Five Keys To Winning The Southern 500 at Darlington
The path to Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway is filled with numerous challenges and potential stumbling blocks.
The drivers of the Sprint Cup Series attest to it.
As they prepare to return to the track “Too Tough To Tame” for the SHOWTIME Southern 500 on May 7, here’s a look at what some of NASCAR’s top stars say are the five biggest keys to conquering Darlington:
An overly finesse approach doesn’t generally aid drivers’ chances of winning at Darlington. Rather, it’s the guys who aren’t afraid of letting it all hang out or getting a “Darlington stripe” on their car who wind up in Victory Lane. The more on the edge a driver typically travels around the tricky, egg-shaped layout, the faster he typically goes. Just ask Jeff Burton. “To run fast, you have to be aggressive,” the veteran wheelman says. “You can’t ride around this race track and go fast. You have to be very aggressive. Aggressiveness is rewarded here. The problem is that also you pay the price for it, too. It is a finer line here just because of how narrow the groove is – that is really what it boils down to.” Clint Bowyer agrees with his Richard Childress Racing teammate that finding the perfect blend of caution and aggression is what it takes to win. “This isn’t a track where you can get here and you hear people say, ‘Race the track,’ so that means get comfortable and ride around and watch everybody wreck,” Bowyer says. “You have to get up on the wheel and get out of your comfort zone big time to run a lap here, and that can bite you in a hurry. You have to respect the place. You have got to be able to get up on the wheel but you have to be careful doing it.”
Before a 2008 repaving project replaced Darlington’s 14-year-old asphalt, tires were a focal point. The rugged 1.366-mile oval chewed up rubber at a blistering pace, forcing drivers and teams to give extra attention to tire management, and change tires with atypical frequency. Darlington is now faster and more forgiving on tires, which has led to a bigger emphasis on track position. Once a no-brainer to pit for fresh rubber at every opportunity, crew chiefs are now faced with tough decisions on whether to take tires or hold their position. Because Darlington is so narrow, and passing is always difficult, it’s nearly impossible for a driver to make up significant ground in just a few laps – even if his tires after fresher than those on many of the cars ahead. “I think track position is really important,” says two-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson. “A good qualifying effort and good pit stops and anything that you can have that keeps you towards the front is going to make a big difference." To Johnson’s point, the pivotal nature of good track position makes fast pit stops all the more critical at Darlington. Lose several spots on pit road on one or more occasions, and rallying back into contention can be difficult or impossible.
Yes, talent. Unlike some tracks where a fast car and good pit work all but guarantee a strong finish, Darlington is different. Who can really expect to win at a place long-dubbed the track “Too Tough To Tame” if he’s anything less than superb at wheeling a 3,500-pound stock car? Darlington’s difficulty is evident in the list of elite drivers – Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart to name a few – who have never prevailed here in a Sprint Cup Series car. Stewart, a two-time series champion, is winless in 18 Cup starts at Darlington. He did win a Nationwide Series race at the “Lady in Black” in 2008. “Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day,” Stewart says. “You don’t see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it’s a track that’s like winning at Bristol. It’s the same type of feeling – knowing that you conquered something that’s very hard to obtain.” Burton, who owns a pair of Darlington Cup victories, concurs. “It is really hard to win here,” he says. “I believe if you can win here …, you can win anywhere.”
Held annually in the South Carolina heat of early May, the SHOWTIME Southern 500 tests drivers’ stamina and physical fitness. In addition to the often humid temperatures, Darlington – with its high banks, thin racing line and different layout at the two ends – can be hard on drivers’ endurance. “It is hot,” says Denny Hamlin, defending race winner of the SHOWTIME Southern 500. “ … It is a long, long grueling race. The thing about it, too, is not only is it really long but we always hit the wall, always knock in the crush panels and always have to breathe that nasty air for the entire event. To me, this is the most physically-demanding race that we go to all year.” Preparation can help drivers hold on for the 500 miles, or 367 laps. “You just try to do the best you can to make sure you hydrate well,” Hamlin says. “That’s all you can do. I don’t know what it is. This track, it seems like when we come here it always just seems like one of the hottest races we go to all year. Five hundred miles is a tradition around here so I hate to see them change that but it is definitely a long one.”
To win the race, one must first finish it. There’s no track where that adage rings more true than Darlington. Much like the three short tracks and two restrictor-plate tracks the Sprint Cup Series visits, attrition is always a factor at Darlington – where the preferred line is right up next to the outside wall, thus resulting in more encounters with the concrete than at most tracks. The narrow racing groove also often results in drivers running into each other. Eleven drivers failed to finish the 2010 SHOWTIME Southern 500. “This place is a little bit like Bristol and Talladega. When you get in a wreck everybody just says, ‘That is just Bristol,’ or ‘That’s Talladega,’ and that is kind of the same thing here,” Burton says. “You hit the wall here and you wreck and you just say, ‘That is Darlington.’ It is a little of the built-in excuse factor. There is no question that this race track, if you mess up, you are going to hit something. At Michigan, if you mess up, you are not necessarily going to hit something. That is the big difference.” The key to surviving at Darlington? “You just have to be patient,” says Kyle Busch, 2008 winner of the SHOWTIME Southern 500. “You just have to bide your time … and you’ve got to make sure you keep working on your car.”
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