Thomas Bowles · Monday May 9, 2005
For longtime NASCAR fans, Saturday night was a little bit eerie. Cars were racing on NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway…but under the lights? In May? It was the first time a race had been held at Darlington during that month since 1971. However, after a few years of first moving Darlington’s race dates around, then chopping them down from two to one, a Saturday night before Mother’s Day was all Darlington had left to prove that it still belonged in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series ranks.
Now, of course we know there’s no reason Darlington should have to prove anything. NASCAR’s oldest track steeped in tradition, NASCAR’s best and brightest stars have proved themselves at the Lady in Black through the years, from Petty to Yarborough to Pearson to Gordon. Over 100 races have been run here, at a track unique for its shape and size (1.33 miles) in a racing series that has way too many “cookie-cutter” tracks. But this is the modern-day NASCAR, and Darlington’s 60,000 seats make it the smallest arena on the circuit. When most of the other tracks double your seating capacity, it’s tradition be damned, and Darlington is continually on edge about losing its final race date.
But I think after Saturday night, we can breathe a sigh of relief. All the Lady in Black had to be to keep its race date was its usual self, and it delivered in fine fashion. The track ate up and spit out its usual collection of race cars: anyone from Kyle Busch, who collected his first “Darlington Stripe,” to his brother Kurt, the defending Nextel Cup champion, who couldn’t complete one lap around the egg-shaped oval before wrecking his race car. Talldeaga wipes out 25 race cars in one full swoop; as Darrell Waltrip said on Saturday night, Darlington does the same thing, but spits them out just one at a time instead of all at once.
But along with the wrecks, we saw some fine racing, with over 20 lead changes, most of those occurring under green-flag conditions. Passing at Darlington is a special skill unto itself, and fascinating to watch: it’s a speedway where drivers are supposed to race the track, not other cars, and just one groove around all four turns makes it near impossible for two cars to fit side-by-side. Still, the race saw its fair share of different leaders, as everyone from Gordon, to Biffle, to Newman, to Kahne took turns at the front.
Most importantly, you had the type of finish Darlington is legendary for. A late-race caution with five laps to go set up a sprint to the finish, with Ryan Newman and Ken Schrader up front on old tires challenged by the rest of the pack on new ones. Newman and Schrader had just two laps to fend off the pack; they could not, and Greg Biffle streaked by for his first victory at NASCAR’s track “Too Tough to Tame.” Not quite as thrilling as the side-by-side battle to the line between Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven in 2003, or the desperate battle between Jeff Gordon and others as he won the Winston Million in 1997.
But the excitement was there. And, most importantly, so were the fans, with the race sold out over a week before the race. You could hear the cheering crowd throughout, and signs posted around the track showed that the fans were making the statement to plead for help in keeping their beloved track alive. The track promoters deserve a medal for what they did this year; NASCAR dropped racing on Mother’s Day years ago due to poor crowds, and how these people were able to grab a sellout crowd on a weekend people usually spend with family is beyond me. They took a “dead” date NASCAR seem to give them in order to justify kicking them off the circuit, and instead left this Saturday night in May with a tradition very much alive.
The Lady in Black put her best foot forward, and told NASCAR how much they need her. The bigger question is now, simply, whether NASCAR realizes it.
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