuel window. Last year you saw tires be more important, you saw four win tonight. We weren't going to hold (Harvick) off when he was behind us, but yeah, I think it's going more and more that way. I think it's great. It makes this place not only a unique shape, but also a unique race on the schedule."
A few teams tried to make two tires work. Brian Vickers took two on a stop midway through the race, and led 30 laps, but eventually fell back and finished 26th after spinning trying to get on pit road. And Biffle used a two-tire stop later in the race to gain track position, which helped him net a fifth-place finish after Puccia was able to take four tires and maintain most of that gained ground on the following stop.
"Four tires were holding up for sure better than two on a long run," Puccia said. "I knew with 96 laps to go, we had to stop one more time, and I could shorten up that stint. I knew I could only go 30 laps, so I could shorten up that stint there and put four on. I felt pretty good about it if I could get up there in clean air and net more positions. That's what I was shooting for. I knew we weren't going to get up there and win the thing on two tires, but at least get us some track position."
Toward that end, two tires worked out. But when it came time to decide the race, it was four tires that ultimately prevailed, as was the case at Darlington for so many years before this current surface was put down. It was just three years ago that Smith beat Carl Edwards -- who had taken two tires -- by staying out of the pits and making his old rubber last through a frantic green-white-checkered restart. It might as well have been a century ago.
"I don't see that happening anymore," Puccia said. "It's getting more age on the surface, which is great. That's what makes these races so good, when you get different strategies. You've got to manage your tires, and that's what's key to running good here."
Just as it has been for generations, thanks to that South Carolina sand.
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