Darlington is still a magical place for NASCAR racing

By now, everyone has heard the rumors.

When I left Darlington Raceway after Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, I turned to a friend who has worked at the track for years and said what I always say:

“See you next year.”

The response I got was decidedly different this time.

“I hope so,” he said.

In the rumor mill, Darlington’s place on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is tenuous. That being the case, it was gratifying to sit in on a Saturday noon press conference at the venerable speedway, where track president Chip Wile and NASCAR president Mike Helton talked about plans for the 2015 event.

No, Darlington doesn’t have a specific date for next year’s race. That won’t be set until NASCAR completes its sanctioning agreements with Sprint Cup tracks later this year. But the presence of father and son Bill and Chase Elliott on the dais—and as the public face of promotion for the 2015 Southern 500—is a clear indication that Darlington’s fate has not been sealed, whatever the rumor-mongers may say.

There will be a Southern 500 next year. Beyond that, as Helton told Motorsport.com on Saturday, the speedway must remain “relevant” as a competitive venue and as a destination.

It’s hard to imagine Darlington not being relevant to NASCAR racing. There is no race track more steeped in the history of the sport, and that’s what Wile hopes to emphasize as Darlington moves into the future by embracing its past.

Southern 500 winner Kevin Harvick paid homage to the “Lady in Black” in his post-race press conference.

“This is one of those places that I circle every year I come to Darlington, and most all of us know the history of this particular race track and what it means to our sport,” said Harvick, who had just won his first race at the track. “To come here each year and know that now you only have one shot, but to win the Southern 500–and you look at the names and pictures on that trophy that they have out there–is something that’s pretty phenomenal to be a part of.

“It’s the last crown jewel race I guess you could say that I wanted to [win]; I told (crew chief Rodney Childers) before the year even started, ‘If we’re only going to win once this year, let’s win at Darlington,’ because this is just the place that you want to race, and I love racing here.”

One night earlier, Darlington added another significant chapter to its legacy. At a track where his father had won five Sprint Cup races, 18-year-old Chase Elliott became the youngest winner in speedway history when he outran veterans Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and Joey Logano and fellow young gun Kyle Larson to take the checkered flag in Friday night’s Nationwide Series event.

Even as the Sprint Cup race started on Saturday night, Darlington aficionados were still talking about the battle for second place between Elliott and Larson two-thirds of the way through the race.

Darlington is the Wrigley Field of stock car racing. But even a cathedral of the magnitude of Wrigley Field faced the prospect of losing its Major League Baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, before City of Chicago officials approved a renovation to the ballpark estimated at $500 million.

That should be a stark reminder to all of us that nothing is constant and very little is sacred in the realm of commercial sport.

Nevertheless, I leave Darlington this year with hope—even optimism. Despite a date change from May to April this year, Darlington drew a strong crowd on a perfect spring day in the South Carolina sandhills.

“I’m very confident that we’ll be racing here in 2015,” said Wile, who has worked with speedway owner International Speedway Corporation to develop five- and 10-year master plans for the facility. “I’m confident that we’ll be racing here for a long time. …

“I think in 2015 you’ll see a lot of things that we roll out through the next 12 months that will cement our position in the sport.”

Let’s hope Wile is right, and that Darlington not only embraces its history but continues to make it.