Tony Stewart Same Darlington, Different Weekend ATLANTA (Nov. 9, 2004) - The more things change, the more they stay the same. Such is the case with venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The 54-year-old speedway is in the crosshairs of...
Same Darlington, Different Weekend
ATLANTA (Nov. 9, 2004) - The more things change, the more they stay the same. Such is the case with venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
The 54-year-old speedway is in the crosshairs of NASCAR's booming popularity. A staple of NASCAR racing since Johnny Mantz drove his black Plymouth to the win in the first Southern 500 back in 1950, the gritty and fast 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval continues to endure in NASCAR's brave new world.
But while it is still a part of the NASCAR fabric, its heritage isn't enough to sustain it as NASCAR's once predominantly Southeastern roots become more and more mainstream.
For years NASCAR was saturated in the Carolinas with eight point races at four race tracks - Charlotte, Darlington, Rockingham and North Wilkesboro - before having only four point races at two tracks, and next year, three point races at two tracks. North Wilkesboro fell off the NASCAR calendar following the 1996 season, and the series' February visit to Rockingham earlier this year marked the end of a 39-year relationship. And Darlington, host of two NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series races since 1960, will be down to just one race when the 2005 season begins.
The impending schedule change will be felt this weekend when the Nextel Cup Series rolls into Darlington for the Southern 500. A fixture of the Labor Day weekend since 1950, NASCAR's schedule realignment put the traveling circus that is the Nextel Cup Series out in Fontana, Calif., this past Labor Day weekend. Darlington's Southern 500 was moved to this ambiguous weekend in November, a precursor to the 500-miler's May slot on the 2005 schedule.
When the schedule announcement was made in June of 2003, NASCAR legend and five-time Darlington race winner Cale Yarborough quipped, "I guess we'll just have to move Labor Day to November."
But while the date of the Southern 500 has changed, the actual Southern 500 has not. The same handful of a race track that Mantz and Yarborough navigated is the same track that Home Depot Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart will navigate this weekend. And for Stewart, a driver who honed his skill by manhandling sprint cars on tight, dirt bullrings on his way to NASCAR stardom, Darlington is a throwback to that old school type of racing.
After recent races in major media markets to advertiser-friendly demographics, the time-warp escape to Darlington is a welcome diversion. For Stewart, currently sixth in points and still within striking distance of securing a second Cup Series championship, it's also a welcome opportunity to gain some serious points at a track that suits his old school style.
Does the Southern 500 still hold the same value to you even though it's no longer held on Labor Day weekend?
"Of course. Five hundred miles at Darlington is still 500 miles at Darlington, no matter when you're racing there. It's a tough race track and a tough race. The date of the Southern 500 might've changed, but the race sure hasn't."
Why is a win at Darlington a feather in any driver's cap?
"Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don't see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it's a track that's like winning at Bristol (Tenn.). It's the same type of feeling - knowing that you conquered something that's very hard to obtain."
Why is Darlington considered a driver's track?
"It's a driver's track because you have to take care of your tires and you have to move around on the race track. You have to do things on the race track to help your car out because very rarely do you get a car that's absolutely perfect at Darlington."
What makes Darlington such a tough race track?
"The surface is just worn out, and it's been worn out for years. Plus, it's like racing down an alley. It's not a very wide race track. And the speeds that we run there make racing there very difficult. There's little room for error because of how close you run to the wall."
Do aerodynamics play a role at Darlington?
"Aerodynamics play a role everywhere we go nowadays. Martinsville (Va.) might be the only track where aerodynamics don't really play a role anymore. So even at a place like Darlington, you've got to make sure you keep the fenders straight because you need every bit of downforce you can get."
How does the current generation of Goodyear tire hold up at Darlington?
"Let me put it this way, if you're pitted in turn four, by the time you get to turn one your tires are about as good as they'd be with five laps on them at any other race track. Goodyear can bring any tire they want there, but the surface will still tear it up. It's not because of a lack of effort on Goodyear's part, it's just that Darlington has a very abrasive surface that's worn out. And anytime you have a track that's worn out like Darlington is, it's virtually impossible to bring a tire that is going to live. But it's the same for everybody, and that's what makes Darlington fun. You have to race the race track. It's very challenging."
Is Darlington the one track on the Nextel Cup circuit where you feel you have to work the hardest?
"It's one of the tracks where we seem to work the hardest. The way the tires fall off and as narrow as the track is - it's hard to pass. So, you've got to get your car driving well to be able to pass. You don't want to use up your tires too early in a run. It's definitely one of the harder tracks on the circuit, but there are a lot of hard tracks on our schedule."
Is Darlington a frustrating track for you, in that you run well - top-10 - but not as well as you'd like?
"No, because there are a lot of teams that aren't at the level that we are at Darlington. It's just one of those deals where the only way you're going to find a way to make yourself better is to go there and just do your homework. It takes a lot to get around that place consistently and fast all day. It's just a tough place to get around well, and there's a group of guys that get around there well every time we go there. It's like we're right on the verge of being one of those guys. We just need to find a little something that can help us get into that elite group."
Is Darlington a good track to have as the second to last race on the schedule because it seems to showcase a driver's ability over a car's mechanical ability, meaning that the race is essentially in your hands?
"You still have to have the right package underneath your race car, so I don't know that Darlington really plays into our hands because it's a driver's track. Still, a lot of weird things have happened there in the past, and where we're at in the points right now, weird things that happen to somebody other than ourselves may work in our favor this time. But you just can never tell what's going to happen at Darlington."