By Jared Turner
After a much-needed off-weekend, the Sprint Cup Series begins a marathon stretch of 12 consecutive races to conclude the 2015 season.
Up first: Darlington Raceway, the rugged 1.366-mile South Carolina track that first hosted NASCAR’s top series in 1950 and today remains one of the sport’s most beloved and challenging venues.
Long known as the track “Too Tough To Tame,” Darlington returns to its old Labor Day weekend slot for the first time in 12 years. The nod to tradition has been embraced by just about everyone in the sport, including the drivers, many of whom will carry throwback paint schemes to commemorate Darlington’s return to the Labor Day weekend date it held on the Sprint Cup calendar from 1950-2003.
“It’s been around a long time,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is chasing his first Darlington win. “It’s one of the toughest race tracks physically that we race on, tough track mentally. Five hundred miles here is a really long race because the track is quite a big racetrack and the pace slows down. You are working so hard in the corner so just one lap around here is a lot of work. To have to run 500 miles, it’s a pretty tough test of man and machine.”
The quickest way around Darlington is the longest way.
The track’s tricky egg-shaped configuration and thin racing groove that runs right up against the wall make passing notoriously difficult and result in drivers often having multiple encounters with the outside wall, which usually lead to an infamous “Darlington stripe.”
With Darlington so difficult to navigate, drivers often find themselves more focused on the track itself than their competitors.
“You have to race the track in order to get to the end,” said Ryan Newman, another driver seeking his first Darlington triumph. “It’s a challenge to pass there. When you go into Turn 1, you lift on the straightaway and then you are pretty much wide open all the way through Turn 1 and 2. You drive it like no other track on the circuit. I don’t know what it’s going to be like with the new rules package or the tire combination they come up with.
“Regardless, it’s such a fun racetrack to drive because you have to hustle the car around. Plus, the history of the track is what makes it so amazing. The racetrack was designed to race on the apron and not on the banking. It’s amazing how much it hasn’t changed, but yet, it still produces great races.”
Of the current tracks on the Sprint Cup Series schedule, there’s just two where three-time champion Tony Stewart has yet to win. Not surprisingly, Darlington is one of them.
“As much as we know about the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I think people underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track, and how hard it is to win races there,” Stewart said. “I guess that’s why a Sprint Cup win at Darlington is something that’s really important to me.”
Kevin Harvick, the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion and Stewart’s teammate, won at Darlington for the first time last year.
He’ll always cherish his Bojangles’ Southern 500 triumph – and he hopes to add another this weekend.
“You want to come here and win again,” Harvick said. “We were fortunate to experience winning at Darlington last year and to come back and try to win again is really what the goals are. Obviously, every week we get a little bit closer to the Chase, the intensity level comes up. Still the Southern 500 is, no matter where it is on the schedule, it’s something everybody has got circled on their calendars as one they want to win.”