NASCAR's roots paved in Darlington

May 6, 2008 7:00 PM

Finish Line by Micah Roberts |

Roberts Top 5 At Darlington
1. #99 Carl Edwards 7-1
2. #11 Denny Hamlin 8-1
3. #31 Dale Earnhardt Jr 7-1
4. #24 Jeff Gordon 7-1
5. #18 Kyle Busch 8-1
13 8 41 of 70

If there is one track that embodies the roots of NASCAR, it is without a doubt Darlington Raceway, site of this Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race.

The first race was run at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, 1950 and it was called the Southern 500. That race was run on the same weekend for the next 54 years until coming to a close in 2004.

The move irritated many traditionalists, not just because of losing the date, but because of the wound it made, how symbolic it was, and the lack of success that Labor Day weekend date has now on the track it calls home.

Just like the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants after the 1957 baseball season, Darlington’s Southern 500 was moved to California. It gave the loyalists another reason to dislike this expansion age of NASCAR and long for the days when they could see a Cup nearly every few weeks within 600 miles of where they lived.

Unlike the Dodgers and Giants, who turned out to be one of the most profitable teams in baseball and in the Dodgers case, one of the winningest, California’s NASCAR dates have been a flop.

The California dates do not sell out despite the facility having one of the smallest seating capacities on tour with 90,000. Was it worth it? The objective for NASCAR was to take charge of the No. 2 market and turn them all into rabid fans, just like ones that attended twice a year at Darlington.

The France family must have figured that if they hit the top markets enough with their races that TV ratings will go up in those areas during the 34 weeks they aren’t running there. If the ratings are up, then they can charge more for their next network contract.

Southern California people are a much different breed than those in the Carolinas and they surely are not going to have the reverence put into each race there as those in the Southeast. In Southern Cal, they really don’t care about the races, whether it stays or goes, whereas, "The Lady in Black" at Darlington was always treated with dignity, respect, and as a part of everyone’s family.

This week the teams will get a real treat on the night before Mother’s Day. The gritty, shell-filled sandpaper asphalt that had become a staple of the track’s features has now been replaced by a brand new smooth, modern age asphalt.

Tires should last much longer, which changes the whole complexion of how the race will be driven. I always liked Darlington because the track became an equalizer. Knowing how to run was just as important as having a great set-up and a good driver. Certain drivers got it, and others didn’t.

Dale Earnhardt Jr, never seemed to get it at Darlington. He may not have ever had the best car there. Junior wasn’t patient enough from the beginning of a run with fresh tires. Again, these are just my own observations from watching lap times over the years there.

I have never actually ever heard anyone criticize him for that. Junior would be ultrafast from the beginning and then tail off miserably for the last half of the run because he wore his tires out too quickly. Rusty Wallace started 43 races at Darlington with great cars and never won because he couldn’t hold back early on for the sake of being better late in the runs.

None of that "saving tire stuff" matters anymore because the surface is much different. The strategies some of the best Darlington drivers like Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, and Jeff Gordon used will not be as valuable.

So what should be the key component in identifying who will do the best this week? They used the Car of Tomorrow at this race last year with Jeff Gordon winning there for the seventh time in his career. Denny Hamlin led the most laps and finished second. Jimmie Johnson, a two-time winner at Darlington, led the most laps for the last 100 miles.

It’s more likely that the top finishers this week will resemble what we have seen for the entire season of races, excluding the plate races. That means Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch will be at the forefront once again.

Earnhardt Jr fits the current criteria and will have a great shot at besting his Darlington best of fourth because of the new surface.