By Jared Turner
Throughout his roller-coaster NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, Tony Stewart has earned a reputation as one of the toughest drivers around.
But as tough as the driver nicknamed “Smoke” might be, he’s never conquered the track “Too Tough to Tame.”
He’ll get one last chance with the running of Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
“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.”
Although winless in Sprint Cup competition at the egg-shaped South Carolina oval, Stewart isn’t totally winless.
He went to Victory Lane in a XFINITY Series race at Darlington on May 9, 2008, after leading 90 of 149 laps.
But as Stewart plans to compete at “The Lady in Black” for the final time, the three-time Sprint Cup Series champion is an ugly 0-for-23 in top NASCAR series starts at the venerable 1.366-mile facility.
Stewart’s best Sprint Cup Series finish at Darlington is third, which happened twice – in 2009 and 2012.
In addition to being one of just two active Sprint Cup Series venues where Stewart has never prevailed, Darlington is also statistically one of his worst tracks.
Of his 23 Sprint Cup Series outings there, Stewart has posted only four top-five finishes. He does, however, boast 12 top 10s and only one DNF – pretty decent when considering how brutal Darlington Raceway can be on both veterans and rookies alike.
“Races at Darlington have been pretty tough for me, personally,” Stewart said. “We’ve had some decent runs there, but it just seems like you really have to put everything together the whole day.”
No XFINITY Series win or number of strong finishes on the Sprint Cup Series side does away with the fact that Stewart has yet to pull into Victory Lane at one of the sport’s most fabled facilities, which with the Bojangles’ Southern 500 has long hosted one of the biggest and most prestigious races on the Sprint Cup Series calendar.
“Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day,” Stewart said. “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, you’ll know that you conquered something that’s very hard to obtain.”
Other than a Daytona 500 victory, a win at Darlington on the Sprint Cup Series side is the only glaring ommission in Stewart’s extensive portfolio of accomplishments in NASCAR’s premier division.
As a student of the sport with a deep-rooted appreciation for its past, Stewart inevitably has more incentive than many of his younger peers to win at at Darlington – which hosted its first NASCAR race on Labor Day 1950.
More than 65 years after that inaugural race, Darlington is still known as the track “Too Tough to Tame” with names like Baker, Flock, Thomas, Pearson, Yarborough, Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson among the legends who’ve scored a victory.
A victory there for Stewart would mean joining a truly elite club.
“If you can say you won a race at Darlington, that’s a feather in your cap,” Stewart said. “That’s something to be proud of, knowing that you’re in a group of drivers with names like (David) Pearson and (Richard) Petty – the pioneers of our sport who you hear stories about the races they ran there and the races they won there.”