What happens when you design the first speedway for NASCAR and want to preserve a minnow pond? You create an oddly-shaped track that defies definition and confounds decades of racers.
Harold Brasington returned from watching the Indy 500 in the late 1940s and decided NASCAR needed the same kind of marquee event – and thus Darlington Raceway was born with the first Southern 500 being run on Labor Day weekend in 1950. The only stipulation from the owner of the land was that he keep the minnow pond intact because that was the family business.
The track designer may or may not have known the challenges he created with this egg-shaped oval, but the drivers have been learning about them ever since.
Darlington is a product of its time and location. The sand content in northern South Carolina makes the asphalt so abrasive that crew chiefs have been known to instruct their team to pick up and carry the tires from place to place rather than roll them because of the slight wear that saves.
And tire management is critical. New tires versus old makes a driver feel like superman. The speed differential is so great, that a 35th-place car can unlap itself without any challenge. Of course, they can't keep their tires new forever. The smartest drivers in the field think in terms of elapsed time over distance. It's unimportant how fast they go on the first lap with new tires, so long as they don't fall off as fast as the competition at the end of a run.
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Darlington is not a rhythm track, but the best drivers in the field make it seem like it is. Those who have mastered this course manage to put long streaks together, and for the moment Kevin Harvick leads the pack with 12 consecutive top-10s. Over the course of the past 18 races on this track, Harvick (.556) is joined by Kyle Larson (.625), Denny Hamlin (.611), and Erik Jones (.500) as drivers with at least a .500 top-five average.
The reason this is not a rhythm track is because it's difficult to find momentum when the wall is in the way. Every track has a natural groove. Officials can sometimes create a second one with traction compound, but that has never quite worked for Darlington. This track's natural groove is about a foot or two on the other side of the retaining wall. The addition of SAFER barriers did not help matters any.
Since they can't run on the outside of the wall, drivers must get as close as possible and inevitably they step over the line. That is where the famed Darlington Stripe comes in. Scraping the wall gently means the driver has found their utmost speed. Smacking it, or scraping along for too long, can damage the car.
Aggressive drivers who like to run the highline are the ones that succeed on this track. Larson has never finished worse than 14th at Darlington and all but one of his eight attempts have been top-10s. Tyler Reddick scored a top-10 as a rookie and last fall in the Southern 500, Ross Chastain finished third.
Five drivers swept the top 10 in Darlington's two races last year, and four of them made the most of it. Three of them swept the top five with Martin Truex Jr. winning the spring and finishing fourth in the fall. Denny Hamlin finished fifth in the spring and won the fall race. Larson finished second in both events, while Harvick was sixth in the spring and finished fifth in the fall.
Chris Buescher finished ninth in both Darlington events last year.
Last year Chastain's third-place finish in the Southern 500 came with +12500 odds for the outright win; William Byron finished fourth in the spring at +1800, while Harvick's disappointing season overall saddled him with +1100 odds for the win. But this is not a place for dark horses: The other seven top-five finishers last year all had odds under 10/1 with Truex's spring win coming at +725 and Hamlin's fall win at +625.
September 4, Southern 500
12: Kevin Harvick
11: Denny Hamlin
6: Kyle Busch
5: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson
4: Kurt Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., Joey Logano, Erik Jones
2: William Byron, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon
1: Ross Chastain, Alex Bowman
Kevin Harvick: 12 top-10s; 7 lead lap finishes
Kyle Larson: 4 top-threes; 4 lead lap finishes
Denny Hamlin: 2 top-fives; 5 lead lap finishes
Martin Truex Jr.: 2 top-fives; 2 lead lap finishes
Chris Buescher: 2 top-10s; 2 lead lap finishes
2011 Southern 500: Regan Smith
1988 TranSouth 500: Lake Speed
1980 Southern 500: Terry Labonte
1962 Southern 500: Larry Frank
1961 Southern 500: Nelson Stacy
1950 Southern 500: Johnny Mantz
Rough surfaced tracks: Dover, Darlington, Nashville, Bristol
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