Darlington, South Carolina. You’d be hard pressed to find it on a map; but say the name, and instantly a flurry of iconic imagery comes flooding forward; Cale Yarborough sailing out of the track over the guardrail; Richard Petty hanging halfway out of the window of his battered Plymouth as it tumbles down the frontstretch; Bill Elliott taking the checkered flag to win a millon dollars; Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven deciding the race at the line by a hood pin – well, you get the idea. Las Vegas, Chicagoland and Texas don’t exactly engender themselves to those kinds of memories. In due time, maybe… but probably not.
That makes Darlington as unique as owning a pet elephant – albeit without the messy cleanup. However, after 17 caution flags this past weekend, I may have to come up with a new metaphor.
Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington was more than just a trip down memory lane. The walls weren’t the only things that were a throwback at the minnow pond “Too Tough To Tame.” Oh, sure, there were the usual reminders of how things have changed – the Car of Tomorrow, the race being run on a Saturday night in May instead of Labor Day weekend, Kyle Busch giving yet another tired, predictable, curt, and testy response before sprinting away like Usain Bolt after downing some tainted Taco Bell – but much like the last few weeks of racing, it was a refreshing look at no matter how much the face of racing has changed here, many things still remain the same.
Before the race started, a collection of former Southern 500 (and previous shorter iterations) winners took to the stage as part of a special ceremony to honor their achievements. Past met present, as the stage was awash in history with a Who’s Who of past victors getting saluted by the crowd. Petty, Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker, representing the foundation of modern-day NASCAR, were joined by current heroes Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton… with Mark Martin serving as anchor between the illustrious past and the burgeoning future.
Now, while the Daytona 500 has always been the Super Bowl of stock car racing and always will be, it was the Southern 500 and Darlington that always held a special place in the heart of drivers, mechanics and teams alike. If you beat… no… survived this track, you had truly done something special. After all, this was the first superspeedway race, the original high-banked asphalt jungle concrete hell-zone… as Ted Nugent might deem it.
While Darrell Waltrip beating Petty in 1979 may have served as a passing of the torch of sorts, Martin snatched it back for old age and treachery with his second win in four races Saturday night, forcing Johnson to call no joy and throttle back to save fuel instead of walling his racecar in a futile effort to overtake his Hendrick teammate. Perhaps lost in all of this during the closing laps, however, was the former driver of the No. 5 machine, Terry Labonte. Prior to Martin’s second Southern 500 victory, the last time the No. 5 car had won at Darlington was six years earlier in the last true Southern 500 – a victory which was also the last of Labonte’s career that also included a pair of Sprint (Winston) Cup championships. Labonte was always considered one of the few drivers who was a link to NASCAR’s past – now, it is Martin’s turn to fill that role at the tender age of 50.
It is also only a matter of time before Mike Joy bursts forth with, “Number Five is ALIVE!” – so when it happens, remember who you heard it from first.
While drivers of an era (and generation) gone by played a significant role Saturday night, the race also served to showcase two personalities who promise to be dominant forces in Sprint Cup competition for decades to come. Joey Logano, fresh off some tutoring from five-time Southern 500 winner Yarborough on how to get around Darlington, was able to guide the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota home for his best career finish to date, a ninth-place showing on an exceptionally hot night that featured a record number of caution flags.
Logano’s radio traffic was interesting and eye-opening to say the least. After asking crew chief Greg Zipadelli if they were supposed to take two tires rather than four, Zipadelli’s terse reply had the 18-year-old rookie sounding more like an eight-year-old after being told that he couldn’t stay up and watch TV. The sheepish reply belied the focus, grit and fortitude needed to keep his car in the top 10 in the closing laps of his first trip to a track that is notorious for slapping even the most veteran drivers upside the head.
At times, you almost felt sorry for the kid, and hoped his mom would get on the radio and tell him, “Everything’s going to be all right, baby.” It was Mother’s Day weekend, after all… but in the end, everything worked out.
Finishing two spots ahead of Logano driving another Hendrick machine was Brad Keselowski – perhaps the hottest thing in racing right now – with his second top-10 finish in as many attempts, both with cars that are by no means regular fixtures on the Sprint Cup schedule. While he didn’t necessarily tame the Lady in Black, Keselowski kept her at bay, which is more than could be said for a number of drivers who were sent ping-ponging and caroming off the red and white candy-striped walls.
Take Clint Bowyer, for instance. Remember that scene from Spies Like Us when Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase were strapped into a plane and crashed into the ground? “Begin radical vertical impact simulation…” Clint may very well be found playing in a sandbox with toy cars this weekend, talking to his mittens, convinced he is at the All-Star Race after the shot he took into the inside wall.
And don’t get the wrong impression from Logano and Keselowski’s success, either. Being a young up-and-comer doesn’t give you a free pass at Darlington – far from it. Scott Speed found out the hard way on lap 5 when he collected Max Papis and David Stremme after getting into turn 2 a little hot. So did David Ragan, whose UPS Ford was the recipient of some Rhinoplasty after nosing into the turn 3 wall on lap 198. When Ragan returned late in the race, it was as if someone had turned the clock back 14 years. His No. 6 car was battered and bruised with the front clip missing, the driver’s side door replaced with only a plain slab of sheetmetal and his number six tattooed on the side with duct tape. At this same race in 1995, after being driven over the top of and left-side sheetmetal peeled away by Rusty Wallace, Martin’s No. 6 Valvoline Ford returned to the race in a similar fashion – with the front clip missing and the number emblazoned with duct tape on a bare piece of sheetmetal.
Back then, the resulting image of Martin’s car would be used in the coming years as an advertisement for Winston. However, I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that UPS will not be using Ragan’s crippled jalopy in any future “Maximum Driver” promotions.
While all of these flashbacks are reminders of the past that once existed, one thing that has changed recently is the personality of the racetrack. Since its repaving following the 2006 Dodge Charger 500, no longer were four tires a foregone conclusion whenever a caution came out. Quite the contrary, a number of different strategies were employed Saturday night. Four tires, two tires and no tires – this was not the place that we all came to know as The Official Shredder of The Official Tire of NASCAR. Instead, the track that was once so abrasive and weathered that Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the tires would get chewed up just pushing the car from the garage area to the starting line was now an absolute pussycat to new rubber. Case in point: three of the first-five finishers last stopped for fresh tires on lap 297.
But while tires no longer tear themselves apart, I guess that’s keeping with tradition in some respects. When Johnny Mantz won the first race ever held at Darlington in 1950, he led from lap 50 to 400, running the entire race on just one set of tires. Granted, they were industrial ply truck tires – but this was also an era where safety equipment was found in the form of an extra-medium polo shirt and a leather helmet.
Beyond that, as much as things have changed in NASCAR over the years, at least one thing has remained the same: Darlington will always be Darlington. It’s an egg-shaped track that’s design was dictated not by civil engineers or a zoning board, but by Sherman Ramsey’s minnow pond. It’s a track that never fails to disappoint, because much like another racetrack that sees some action during the month of May, every event, no matter the outcome, is another chapter of racing history being written – and we get to watch these authors both new and old write it as it happens.
Having digested all of that hyperbole, if somebody can explain to me why we only race here once a year in May and not over Labor Day weekend, feel free to contact me. Because I had 500 miles Saturday night to think of a legitimate reason why… and I still can’t figure it out.