Posted: 2:14 p.m. Saturday, May 11, 2013
Last night's Nationwide Series race notwithstanding, Darlington Raceway was designed to be the perfect showcase for everything right about professional stock car racing. Speed, grit and history will all be on display as 43 drivers chase a victory in Saturday night's Southern 500 --one of the most prestigious races in NASCAR history.
The track, which has hosted NASCAR races since 1950, is a relic of days gone by when tracks were designed purely with the intent to deliver incredible track action. The same cannot be said of modern marvels like Texas, Charlotte and Michigan which were all designed as multi-purpose venues intended to host conventions, concerts and IndyCar as well as the core NASCAR product.
The great irony of designing tracks for both IndyCar and NASCAR is that the discipline is neither wanted nor can they attract the appropriate crowds to these tracks, making them the home of some of stock cars racing's most lethargic shows of recent memory.
That wasn't the case when designing classic venues like Darlington, Martinsville and Rockingham. These battlegrounds were designed to generate hard-nosed and close-quarter stock car races and side-by-side duels to the finish - something hasn't really changed in the 63 years since NASCAR first sanctioned races at the egg-shaped oval.
Without going too far back, most fans will remember the 2003 duel between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch that saw the former win by just .002 seconds in what is still the closest finish in NASCAR history (only the 2011 spring Talladega finish could equal it).
Ditto Regan Smith's jaw-dropping breakthrough in 2011 where, on old tires (a suicide strategy at Darlington) he held off a dominant Carl Edwards on the fresh set he installed just before the green-white-checkered that decided the race.
Darlington pays homage to all the great foundations NASCAR was built on. At 1.366-miles, it's a speedway that races like a short track. In fact, it's best-described as a stretched out skinny Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville with long-straightaways, uneven corners and the need to ride alongside the wall -- all at the risk of kissing the so-called Lady in Black.
With just barely one groove, passing is difficult and using the bumper at speeds eclipsing 180 mph will become the key to victory.
I've always maintained that the tracks drivers like going to least are the most fun for fans and Darlington certainly fits that description. But with the prestige of winning at one of NASCAR's most respected venues, drivers don't seem to mind Darlington as much as they typically would.
With so much history and the lineage of the Southern 500, this is a race nearly driver has on their bucket list. When giving a short list of races a driver would like to win, I've often been surprised to hear them rank this race over events like the Brickyard and the Coca-Cola 600.
So tonight's race is a big deal.
Kasey Kahne's Nationwide Series two-tire pit stop experiment was just the tip of the iceberg for what some teams will try coming to the end of Saturday night's race, especially with Smith's breakthrough still not far removed from everyone's memory.
Like the track layout itself, Darlington Raceway is a throwback to pure racing. This is an event where points are largely thrown out the window, risks will be taken and boys will have at it. After all, it's a Southern 500 tradition.