Darlington Raceway has often been called the "Lady in Black" due to the black stripes left on the speedway walls when race cars come just a little too close in proximity. Yet another nickname for Darlington is "The Track Too Tough to Tame".
Between the heat, the stripes and spins, as well as a spectacular fire in Michael Waltrip's car after an oil line erupted, the Darlington Raceway lived up to both nicknames and more.
Almost every driver in the race battled the track and each other valiantly. But one of the gutsiest performances of the evening was given by four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
Gordon started the race in a great position in his No. 24 Dupont/National Guard ESGR Chevy, securing the outside pole. He started next to a somewhat surprising pole sitter, Matt Kenseth, who is not often known for his qualifying skills or speed.
Early in the race, Gordon led some laps, smoothly passing Matt Kenseth. But right before lap 100, Gordon started to feel a vibration, which just kept getting worse.
Gordon's crew chief Steve Letarte called Gordon into the pits. The crew changed tires and discovered that one tire was indeed flat.
Unfortunately, Gordon had to pit under green flag conditions. So, the unscheduled stop resulted in him going a lap down.
To add to Gordon's woes, there were several cars ahead of him in line to get the "lucky dog". Gordon tried on the track to pass these cars and his crew tried to get him out ahead of these cars on every pit stop.
When all was said and done, it took Gordon and his team over 100 laps to get back on the lead lap.
With Steve Letarte as the ultimate cheerleader, Gordon continued to click off laps and positions on the track. With less than 100 laps to go, Gordon had inched his way into the top 10.
In the final 42 laps, Gordon was able to move forward into the top five. Following race winner and teammate Mark Martin to the checkered flag, Gordon brought the car home in the fifth position.
Gordon said the race was all about perseverance. "We never gave up", said Gordon. "We had an incredible race car. I'm so proud of Steve and all the guys on the team."
In addition to battling back to the lead lap after the tire problem, Gordon had several other struggles on his hands. One of his biggest issues continued to be his back problems.
Gordon acknowledged that this track, in particular, was hard on his back, particularly due to the length of the race and the intensity of the racing. He also advised that after the All Star Race, he would be getting treatments for his back issues.
Another issue that Gordon and company had to fight through was the heat. Although the former Southern 500 had been traditionally run on Labor Day, a usually hot time of year, this spring race managed to live up to the name as far as the track temperature.
There were several times throughout the race when Gordon was battling the high temperatures in the race car. During many of the pit stops, he requested some ice packs and something to drink as well.
Gordon, who has won at Darlington seven times, managed to bring the car home for a respectable top five finish in spite of all the struggles on and off the track.
With that finish, Gordon also secured his position as the continuing points leader, ahead of Tony Stewart by 29 points.
In spite of the grueling race, Gordon congratulated his teammate and race winner Mark Martin. He was one of the first of the Hendrick gang to join in the celebration with Martin in Victory Lane.
"It was a great effort for Hendrick Motorsports," said Gordon. Indeed, six of the top seven finishers in the Southern 500 were in the HMS camp.
For Gordon, this was one of the gutsiest performances so far in the race season. He summed it up best, "That was one hard fifth-place finish."
Photo Credit: David Yeazell
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