Darlington at night last hurrah for legend

May 3, 2005 8:58 AM

Saturday night (7:30 EST) on Mother’s Day eve, Darlington (S.C.) Raceway will host the first ever Nextel Cup race going flag to flag under the lights.

In a normal Cup race under the lights, the race always starts under daylight or twilight prior to dusk due to the time of year or region it’s running in. At least the track can claim some sort of something. That’s the least NASCAR could do after shredding this year’s schedule to just one Darlington date.

Darlington has always had exciting, side by side racing, bumping and bruising all the way around the 1.33 mile egg shaped track — virtually guaranteeing a quality event to the finish. One of those races tossed out by NASCAR was the longest continuous stop in NASCAR history, the Southern 500.

Progress and growth are wonderful words to all businesses and corporations, even when it’s founding roots and ethics are compromised for that growth. I suppose that’s the price the true fan base pays for helping make the sport so popular. Enjoy this type of racing while you can. Rumor has it (though denied) that Speedway Motorsports Inc. will buy Darlington Raceway and move the only date to Las Vegas.

The buyout would be bittersweet. I’d love another date in Vegas, but weighing pros and cons of eliminating a classic track layout like Darlington and bolstering the Clark County economy is tough.

There is no track in NASCAR with as much history, respect and nicknames. "The Lady in Black’ is a "Track that’s Too Tough to Tame" and all drivers sooner or later are going to get their "Darlington Stripe." Those are just a few of the phrases coined from the early days that stuck from the legends, who experienced it all first hand.

The late Dale Earnhardt had a love/hate relationship with the track, but respected it more than any other.

"You never forget your first love whether it’s a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition," said Earnhardt. "And, if you happen to be a race car driver, there’s no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway."

This will be uncharted waters for all the drivers involved because they’ve never done it the entire way at night. They do know their tires are going to get chewed up and multiple grooves will appear around the track. Temperatures in the South Carolina evening air will get as low as 54 degrees.

How some of the cars respond won’t be known until the final practice on Thursday night. Even then, the sessions will end just as the cooler air starts coming in.

Late Friday afternoon is the qualifying session and then the cars will be impounded by NASCAR until the start of the race.

Drivers vs Darlington

Jimmie Johnson (7-1) won both races last year and is the favorite. In six career starts at Darlington, Johnson has had only one race where he didn’t finish in the top 9, quite an accomplishment for such a young driver on such a tough track.

Jeff Gordon (8-1) is probably the only active driver other then Johnson, who had success come so quickly and effortlessly at Darlington. He’s finished in the top 5 in half of his 24 career starts, including six wins. Five came in the fabled and now extinct Southern 500. Four happened in consecutive years, making him the only driver ever to accomplish that remarkable feat at NASCAR’s oldest track.

Jeff Burton (16-1) is the last driver before Johnson to sweep a Darlington season. That was way back in ’99 when he had a top flight Roush car. As his equipment diminished, his performances didn’t fall off too drastically or at least as drastically as it did at most of the other tracks. He had a solid run at Phoenix under the lights a few weeks and we see another good effort this week.

Jeremy Mayfield (15-1) has a couple of things going for him. First, he’s always competed well at Darlington when having a good car. While driving for Penske, he had four straight top 5 finishes there. That was quite a while ago but, much like Burton, Mayfield was stuck driving some real slow sleds in the middle portion of his career. He’s come full circle to become one of the best on tour with a top team. Second, is Ray Evernham, who guided Gordon to his four consecutive Southern 500 wins.

Kasey Kahne (12-1) also benefitted from Evernham giving him a car good enough to finish fifth last year. Look for a solid run from the Dodge Charger.

Jamie McMurray (15-1) should get a top 5 finish. In his only two Southern 500 starts, he’s finished fourth each time. He not only has a great past history, but is starting to really heat up overall. Look for that to continue.

The Roush clan will have all their regulars equally tough with Mark Martin (10-1), Greg Biffle (12-1), and Kurt Busch (11-1) being the ones to back. Martin finished second and seventh last year and likely will be dialed in this week.