Drivers earn their stripes at Darlington

Updated: May 21, 2009, 3:40 PM ET

AP Photo

David Pearson won 105 Cup races in his career, and 10 of them came at Darlington Raceway.

Start Your Engines

When Jeff Burton goes to Darlington Raceway, he doesn't see the modern, fan-friendly facility complete with suites and chalets.

It's also a safe bet David Pearson never saw a chalet.

But Pearson, 30 and 40 years ago, and Burton, 10 years ago, raced and won on the same 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, a legendary layout that has remained unchanged while the racing world has evolved around it. Darlington, S.C., epitomizes classic NASCAR.

"With no disrespect to any other racetrack, Darlington, to me, has the most historic meaning of anywhere we go," said Burton, a two-time winner in 1999 now driving the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. "It still has that character. I know the suites are cool, but to me, going there is like stepping back in time, and you don't have all that there. It's just a racetrack that was built around a pond that is the same way it was then."

The reason for the egg shape -- a wider, sweeping turn in 1 and 2 and a narrow, tighter fit through 3 and 4 -- was indeed a pond owned by a fellow named Sherman Ramsey, who didn't want his minnows displaced by Harold Brasington's stock-car palace.

Brasington respected Ramsey's wishes, and 60 years later drivers have the utmost respect for the track. It's not necessarily universal love, like last week's stop in Richmond, but definitely respect.

"Darlington is the hardest place we race," said 2005-06 winner Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing. "We run inches off the wall at speeds we run at mile-and-a-half tracks. Any second it'll reach out and bite you, and that's why they call it the 'Lady in Black.'"

The track isn't the tire-eating menace of previous years, as it was paved before last year's race. The new surface added grip but also added speed, requiring drivers to be even sharper in the turns.

The smallest miscalculations out of Turns 2 and 4 send drivers into the wall for a famed "Darlington stripe," which doesn't have to be a death sentence if hit flush with the right side of the car. Come in nose- or tail-first, obviously, and the Lady will take a bigger toll.

Keep an eye on who collects stripes Saturday night in the Southern 500, which NASCAR communications honcho Jim Hunter, a former president of Darlington Raceway, calls "the Kentucky Derby and Masters of our sport." (Of course, the Kentucky Derby isn't run in September, but the teeth-gnashing of some fans over the old Southern 500's Labor Day weekend running is another story.)

Winning at Darlington puts you in an elite class of winners that includes few surprises. Out of 106 races, cars starting outside the top 10 have won only 12. In other words, if you were good enough for a fast qualifying effort, you were good enough to win. And the fact that the all-time win leaders at Darlington are named Pearson, Earnhardt, Gordon, Yarborough and Allison also speaks pretty well for the place.

"There are no fluke winners at Darlington. It requires you as a driver to push hard, but penalizes you when you push too hard. You have to be precise. It is a track that people that like to drive race cars like to go to," Burton said. "Some of the racetracks we race on, you are a rider more than a driver. This is the type of place where you can make a difference in the car.

"When I go there, I look at it as a huge challenge because I know that if I operate at 100 percent of my capability and my car's capability, we'll get the best finish we can. If I am at 97 percent, then we're not. That extra 3 percent at Darlington gets you something. It did for Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. It is the same racetrack."

The Lady is very much a respected elder, now at age 60.

"The cars have changed, the speeds have changed and the asphalt has changed, but I don't believe the driver's thinking has changed one bit," seven-time winner Gordon said. "You race the track here, not the other competitors."

Front-running

Kyle Busch: A month is a long time for the Shrub to go without winning. That's partially because he gets two or three shots every weekend as NASCAR's busiest driver (no one else runs a full Cup, full Nationwide and partial Trucks schedule). But even if you throw out Busch's minor league poaching, it's still a drought.

Through the first 22 dates of last year's Cup season, he had only one four-race stretch without a win. That stretch, ending with a win at Talladega, was around the same time as this one. And after Talladega he went on to win five of the next 10 starts.

Busch is fifth in points, but if the Chase started now he'd be on top thanks to bonus points from his series-leading three wins. The benchmark is eight: that's how many he had before the start of last year's Chase.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.


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Standings

You Gotta See This

Drafting

Newman

Ryan Newman: The boss is getting all the attention -- Tony Stewart is running third in points and due to win any minute -- but Newman is turning into just as good a story in the No. 39 of 10-race-old Stewart-Haas Racing.

Through the season's first four races Newman was a mess, finishing from 22nd to 36th and making his Penske departure look foolish, especially as Kurt Busch bolted to a fast start. Now the Purdue graduate is smart again, riding a wave of six good races, including four top-10s and back-to-back weeks of third and fourth at Talladega and Richmond, vaulting him into 10th in points. Four races in, he was 32nd.

"If we keep doing this we'll get what we want, and obviously we want to be in Victory Lane," Newman said.

Off The Pace

Kahne

Kasey Kahne: We've seen this late-spring swoon before out of the No. 9 Bud Dodge. Last year Kahne had an average finish of 22.0 in the Martinsville-to-Richmond stretch, erasing memories of a good first five races to the season. This year, he's averaged 21.2 over the same stretch, falling out of the Chase picture to 17th in points.

Two weeks ago at Talladega he was caught in the early Big One, then at Richmond he spun early and was in a wreck late. "It seemed like everything that could go wrong tonight did go wrong," Kahne said.

But if past history continues, maybe he'll turn around just as quickly. Kahne won at Charlotte and Pocono last year, and that part of the schedule is almost here.

Inside The Numbers

Hornish

.002: Margin of victory, in seconds, of Ricky Craven's 2003 Darlington win
173.797: Darlington qualifying record (in mph), pre-2008
41: Cars ahead of that speed last year at newly paved Darlington
179.442: Current qualifying record
2: Career top-10s for Sam Hornish Jr., both in past two starts
78: Hornish top-10s in IndyCar Series
50: NASCAR wins for Kyle Busch
15: Cup wins for Busch