Darlington Still Rocks, After All These Years

May 6 2010 - 8:00pm

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Back home again…in Darlington! This is where all the NASCAR history really hits home, and driving up this morning it was clearly evident that history is indeed infused with this sleepy little town near Florence.

It retains a lot of its old-school charm, and that’s what makes it different from most every other track. Martinsville is like this, but the others of this age—Atlanta, Charlotte, Bristol—have all had major facelifts and no longer have…whatever it is that Darlington does. Does that make sense?

Anyway, we’re here at The Track Too Tough to Tame, and it’s been a great time already.

Officially, and personally confirmed, the temperature is still well above 90 degrees. What’s that old line…”It’s a dry heat?” Well, so is a blowtorch, and that isn’t designed to make one feel all cool and collected.

Speaking of hot, that means slick at Darlington, and several drivers have already fallen victim to the Darlington slide. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray did it, as well as Joe Nemechek and Kurt Busch. Lotta stripes out there today.

Dale Jr. in particular doesn’t like this old place all that much.

“This place will probably be the catalyst to my retirement one day,” he said. “I will probably come here when I’m 45, run a race and say the hell with it. It’s miserable hot here on Friday, it’s a difficult track to drive around. Not one of my favorites, but I’ve run all right here before.”

I don’t think he was kidding.

The problem with the wall-banging, Junior said, was heat.

“It is slick,” he said. “We are just getting on the edge right there. This track is real smooth and you can find that edge. There is a lot of load change like landing in Turn 1 and then the load comes out of the car through the center and then the load increases on the second apex.

“There’s a lot of dynamic wedge going in and out of the car through the corner. The car really changes a lot as you are going around the corner and it can just snap on you. It’s real easy.”

Junior had to go to a backup, for fear that an A-frame or ball joint got boogered up to the point it would cost them tomorrow night.

Much has been made of the makeup of the asphalt here, and track president Chris Browning explained the reason that the track has been able to retain its grip since the repaving a couple of years back.

“It’s the polymers that they used in the repaving,” he said. “The technology that has come available in the last 12 years, since we repaved in 1994, has enabled the polymers to keep the aggregate together better.

“I’ve been amazed that the track has retained its grip since we repaved it. This is our third race, and it doesn’t seem like it’s given up grip much at all.”

Chris Browning is just a fantastic human being, and any sort of good luck that comes his way is way less than he deserves. He started out at about the same time I did in motorsports, and we’ve been friends since that beginning. Apparently, he had a lot more on the ball than I did during those early years, because he’s been president of two tracks (the other was Rockingham) while I…well, am who I am and we’ll leave it at that!

Seriously, though, as hard as he works and as much passion as he puts into this old haven of NASCAR history, I wish him only the best. Here’s hoping for full grandstands, glorious weather and a heckuva race tomorrow night.

Kyle Busch just did the Darlington Two-Step during qualifying, slapping both ends of the Doublemint Toyota off the wall. Two, two, two hits in one! Two bonus points if you can tell me where that came from!

Jamie McMurray just broke the track record, set by Matt Kenseth. Wow. Tom Carnegie needs to be on tape for each one of those…”And…it’s a NEW….TRACK…RECORD!” As opposed to an old track record? I digress.

Stunning development this afternoon: lunch in the Darlington media center consisted of salad, bread and cookies. Not a barbecued animal of any kind within sight or smell. That’s abnormal to the point of apocalyptic. Dinner, however, made up for it, with meat at least, but no ‘cue! I’m investigating this as breaking news. You know my motto, right? “If it’s green it’s trouble, if it’s fried, get double!” That’s exactly why I am now the human tater tot.

Well, qualifying is nearly finished and I must dash to the press box for the Nationwide Series event. Perhaps this week, I’ll ask if there’s an elevator; I didn’t know there was one last week at RIR, and walked nine flights of 20-step stairs…good for me, I know, but finding out that a ride was available made me feel every one of those steps all over again!