No question the track is a cranky old thing, to the point where so much about Darlington Raceway seems equal parts myth and reality. But it's all quite genuine, those black marks on the otherwise red and white walls emblematic of a reputation that's endured for half a century. Times change and drivers change, but the challenge presented by this most original of NASCAR layouts remains eternal.
We certainly witnessed that a year ago, in the most unforgiving race of the 2013 Sprint Cup season -- one in which long green flag runs on that egg-shaped surface allowed only the strong to survive, and previewed the championship showdown between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Despite double-file restarts, wave arounds, free passes and all those other mechanisms designed to level the playing field, Darlington remains plenty capable of tilting it on its head.
That's why Harold Brasington's quirky track continues to stand out, because it continues to present one of the sport's preeminent challenges. They call it too tough to tame, and it certainly can be. But Darlington isn't the only thing in NASCAR to have developed something of a reputation due to its irascible nature.
There are plenty of competitors at NASCAR's highest levels who have proven a handful in their own right, drivers who have been as tough to tame as that ribbon of asphalt in South Carolina cotton country.
You know who they are. Some of them have left stripes of the metaphorical variety on car owners or other competitors. Some of them have flaunted rules, others moved from team to team like a nomad, leaving burned bridges in their wake. There are some drivers who have proven every bit as unbridled as the track that on Saturday night will host NASCAR's premier series for the 111th time, and here are the top 10.
10. Dale Earnhardt
Tame the Intimidator? Please. The notion in and of itself is laughable given that on the final weekend we ever saw him race, Dale Earnhardt put the bumper to Eddie Cheever Jr. in an IROC race to once again show that side of him that made the seven-time champion so loved and loathed all at once. Let's be fair -- Earnhardt was as dependable as bedrock for Richard Childress Racing, steered clear of off-track trouble, and provided just the kind of racing icon the sport needed in its formative years. But he wasn't shy about voicing his opinion to NASCAR, and he raced by his own code. That wasn't some kid rattling Terry Labonte's cage in 1999 -- it was a 48-year-old man. That was Earnhardt.
Like his predecessor, Kevin Harvick was a rock for Richard Childress, bringing a large degree of stability to a team in a very difficult time. But it wasn't always easy, and that's putting it mildly. There were several times when it seemed Harvick and RCR were finished with one another, and somehow they patched things up again. Even after Harvick was parked for rough driving in one Camping World Truck Series race, or forced to apologize after berating Childress' grandson in another. A headstrong driver and a headstrong owner made for a sometimes combustible combination. But as rough as it sometimes got, they kept it together for 13 seasons, because nothing was as bad as 2001.
8. Tony Stewart
These days, the three-time champion is a team co-owner who can close sponsorship deals on the strength of his name and reputation. But there were times when Tony Stewart tussled with other drivers and media members and even NASCAR, and was a complete handful who regularly tested the patience of former car owner Joe Gibbs. Age and responsibility have tempered Smoke somewhat, but this is still a guy who remains unapologetic about living and racing on his terms -- as we witnessed last year with his insistence on competing in sprint-car events. It certainly helps that away form the track, the guy is a complete teddy bear. But in the garage area? Even now, don't get in the dude's way.
7. Jack Ingram
During the course of a career that would ultimately earn him a place in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, you simply did not mess with Jack Ingram on a short track. The tireless and dogged Ingram won two championships in what is now the Nationwide Series and three more titles its precursor, but he might have added a sixth crown had he not been suspended two races by NASCAR for ramming another driver in a race in Asheville, N.C., in 1986. Even on the night he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall, he ranted on reporters whom he believed gave drivers like Dick Trickle and Mark Martin more credit. If that was a taste of what it was like to run afoul of the Iron Man, you certainly didn't want to experience it on the track.
6. Kurt Busch
The 2004 champ seems to have found a degree of peace these days, thanks to his association with car owner Gene Haas and work with the Armed Forces Foundation. But early on, Busch could be incorrigible with the best of them, particularly over the radio when his car wasn't performing well. He had some epic run-ins with reporters, including one in 2011 that led to a fine from NASCAR and preceded his split with Penske. Another a year later earned him a suspension. Although a cleaner racer than he gets credit for, he's never backed down from other drivers, as his feud with Jimmy Spencer would attest. Busch has shown a great deal of humility during his climb back to the sport's elite, although his history still lingers in the minds of many.
5. Jimmy Spencer
You can't have one side of one of the more infamous driver feuds in recent history without having the other, right? Often chomping on his omnipresent cigar, Jimmy Spencer gave off an air that some found ingratiating and others saw as arrogant. His nickname, "Mr. Excitement," stemmed from the fact that he wasn't shy about putting the fender to someone, a characteristic that made him even more polarizing. Although Spencer enjoyed a long stretch with Travis Carter, he bounced around early in his career, and later on lost a ride with Morgan-McClure following a run-in with police. Through it all, Spencer was always candid and quotable, which made him a natural for a second career in television -- even if he always did it his way.
4. Darrell Waltrip
These days he is one of the sport's foremost ambassadors, a three-time champion and Hall of Fame member who has become NASCAR's best-known analyst on television. Back in the day, though, Darrell Waltrip could redefine the concept of stubborn. In his younger years he took plenty of flak from veterans who didn't think he showed enough respect to the more seasoned drivers on the circuit. He left one team over a contract dispute, said he was "getting off an old nag and onto a thoroughbred" after moving on to another. His brash comments made him a favorite of reporters but made enemies in the garage, one reason Cale Yarborough labeled him "Jaws." You think 'ol D.W. is controversial how? You have no idea.
3. Curtis Turner
For all their flaws, some of these rascals are downright lovable. Such is the case with Curtis Turner, whose antics off the race track were more sensational than his exploits between the guardrails. He made fortunes, squandered them, and then made them again. He could be wanted by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Highway Patrol at the same time. He once plowed into Fred Lorenzen at Darlington, destroying his own car, because he was unhappy with how his rival had raced him. He was once banned by NASCAR for trying to form a union. "I don't really think I'd be happy if I wasn't in some sort of trouble," he said in the biography "Full Throttle" written by Robert Edelstein. He never had difficulty finding it.
He may have started only 20 national-series events in NASCAR, but Jacques Villeneuve certainly left a mark. The former Formula One champion and Indianapolis 500 winner wasn't shy about trading paint -- or taking someone out. His Sprint Cup debut at Talladega in 2007 drew howls of protest from regular drivers in the midst of title contention. His full-time hopes were permanently derailed the next year when he triggered a crash in a Daytona qualifying race. And then there was Road America in 2012, when he took out Danica Patrick on the final lap of a Nationwide race. In open-wheel racing, Villeneuve's record is impeccable -- all of which makes his wrecking-ball stock-car exploits so disappointing.
1. Robby Gordon
The off-road star won three premier-series events -- one on an oval -- over the course of his NASCAR career. But Gordon was also a handful, clashing with owners, officials, and other drivers on a regular basis. His 2003 win at Sonoma came after he passed Harvick -- his teammate at the time -- under yellow. "A cheap move," Harvick called it. Gordon burned through plenty of car owners before hanging out his own shingle. And then there was his infamous tantrum in a Nationwide event at Montreal, where he punted Marcos Ambrose, refused to serve a penalty, and was disqualified even though he crossed the line first. That didn't stop him from doing a victory burnout, though. Robby Gordon was one of a kind. Thankfully.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Kevin Harvick
- Jimmy Spencer
- Dale Earnhardt