Darlington Rear View Mirror

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth has exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations of what he would achieve at JGR this early in his first year with the team and in some eyes has already become the championship favorite. (Photo: Getty Images)


Maybe more than ever, NASCAR needs Darlington Raceway.

The sport once again finds itself in the crosshairs of the debate on how to attract new fans while still appeasing those who are here. Darlington may be the perfect track to find balance between the two factions.

The unique South Carolina track is truly a NASCAR history lesson and has been part of the landscape since it first opened its gates in 1950. 
While Daytona will always be “The Birthplace of Speed,” you could make a very strong case that Darlington actually gave birth to NASCAR.

Those that compare Darlington to other sports cathedrals are ridiculed by some but every comparison works perfectly. It is NASCAR’s Fenway Park, Wrigley Field or Lambeau Field and the sport is blessed that once a year it goes back to its roots. 

We should also be reminded every time the green flag flies at Darlington about just how close we came to losing the storied facility completely. 

When attendance was on the wane and NASCAR decided to “modernize tradition” and move the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 away from Darlington for a new end of summer date in California it almost spelled complete doom for the track. 

Looking back that decision was one of NASCAR’s most monumental mistakes in its history.

But when track management stepped up and parent company International Speedway Corporation earmarked funds to upgrade the facility, Darlington suddenly had new life. 

It wasn’t easy especially when NASCAR approached Darlington about holding a race on what had before been one of the most taboo weekends in stock car racing – Mother’s Day.

Through the years racing on Mother’s Day was an absolute disaster, most notably when an ill-fated attempt to run the all-star race at Atlanta Motor Speedway drew about 10,000 fans. 

But Darlington management, led by track president Chris Browning, took on the challenge and has made the Saturday night race on Mother’s Day weekend a new NASCAR tradition that has been embraced by fans with strong support and attendance. And now the Southern 500 name has been re-attached to Darlington.

Although it’s not the same as those hot, humid Labor Day weekends the sport spent in South Carolina for decades, it still resonates as one of NASCAR’s most prestigious events. I, for one, am glad it’s back and that Darlington remains one of the highlights of the NASCAR season.

Old school fans should have the hearts warmed whenever the “Lady in Black” rolls around on the schedule. Newcomers have to embrace the charm and challenge Darlington. In an age when some complain of too many similar-type tracks in NASCAR, there is nothing “cookie cutter” about the 1.33-mile speedway.

It’s ultimately in ticket buyer’s hands whether Darlington prospers or is lost. Fans hold the ultimate fate of any racetrack and while turnout was good for Saturday night’s race; there was definitely room for a few more while Friday’s Nationwide turnout appeared light.

NASCAR 2013 needs Darlington as much as it did in 1950.

  • The irony of this sport is sometimes so thick it’s unbelievable. Just days after an appeals committee dramatically reduced the significant penalties handed down by NASCAR to Matt Kenseth’s team for the light connecting rod found in his Kansas winning engine, here’s the 20 team in Victory Lane at Darlington. Kenseth has exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations of what he would achieve at JGR this early in his first year with the team and in some eyes has already become the championship favorite.
  • The JGR team was impressive all night with Denny Hamlin turning in a stellar performance in his first full race back behind the wheel. Hamlin nursed his aching back through the entire 500-mile Darlington grind and came home second. Anyone that doubts NASCAR drivers are athletes need only to look at Hamlin’s effort to see how wrong they are on the subject. Unfortunately the other JGR teammate left Darlington in a foul mood and that would be Kyle Busch, who dominated the race but dropped in the late going with a cut tire. Busch found himself in another controversy with Kasey Kahne, a week removed from the duo crashing at Talladega. Although it’s not clear whether Busch made contact with Kahne Saturday night, tensions between the two appear high. Kahne voiced his displeasure after the race while Busch left without comment. Stay tuned.
  • Overall Saturday’s race wasn’t a rip-roaring affair by any means until the final 50 laps. But although I still believe some 500-mile races should be cut at places like Texas, Charlotte and Talladega, I’m not in favor or shortening the Southern 500. More than 50 years of tradition is good enough for me.
  • Reality hit David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports Saturday night. After the team’s thrilling and popular upset Talladega victory, Ragan struggled to finish 39th in Darlington. It’s another example of how difficult it is for small teams to compete in today’s Sprint Cup Series – and how restrictor plate racing is the great equalizer.

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