This week it’s Darlington Raceway, a track more entrenched in NASCAR tradition than any other on the circuit.
Darlington was the first track to run on asphalt and to have a 500 mile race. The odd egg-shaped 1.36 mile track built on a whim of competing with Indianapolis Motor Speedway is what NASCAR tradition is all about amid the new similar facilities across America over the last 13 years.
The race is on Mother’s Day weekend for the fifth straight year, initially an off limits rule of NASCAR’s creator Big Bill France. France never wanted to co-mingle fan loyalty with disrupting major religious days or honoring one’s Mother.
Fast forward to 2005 when NASCAR’s economics and growth were clouding their judgment. Dollar signs won out over respecting sports tradition and values.
NASCAR changed the Darlington dates, which included removing the venerable Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend that had run since 1950, longer than any other. That date went to California its subsidiary ISC thinking it would create better ratings.
The irony of the whole switch and change of dates at Darlington is that it was moved to Mother’s Day weekend and the nickname of the track is "The Lady in Black."
This Saturday night’s race on the crazed oval is unlike any other. Each of the entries into the turns are different in circumference and banking. Teams will need a car balanced somewhat like Texas, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. Because of distance and variance of corners, it will have to handle like a Bristol or Phoenix.
The king of the facility is Jeff Gordon, a 7-time winner on the track labeled, "Too Tough to Tame." Gordon who is three wins shy of tying David Pearson’s 10 at Darlington. Gordon set a record by becoming the only driver to win 5 straight Southern 500’s from 1995-99.
After last week’s race in Richmond and a one week relegation to second place, Gordon is again back in the points lead by a slim 10 over Las Vegan Kurt Busch. Gordon has 16 top 5 finishes in Darlington over 28 starts. His last win was two years ago.
Kyle Busch may be the favorite to win this week, but Gordon may be the best bet based on pedigree and experience.
Kyle now has three wins on the season after Richmond on his birthday. He won there last season, leading the most laps and dominating the last third of the race. While sulking and free falling in the last 10 races of the Chase last season, Kyle may have learned a valuable lesson in humility which seems to have fueled him to another level that no one is on.
Kurt Busch was part of perhaps the greatest Darlington race of all time when he and Ricky Craven battled for five laps side by side, sliding, banging, and bumping all the way to the finish until Craven finally won. That was the best run Kurt has ever had at Darlington. Darlington should get Kurt’s blood flowing and is the type of track he likes. And, Kurt would like to knock his brother’s cocky block off himself on the track.
Jimmie Johnson swept the 2004 season when Darlington ran two races, including taking the final Southern 500, not on the refurbished track NASCAR is throwing to the fans this week. The two wins remain Johnson’s only ones on the track, but has eight top 10’s in his 10 starts. He dropped three positions in points after a poor run in Richmond last week and doesn’t appear to have it all together.
Oh Roush, where art thou? It’s obvious despite winning the first two races of the season with Matt Kenseth that the team is struggling. Greg Biffle, a two time winner at Darlington, is having a terrible time even though he’s sitting 11th in points. Carl Edwards only has one top 5 this season, while Kenseth is 12th in points.
This is a track where several Roush drivers have done very well regarding top 5 finishes. Last season Roush had four of his drivers finish in the top 11 with Edwards charging late and finishing second.
Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman had great runs at Richmond which should serve well this week, especially Ryan. Stewart is currently third in points while Newman has moved into 10th. Stewart has finished second in two of the last three races and is looking for his first win at Darlington. The track is one of only three Stewart hasn’t won on. Should Stewart win, he would become the first driver since Ricky Rudd in 1998 to win a race with a car he drove and owned.
Drivers that should also have good runs this week are Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Martin Truex Jr, and Denny Hamlin. Junior has never done anything special at Darlington, but the Junior Nation has to have some impact after all his struggles thus far, No?
Happy Mother’s Day to all Mothers everywhere.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Micah Roberts