Darlington says bye to Labor Day race

Aug 26, 2003 8:38 AM

This Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway marks the final time the historic track will host a race on Labor Day weekend. Earlier this season NASCAR gave the date to California Speedway, which will run a night race.

Darlington will take over Rockingham’s fall date next year, with the North Carolina facility the odd track out. The tradition is with the South Carolina track, which has hosted the longest continuous 500-mile race since 1950.

Darlington has befuddled some of the world’s best drivers. Richard Petty posted only three of his record 200 victories at the 1.366-mile oval. For a driver, winning at Darlington is one of the more sought-after victories on the tour.

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

Ricky Craven (20-1) claimed the spring race, one of the most thrilling in Winston Cup history. Craven and Kurt Busch (10-1) slid, bumped, and slammed their way down the stretch for the win.

"There’s no tougher place than Darlington Raceway," Craven said. "This is a track where I wanted to win the worst. I’m glad I got that chance."

That race brings up the hot topic in NASCAR today; The Kurt Busch-Jimmy Spencer altercation at Bristol. It will linger for some time and unfortunately for Busch, the opinions of the fans, particularly those in the south, have been formed. The fans have been looking for a new driver to boo after getting soft on Jeff Gordon (7-1). Now they have Busch.

The irony is that Busch was called one of the toughest, cleanest, hard-nosed drivers in the series after dueling with Craven. Fade into last week and all of a sudden the world is calling Busch reckless and all sorts of other bad names associated with someone his age. This after getting punched in the face by Spencer for getting too close on the track. The punch occurred while Busch was still in his car.

"This is by far the biggest win, this beats all of my wins," Busch said as he was showered with boos from the crowd of 160,000. "It is so sweet to come here with all of the things that dragged me down to get here. The late Dale Sr. once told me the guy with the most noise wins."

Another piece of irony involved the drivers knocking Busch. Last week, Robby Gordon (50-1) popped off about Busch. After the Bristol race, another hothead, Kevin Harvick (15-1), who finished second, had some hard words.

"I hate losing to Rubberhead," Harvick said. "He’s learning what being a butthole will get you when he goes to victory lane and people boo. He’s a cocky, arrogant, punk with a really, really bad attitude. But he can wheel a race car."

At least Harvick gave Busch some credit.

Through the first 100 Darlington races, only 39 drivers have claimed a victory. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 30. Gordon is favored this week in part because of his six career victories, by far the most of active drivers.

His 4 consecutive Southern 500 wins from ”˜95 to ”˜98 is an accomplishment that no driver has ever come close to achieving. In 21 starts, Gordon has 11 top 5 finishes, an amazing figure considering how volatile the track can be.

Other top drivers in recent track history are Dale Jarrett (25-1), Sterling Marlin (12-1), and Ward Burton (30-1). Jarrett has three career wins between ”˜97 and ”˜01 in the shorter 300-miler during the spring. Marlin won last year and in ”˜95 giving Marlin.

In ”˜99, Jeff Burton (14-1) swept the two races at Darlington. Brother Ward Burton (30-1) is the only other driver to have won twice over that span.

TOP 5 AT DARLINGTON

#24 Jeff Gordon (7/1)

#8 Dale Earnhardt Jr (9/1)

#97 Kurt Busch (10/1)

#17 Matt Kenseth (14/1)

#99 Jeff Burton (14/1)