This week the drivers head to Darlington, South Carolina for a Saturday night race at the most storied track in NASCAR.
Since 1950, NASCAR drivers have been racing at Darlington and along the way a few names have been attached to it such as ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame’ and ‘The Lady in Black’.
Just by those names alone, it should tell you that it’s a pretty unforgiving track that presents some of toughest challenges drivers have on the circuit.
The difficult challenge the drivers have comes from the four differing turns around this 1.366-mile egg-shaped track. Turns one and two are different from three and four in distance and banking creating a dilemma for the teams in how they set up the car. It’s nearly impossible for a car to be set up perfect for all four turns, so they have pick where they want to be the best at which is usually turns three and four.
Turn four is where the ‘Lady in Black’ issues most of her Darlington Stripes, which is when a driver smacks the wall and their car gets stamped with a little piece of Darlington on it for the rest of the race, if able to still run. This Lady is a mean old angry woman, but commands respects from each and every one of the drivers like no other track.
One lady that gets a chance at meeting the Lady for the first time is Danica Patrick who makes her second Cup appearance of the season. The hype from Daytona when she made her Cup debut in February is long gone, but the publicity machine will start churning out some releases Wednesday to help make Saturday’s race one that attracts a broader audience than usual.
Patrick finished 38th in the Daytona 500 and is having some moderate success during her learning period while driving in the Nationwide series where she‘s 11th in points with one top-10 finish. Although she’s driven on almost every type of track around the world in Indy and stock cars, nothing will prepare her for Darlington.
This race isn’t known for having surprise winners, but last year Regan Smith won at 500-to-1. It was the largest odds of any winner in the history of NASCAR betting in Las Vegas. There weren’t many takers and the few that did wagers didn’t bet over $5.
The driver to key on this week is Denny Hamlin who currently sits fourth in points, 27 behind leader Greg Biffle. Hamlin not only has a great past history at Darlington, but comes in as one of the more formidable drivers on all tracks. He’s got two wins already through 10 races and a 6.5 average finish at Darlington that includes a win in 2010.
Biffle has to be considered as well. While he hasn’t won a race yet this season, he has finished fifth or better six times in 10 races. Biffle also won back-to-back years (2005-06) at Darlington. His run this year is reminiscent of his 2005 season when winning six races and finishing runner-up in the standings.
If you had to pick one driver who ‘The Lady in Black’ treated as her favorite, it would probably be Jeff Gordon who has won at Darlington seven times. He’s the only driver to ever win four straight Southern 500’s when the race was considered one of the crown jewels of the sport.
Beyond just the wins, Gordon has figured a way better than most to get around the track and avoid the wrath. Until his 12th-place finish last season, Gordon was on an unbelievable run of seven straight top-5 finishes at Darlington.
This season Gordon has had a terrible stretch of bad luck sitting 23rd in points with only two top-10 finishes. It would almost seem appropriate that the Lady’s favorite driver get better on her track. If Gordon does, it would be the 200th win for Hendrick Motorsports.
It would only seem fitting that Gordon be the driver to get the win since he posted 85 of those Hendrick wins.
It could be said that Dale Earnhardt Jr is having a career year even though he hasn’t won any of the last 139 races. He’s currently third in points with a chance to finish in the top-10 for the seventh straight race – an all-time best for him.
Junior has never won at Darlington, but does have the advantage of having crew chief Steve Letarte’s Darlington knowledge. Letarte was Gordon’s crew chief and never finished worse than fifth while in charge, including Gordon’s last win there.
Awards Stay in LV
NASCAR announced Monday that the annual Sprint Cup Series Awards – and all of Champion’s Week – will return here and remain for the next three years.
It’s the fourth consecutive season the Sprint Cup Series Awards will take place at Wynn Las Vegas. The date is Friday, Nov. 30, a culmination of a week-long celebration for the series champion – and NASCAR fans.