Milestone Weekend At Darlington

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Call it “Milestone Weekend”.

And what more appropriate place is there than storied Darlington Raceway for milestones? In addition to Sunday’s Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 being the track’s 100th NASCAR Winston Cup Series race, Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford) and Bill Elliott (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge) – both former NASCAR Winston Cup champions – are set to reach career milestones.

For Jarrett, Sunday’s race will mark his 500th career NASCAR Winston Cup start; for Elliott, it will be his 700th career start. History is set to be made, at a place that personifies history. Darlington Raceway (in Darlington, S.C.) opened in 1950 with the inaugural running of the Southern 500, NASCAR’s first “major” event.

“It's hard to believe it's been 500 races [for me],” said Jarrett, the 1999 series titlist. “A lot of them I can remember and a lot of them I can forget, too. Darlington is a pretty special place for that.

“There are a lot of things that have taken place there, whether it was my career or my dad's (former NASCAR Winston Cup champion Ned Jarrett) career. I remember being there when he won the Southern 500 and basically clinched the championship in 1965, but, aside from that, I've been very fortunate as a driver to do well there.”

Jarrett has three victories at Darlington. He’s been close to many more victories there, having posted 11 top-five finishes and 13 top 10s. His first victory at Darlington came in the 1997 March event.

‘When you look at the names that have done well there and know that you can put yourself in that group of people that have won races there, it is pretty special,” Jarrett said.

For Elliott, Darlington likewise has good memories. In 1985 he won the Southern 500 to capture “The Winston Million”, a special $1 million bonus from series sponsor R.J. Reynolds, given to a driver who won at least three of the designated “Big Four” events. Earlier that year, Elliott already had won the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500 (at Talladega). (The Coca-Cola 600 was the other race in the “Big Four”.)

"I feel very fortunate to be where I am today,” said Elliott, the 1988 series champion. “I’ve seen a lot of things throughout my career and I've won a few races along the way.

“I'm not real big on making a lot out of things like this. I guess when you sit back and think about it though, [700 starts] is something to hang your hat on. I've had a good career. I really can't complain. I was saying the other day that if it all ended now, I'd be happy with what I've accomplished over the years."

NEWS & NOTES, PART II

Speaking of milestones, check out Bristol next week … The March 23 Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway will be the 2000th race for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Bristol has had NASCAR Winston Cup racing since 1961 – which amounts to 84 of the 1,998 NASCAR Winston Cup races held so far.

Charting the NASCAR Top 10… After four weeks of the season, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford) is the new leader of the NASCAR Top 10. Kenseth moved up one notch from No. 2. Kenseth had never led the series’ points before this week. … The other major development in the NASCAR Top 10 this week is the first appearance of 2003 by Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet), the top man in the NASCAR Top 10 Preseason Poll conducted among the national motorsports media. Gordon’s runner-up run at Atlanta last Sunday vaulted him to No. 8 in the NASCAR Top 10; he had come into the race 20th in the points. … Also new to the NASCAR Top 10: Atlanta race winner Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet) at No. 5 and Atlanta third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) at No. 10.

Marlin wants to get back in the mix … Sterling Marlin (No. 40 Coors Light Dodge) returns to the scene of his last NASCAR Winston Cup victory this weekend. They call Darlington Raceway “The Track Too Tough To Tame” but last year Marlin appeared to do just that, leading the last 43 laps of the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 en route to victory.

Marlin’s March 2002 victory at Darlington was the peak of a splendid early-season start. He left with a 99-point lead in the series points. He stayed atop the NASCAR Top 10 until mid-September. Marlin’s championship hopes were squashed last fall, when he sustained a broken vertebra in an accident at Kansas Speedway. He was forced to sit out the rest of the year, replaced by Jamie McMurray, who proceeded to win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, in only his second NASCAR Winston Cup start.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) was motoring on to the series title. Marlin’s early season dominance and six-month stay atop the points became almost an afterthought.

This week, Marlin would like to serve up a reminder, and in the process reestablish himself as a championship contender. The fact that he’s comfortable at Darlington – he also won the track’s 1995 March race – bodes well for that prospect.

“I like racing at Darlington,” Marlin said. “There are a lot of 1.5-miles that are pretty identical but Darlington (which is actually 1.366-miles) is totally different than anything else that we race on. You race the track all day long and you have to stay on your toes all day. You can't let your guard down because she'll jump out and get you."

Ø ‘POWER’ in the Pits, Week 4 … The pit crew of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) has won the “McDonald’s Drive-Thru Pit Championship fueled by POWERade” for the second consecutive week. This past Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, during the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, Earnhardt spent 288 seconds in the pits, a key to Earnhardt’s third-place finish. Race winner Bobby Labonte was in the pits for 318 seconds, the second-best time – among eligible teams – in the event. The victory was worth $20,000 to Earnhardt’s team. Michael Waltrip’s (No. 15 NAPA Chevrolet) crew leads the program’s overall standings. The program’s year-end champions receive $200,000.

Ø Earnhardt Jr. in another kind of “Fastlane” … Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a cameo role, playing himself, in a March 28 episode of the FOX show “Fastlane” (8 p.m. ET and PT). The show is about two undercover police officers fighting crime in Los Angeles; the show stars Peter Facinelli ("The Scorpion King," "Riding in Cars with Boys"), Bill Bellamy ("Any Given Sunday," "The Brothers") and Tiffani Thiessen ("Beverly Hills 90210," "The Ladies Man") and airs Fridays.

Ø Mid-Race lead makes Labonte big winner … Bobby Labonte “maxed” out at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as far as the MBNA Mid-Race Leader Award program was concerned. Labonte was the race leader at the halfway point, getting $10,000. But since he also ended up winning the race, he got another $15,000 via the MBNA Mid-Race Leader Bonus. The bonus starts as $5,000, and rolls over to the next race if the mid-race leader award winner doesn’t also win the event. … After four races this season, there have been four different MBNA Mid-Race Leader Award winners: Michael Waltrip, Rusty Wallace (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge), Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Labonte.

TV timeout … National ratings for the UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400, held at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 2 (compiled by Nielsen Media Research), show that 11,258,000 viewers watched the race. An average of 7,368,000 households tuned in, a 9% increase from 2002.


ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Three drivers clearly have “tamed” Darlington in recent years. Jeff Gordon (six victories), Dale Jarrett (three) and Jeff Burton (No. 99 CITGO Ford) (two) have combined for 11 victories in the last 15 races at Darlington. … Gordon has scored 13 top-10 finishes in his last 15 races at Darlington. Eleven of those finishes were top fives. … Jarrett has scored nine top-10 finishes in his last 12 races at Darlington. All nine of those finishes were top fives. … Burton has scored 10 top-10 finishes in the last 12 races at Darlington. Eight of those finishes were top-fives. … But don’t count out Bill Elliott, either. He holds the track records for most career top 10s (33) and top fives (21).

WHAT’S THE WORD?
“The challenge of Darlington is unbelievable. … I mean, you can't go out and build tracks like that anymore.” – Dale Jarrett.

"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. I guess that's why a win at Darlington is something that's really important to me." – 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart, a former open-wheel racer, on his awareness of Darlington’s rich stock-car history.

FROM THE ARCHIVES
Darlington has the deepest archive of them all, among tracks involved in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Here’s a gem: in that first Southern 500, in 1950, winner Johnny Mantz started all the way back in 43rd. And no, that wasn’t last in the field. In fact, it wasn’t even close, because 75 cars started the event.

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