'It takes guts:' Darlington's uniqueness and challenges unmatched

DARLINGTON, S.C. — “Too Tough to Tame.” “The Lady in Black.”

When a race track has multiple nicknames, you can bet it’s among the toughest for NASCAR drivers to get around.

Darlington Raceway fits the bill for the monikers with its uniqueness as a narrow, asymmetrical 1.366-mile oval.

Rarely, if ever, will you see the outside retaining walls squeaky clean after races as drivers flirt inches away from the wall while searching for speed. Some can make it the full distance without ever touching the wall but most hot rods, searching for speed up top, will don the patented ‘Darlington stripe,’ leaving vibrant paint schemes scuffed and fenders bent.

Brad Keselowski, winner of the 2018 Southern 500, knows all too well the courage it takes just to enter Turn 1 at Darlington.

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“It takes guts. I mean, there’s no way around it. You know, this track is very intimidating,” Keselowski said. “You’re going to hit the wall here. At some point, you have to almost accept that. But I mean, you can’t back down from the challenge.”

Both corner entries present varying fits for drivers. While Turns 1 and 3 are narrow, the former requires a slight dive on entry, followed by riding the car up the track before straightening out alongside the wall to carry speed coming off Turn 2.

Turns 3 and 4 are a tad more technical, with more options. Drivers can either try to dive deep into the corner to complete a pass on the inside or master throttle control by staying up by the wall from corner entry to exit before putting the pedal to the metal down to the start/finish line.

Three-time Southern 500 victor Denny Hamlin embraces the risks that the track presents every lap, adding that he doesn’t need a perfect No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to find Victory Lane.

“It’s certainly a fine line and usually the fastest line here at this track is going to be the closest that you can get to the wall,” Hamlin said. “There’s obviously a risk-reward there that you have to play that game, but I love this track because you can move around and change the balance of your car. Your car doesn’t have to be necessarily perfect to win here. The driver plays a huge, huge role at this type of track and so I love it.”

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 05: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Offerpad Toyota, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 05, 2021 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 05: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Offerpad Toyota, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 05, 2021 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

During Saturday’s Cup Series practice and qualifying sessions, Hamlin’s JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. found that fine line in his run for the pole as he brushed the wall.

Truex, the 2016 Southern 500 winner, still managed to qualify 10th for Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and explained why it’s more difficult to practice and qualify at Darlington than the race itself.

“You have one lap where you really got to try to make it happen,” Truex said. “I went a little too hard in Round 2 of qualifying trying to go faster from Round 1 and I paid the price. So, in the race, I feel like it’s a little bit easier. The pace slows down. You’re not having to [be] quite committed as much. You can kind of give up a little on entry and make it up in other places, I feel like, but it’s definitely harder here than anywhere, that’s for sure.”

With Darlington’s spring race taking place all in daylight while the Labor Day tradition of the Southern 500 starts in the sun and gives way to darkness, the notebook evolves as the cars change and drivers tend to readapt annually to the track.

One change a handful of Cup drivers noticed is a patch that lays in Turn 2 just before exiting down the backstretch. Keselowski noted that it makes an apparent difference as it has worn out and blended in with the rest of the abrasive racing surface.

“A couple years ago, they repaved the exit of Turn 2 and it was like this grip strip of speed,” Keselowski said. “And then incrementally every year, we’ve seen it almost turn into the rest of the track. I was watching the Truck race and you can’t even see it if you don’t have a trained eye. That’s really changed the track in the last three or four years because when they first repaved it, there was this grip strip and you just flew through there, and now it’s kind of getting harder and harder to go through that section of the race track.

“That’s changed the approach. I think even in the Truck race you saw two or three guys wreck off of Turn 2 where normally that grip strip would have just saved you. So I think that’s one of the key dynamics of how the track has changed in the last few years.”

Chase Elliott has yet to win in 14 starts at Darlington and has had a fair share of misfortune around ‘The Lady in Black,’ most notably a late-race incident with Truex in the 2020 Southern 500, in which the two made contact entering Turn 1 and took synchronized slams into the wall.

The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet gave his breakdown of why Darlington is a complete 180 from other ovals larger than a mile.

“It’s just all about getting in a rhythm and this track is a place that is pretty hard to get in a rhythm because both ends are so different,” Elliott said. “It just adds an element to that that makes it different than some other tracks. Kansas [Turn] 1 versus Kansas 3 is different but not quite so different as what this place is. So that’s the challenge. How bad do you need to pace? Is there pace up there? Can you make pace up there? You just got to figure those things out as you go.”

When 400 miles are completed Sunday afternoon, competitors in NASCAR’s highest level will have checked off another weekend around the sport’s most difficult track.

The only questions that remain are: who will be the one to tame Darlington, and who will leave the track with nothing but a stripe?