Darlington Lights The Night

DARLINGTON, S.C. - Sixteen years and sixteen days after the first night game was to be played at Wrigley Field home of the Chicago Cubs another historic lighting has taken place in sports history.

The peanuts eaten at Wrigley may have once come from where Darlington now stands, but tonight a new era has begun. In 1949, Darlington was built by Harold Brasington on top of an old peanut field, and I bet he never would have thought of lights coming to his 1.366-mile egg shaped oval.

Being referred to as the "Night Riders," four legendary Darlington Raceway champions - David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Hamilton and Jeff Gordon - took park in the special event. Hamilton and Gordon had the chance to get a feel for the difference the track might give them in the upcoming races, and at the same time wowing the fans that came out to watch.

Shortly after 8 p.m. (ET) the first driver on the track under the new lighting system was David Pearson after he won the ceremonial coin toss against Cale Yarborough. Pearson, Darlington's all-time winner with ten victories drove his No. 21 1976 Purolator Mercury with a 460 big block engine under the hood on the maiden voyage under the lights.

Yaborough, who is tied with Gordon with most Southern 500 wins, went out second and got his No. 11 1st National City Travelers Checks Olds up to speed on the front stretch as the crowd went wild.

Hamilton, the current NASCAR Craftsman Truck point leader, rocketed his Square D Dodge around the track turning laps that he said broke the qualifying record. After his session was over he gave the fans an awesome show by performing a huge burnout along the front stretch.

"I did the burnout because I wanted to do something a little different for all the fans that came out to see this special event," said Hamilton. "It was something cool to do and I hope that the fans enjoyed it.

Hamilton hopes he can back up his two Darlington wins with a victory in the first night race in November and he thinks Darlington, which won't return in 2005, could be back on the Truck schedule in the future.

"We are two for two here in truck races," said Hamilton. I'm looking forward to coming back and wining the first night race, which I hope is not that last. I think a good show in November by the trucks might bring the series back in the future. NASCAR always liked to keep a couple dates open in the Truck series just in case."

After his exhibition laps, six-time Darlington winner Gordon concluded the festivities by stopping on the start-finish line where he got out of his car. Gordon was joined by his team as he stood on the drivers side window of the car for the fans to see.

"Hamilton pretty much covered the burnout for us he even blew a left rear tire out and that was awesome of him to do that," said Gordon. The car we brought is an actual one we will need to race in the future. We did not want to mess anything up with the engine and plus we had telemetry on board so we wanted to get all the telemetry we could tonight.

"We also used this opportunity to come out here and have some fun," said Gordon. "It was awesome to see Pearson and Yarborough out there, I really enjoyed that."

Gordon says the track "Too Tough To Tame" will be even tougher under the lights.

"The race is going to be unique," said Gordon. It is going to be interesting because you can't even see where the wall is. Everything is so white out there. There are some shadows up near the wall so you can't really judge it that well. I was staying off it a little bit because of that. Plus we are not in full race mode because we wanted to bring a race car home that still had the fenders on it. I was trying to be a little bit conservative but at the same time seeing what we could learn for the upcoming race here."

Hamilton and Gordon can now take the bragging rights of being the first active drivers to take laps under the lights before their respective divisions come back in November. The Truck Series race will be the first race to be completely run under the lights, while the Nextel Cup 500-mile event will finish under the lights.

Next season the Nextel Cup Series will visit Darlington for the 104th time, but this time it will be in May. On Mother's Day weekend the Cup Series will team up with Busch Series for the first-ever full weekend of night racing.

Gordon said it will be hard to adjust not going to Darlington on Labor Day weekend this year, but he's glad where it landed on the schedule.

"You get so used to the schedule through the years and it's always been Bristol then Darlington," said Gordon. "On the other hand I'm excited Darlington is going to be here in the final ten races. I think that's great for us and everyone that is part of the 'Chase for the Cup' and the fans are going to get to see that. But it's definitely going to be different coming here that late in the season."

The addition of lights at both Wrigley and Darlington was and will be a momentous occasions for fans alike. Remember the oldies are the goodies, but sometimes they just need a little help.

I just hope the installation of the lights will help this great track stick around for years to come.

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