NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, after a weekend of white-knuckle, heart-pounding racing at Talladega Superspeedway, could use a breather.
Darlington Raceway, on deck, won’t provide it. Not a chance.
Known for its unique, egg-shaped layout, cars come to the South Carolina track clean – and leave with the infamous Darlington Stripe after rubbing or smacking the red-and-white wall.
The Stripe is part of history and goes back to 1950, when Darlington hosted its first NSCS race. It was the first paved superspeedway on the series schedule, and Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 remains one of NASCAR’s crown jewels.
The title “Southern 500 Champion” guarantees a coveted place in NASCAR history books. From the first winner – Johnny Mantz – to the most recent – Jimmie Johnson – some of NASCAR’s all-time greats have won the Southern 500. Among that all-sport list: Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty,David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon.
Saturday’s race marks the 10th anniversary of one of Sprint Cup’s most thrilling finishes. Ricky Craven led just one lap – the final one – in a door-banging, fender-crumpling joust with Kurt Busch that was decided by 0.002 seconds. The margin of victory was the closest in series history since the advent of electronic timing and scoring.
The finish further defined a “Track Too Tough To Tame” as well as the sport itself.
A year ago, Johnson made history for owner Rick Hendrick. His victory was the milestone 200th for the Hendrick Motorsports organization. Hendrick counts the most series victories at the track with 14.
Now it’s teammate Gordon’s turn to take the spotlight. Gordon will make his 700th Sprint Cup start – all consecutive – and become just the 15th driver to reach that plateau.
Gordon’s seven Darlington victories are the most by an active Sprint Cup competitor. Statistics speak to the four-time Sprint Cup champion’s Darlington dominance: Series bests in Driver Rating (111.8); Average Running Position (8.3); Average Green Flag Speed (160.041) and Laps in the Top 15 (2,615).
“They repaved Darlington a few years back so it’s not the same track it used to be 10 years ago,” Gordon said. “But it’s still one of those tracks where you have to push hard but be patient.
“And it’s one of those tracks you have to respect.”