‘Lady’ Darlington

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The old unofficial rule in NASCAR used to be that there were two weekends reserved for families that weren’t allowed to have scheduled races; Easter and Mother’s Day. The story goes that Big Bill France’s wife made sure that none of the driver’s mothers should have to see any of their sons hurt while participating in such a dangerous sport.

For the 2005 season, NASCAR – and its greedy nature – thought they would kill two traditions with one wad of cash. Not only did they have a race scheduled for Mother’s Day weekend, but they also eliminated the most traditional race in NASCAR history, the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend – a staple in the sport since 1950, leaving Darlington with only one race a season.

NASCAR saw the errors of the way, sort of. It was actually dollar signs that led them to see the light, along with being humiliated by the choice that got the date, as well as lots of nasty calls from NASCAR traditionalists.

The venue that took the place of the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend was California Speedway and it failed miserably to attract fans. They didn’t reverse their decision to race on Mother’s Day weekend, but now they call it the Darlington Southern 500 and race on Saturday instead of the actual “day.” Coming into this season, California traded their Labor Day race with Atlanta in hopes of getting more people in to lovely Fontana in October.

While California remains with it’s truck-series like crowds for two races a year, Darlington has picked up the pace with sellouts of 65,000 strong in each of the last four seasons and still offers the fans some of the best racing of the season.

Beyond all Darlington’s great history that makes each visit special, the track configuration and difficulty the drivers have attempting to conquer it make it one of the most fun races of the year to watch. It’s been called the track that is “Too Tough to Tame” and also “The Lady in Black” as reference that if you get out of line and too close to the wall, the “Lady” will slap a Darlington stripe on you to make you think twice about trying it again. The “Lady” is a mean angry woman to some drivers, not exactly too appropriate of a pairing for an event held on Mother’s Day weekend.

It’s odd egg-shaped 1.33-mile track with each side of the track vastly different. Back in 1949 the plan was to turn this peanut farm into a traditional oval with equal turns. At the request of the neighboring property, Darlington’s plans were modified to not disturb the minnow pond next door. Because of that, NASCAR fans have been blessed with the most unique track on tour with one end being a tight turn and the other with a wider sweeping turn. The minnow pond still exists to this day as does the unique turns which create such great racing.

The dilemma for most of the teams is figuring out which turn they want to set up best for. It’s very rare to see any car be perfectly set-up for each side equally. The one thing they don’t have to deal with like the drivers for the first 58 years did is the old sand-paper grit surface that ate away at any kind of tire compound used which required drivers to save their tires like no other track. The track was resurfaced in 2008 and is super smooth like Richmond now. There still is that abrasive sandy soil Darlington has that the wind pushes across 365 days a year and will eventually wear it down a bit, but it’ll never be the same.

Because the track is so unique, we can’t rely much on recent track history of any other track like we were able to do last week with Richmond by using Phoenix as a great barometer. Because of the banking, many crew chiefs in the last two years with the new surface have used their 1.5-mile Texas or Atlanta chassis’.

The winner from 2008 was Kyle Busch, who finally found the 2010 winners’ circle last week at Richmond. It was the second year in a row he gave himself a birthday present by winning at Richmond. That is now four straight races where Busch and his new crew chief Dave Rogers look to have their team all on the same page which could be bad news for everyone else.

Jimmie Johnson is Darlington’s active leader in average finish at 6.9, but hasn’t won there since sweeping the 2004 season which incidentally was the last real Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.

Jeff Burton and the entire Childress crew that includes new points leader Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer should all fare well this week. Burton has two career wins on the track coming in a 1999 sweep of the season. Their consistent horsepower and handling on all tracks should make them all contenders this week.

The active leader in wins at Darlington is Jeff Gordon with seven, the last coming in 2007. He is the only driver in track history to win the famed Southern 500 four straight years. With the way Gordon has been toughed lucked out of four of the last five races where he should have won, it’s hard to believe he won’t be one of the best this week especially considering how well he’s run on the 1.5-mile tracks of Las Vegas and Texas this year.

Look for the hard charging Gordon to finally break through this week. Let’s just hope for his sake that he can win under long green flag conditions and that if a late double-file restart is required, Kyle Busch isn’t in the first three rows, or Ryan Newman, or Hamlin for that matter; three drivers that have taken the veteran down under that format.

Happy Mother’s Day to every mom out there. Please make every day special for the mothers out there, but take extra special care of her on her one day.

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