The last Southern 500

The last Southern 500

This weekend NASCAR brings to a close a rich part of stock car racing history: on Sunday, the final Southern 500 will be run at Darlington Raceway. In a world where traditions are as sacred as used tissues, it might not come as a surprise that ...

This weekend NASCAR brings to a close a rich part of stock car racing history: on Sunday, the final Southern 500 will be run at Darlington Raceway. In a world where traditions are as sacred as used tissues, it might not come as a surprise that NASCAR has tossed aside something as storied as the Southern 500, but to many race fans it still marks a sign of the sanctioning body moving further from its roots steeped in Southern idealism.

Darlington garage area.
Photo by Thomas Chemris.
When the checkered flag waves on Sunday it will bring to a close a 54-year tradition at Darlington but the complexion of the event had already changed. NASCAR moved the event from Labor Day weekend this season, giving that date to California Speedway. Prior to the schedule realignment, NASCAR's first superspeedway race had always occupied the holiday weekend slot.

"I've got mixed emotions about not coming back to Darlington twice next year," said Kevin Harvick. "It's always been one of the tracks on the circuit where you knew the racing was going to be good. It's a lot of fun for the fans to watch and usually comes down to last lap battles. I really feel like our GM Goodwrench racing team is really getting close to a win there so to do it in the last fall race would be pretty special.

"We have to trust that NASCAR is doing what's right for the sport. They're doing what they feel is best for everyone that is involved. Before we go and talk bad about it, I say we really need to give it a chance and see what happens. Their vision has worked for the new points system, at least for the most part. I do know that the races in Texas have always been sellouts since I've been going there, so there's no reason why they won't be able to do it twice next year."

This year NASCAR has also set a later start time so that the race will finish under the lights for the first time in history. Sadly, Darlington is one of the tracks which appear to be going by the wayside as NASCAR stretches its wings into a wider demographic of markets. Next season the tour will only race one weekend, losing its spring date to Phoenix International Raceway.

"You never forget your first love," once commented the late Dale Earnhardt on the 'track to tough to tame', "Whether it's a high school sweetheart, a faithful old hunting dog, or a fickle race track in South Carolina with a contrary disposition. And, if you happen to be a race car driver there's no victory so sweet, so memorable, as whipping Darlington Raceway."

Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr..
Photo by Thomas Chemris.
At least Darlington has the enviable spot of being the second-to-last on the schedule for the Chase for the Championship, a make-or-break race for the five racers separated by just 98 points in pursuit of the inaugural NEXTEL Cup.

Johnny Mantz drove to victory in the first Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend in 1950. The event took six hours to complete in front of 25,000 fans, when racers take to the track Sunday they will do so in front of 150,000 plus fans in mourning as NASCAR closes a chapter in the history books.

"Darlington is one of those tracks that as a driver you look forward to going to. You don't have to worry so much about aero push. Darlington's definitely a throw-back to the way racing use to be," said Jamie McMurray.

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Series NASCAR-CUP