Mother Nature has been a real nuisance for the Cup Series this year, with two races being delayed for hours and forced to end under the lights. While the racing at night was fantastic with the threat of rain forcing drivers to race like every lap was the last one, at Texas, the rain was finally too much to overcome. Despite the fact that Texas has lights and that the NCAA basketball tournament finale would be on Monday in AT&T Stadium, NASCAR made the choice to race on Monday. The last time the Cup Series ran the spring race at Texas in the daytime, it was postponed to Monday and Denny Hamlin won only a few weeks after undergoing major knee surgery. As of Sunday night, the race was scheduled for Monday afternoon. Whenever they are done at Texas, the series will take on one of the oldest and most respected tracks on the circuit: Darlington Raceway.
One of the things that makes Darlington unique is its shape. When track designer and owner Harold Brasington built Darlington, he promised the landowner next to him that the minnow pond would not be disturbed. Because of that, Brasington had to pinch the one end of his track in tighter than he would have liked. The end result was a 1.366-mile egg-shaped track that would soon prove to be one of the most treacherous tracks drivers would ever race on.
In addition to its shape, one other thing that made Darlington unique was the way drivers had to race it. At most tracks, drivers preferred the inside line at the bottom of the banking. At Darlington, drivers had to stay up top close to the outside wall. With so little margin for error, drivers had to ride an even finer line than they would at other tracks. One little bobble, and a driver would find himself with a “Darlington Stripe” on his car, which is a scratch from the right-front fender all the way to the right-rear quarter panel. Over the years, because of its difficulty, the track earned not one, but two nicknames: The Track Too Tough To Tame and The Lady in Black. The latter was given due to all the black marks on the walls from drivers earning their Darlington Stripes.
Darlington, along with Martinsville, is one of the few tracks that have been a part of the schedule since NASCAR’s inception. The first race at Darlington was in 1950 on Labor Day weekend. The rough surface was hard on tires and several drivers suffered blowouts. Johnny Mantz used truck tires, which had a harder compound and won the first Southern 500. For the next 53 years, Darlington would be host to one of the crown jewel races on the schedule, the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.
That tradition ended after the 2003 season. NASCAR decided to relocate its Labor Day weekend racing to Auto Club Speedway and reduced Darlington to a single date on the schedule. Not only did Darlington have only one race a year, it was given a near-death sentence when NASCAR announced its lone date was the Saturday night before Mother’s Day. Fans responded by selling out that first Saturday night race and have continued to sell out, making sure that a crucial part of NASCAR history isn’t passed over for another cookie-cutter track.
Most wins among active drivers: Jeff Gordon (seven)
Defending Winner: Matt Kenseth claimed his first win at Darlington, holding off teammate Denny Hamlin for one of his seven wins of 2013.
Prediction: Drivers don’t race the competition at Darlington, they race the racetrack. Racing the track means the drivers focus on hitting their marks right and making passes only at the opportune times when it won’t jeopardize them or the competitor. Doing so otherwise could be disastrous. You don’t attack this track, you treat it with respect. Otherwise she’ll reach out and bite you. It takes a tough, grizzled veteran to master Darlington. That’s why I’m picking Jeff Gordon this week. There’s a reason he has the most wins among active drivers and is only three away from tying the all-time wins record here. Gordon knows how to get around Darlington and what it takes to win here. Look for Gordon to challenge for the win Saturday night and lock himself into the Chase.
Fun Fact: Gordon won at least one race here for four straight years between 1995 and 1997, claiming five in all before adding two more in 2002 and 2007.
David Barr is a graduate of Daniel Boone High School and is studying Communications at Mansfield University.