Driving into Darlington County: Still Tough To Tame for NASCAR's Best?

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Driving into Darlington County: Still Tough To Tame for NASCAR's Best?
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

When it comes to the action at Darlington Raceway, there are several terms used that are unique and pertinent to this facility. Some of them include the infamous "Darlington Stripe," ""racing the racetrack," "tire management," and "The Southern 500."

While this year's edition is called the "Showtime Southern 500," with a race title sponsored by the widely available cable movie network, the challenges and prestige at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway remains the same.

Conquering "The Lady in Black" would be like the average male Bleacher Report reader actually scoring a date with the supposed "beauties" in the Barely Sports section.

For the stick and ball enthusiasts, a win at Darlington is like pitching a perfect game at Fenway Park or logging in six passing touchdowns for 500 yards at Lambeau Field. It's just that much more special when it comes to milestones accomplished at historic venues.

She's been through some changes over the past 13 years, with her start/finish line relocated in what was previously the backstretch, thus effectively changing the corners of the track, as well as the pit road locations.

Additionally, she was given a cosmetic makeover last year with an asphalt overhaul that smoothed the track surface.

While she might be a gorgeous older woman (think cougar status), any racer who dares to get the best of her will be in for the same challenges as her former suitors. With narrow corners, particularly in turns three and four, Darlington teases her challengers.

At first, the turns look accommodating for double-file racing, appearing as if it has enough space for these 3400 pound machines.

Before you know it, she'll take out the driver on the outside lane, giving them a memorable time and lesson with a visit from her father, aka the wall. Or perhaps both.

Darlington doesn't discriminate against anyone, even collecting the best in class from seeing triumph after one of the most difficult days in the driver's seat. Just ask Jeff Gordon, who was experiencing a summer slump in 2003.

Heading into that year's Southern 500, he needed a good run to rejuvenate his title chances against the amazingly consistent Matt Kenseth.

Instead, the all-time active track winner found himself collected in an impressive multi-car crash, with all sides of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet all but destroyed.

While the track's repaved and the beloved race has been separated from its Labor Day weekend date since '03, it is still "too tough to tame."

Tire management is still key, especially with those who've encountered a meeting or two with the outside retaining wall.

At any other track, a slight slap in the wall ruins a car's performance for the remainder of a race, with its aerodynamics devastated by such contact.

However, Darlington offers drivers some chances to redeem themselves, provided that crews pull away at the mangled sheet metal and plates to clear some room between the car and tire.

Considering that and NASCAR's shootout restarts and three overtime periods, this could translate into one of the more action-packed, hair-raising Showtime Southern 500s in a long time.

While the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the famed South Carolina speedway for its now traditional Mother's Day weekend race, there are some particularly good storylines to follow, involving both the track and her combatants:

 

Tiongson's Six Stories:

1) Will Jeff Gordon finally snap his bridesmaid streak?

This is a particularly tough question, given how in recent years, the original Four-Time hasn't been able to close out a race. With about all the excuses used in the world, from scapegoating crew chief Steve Letarte to driver miscues, it's about time for the No. 24 team to come through under pressure.

Remember, Gordon won four consecutive Southern 500s from 1995-'98, including the million dollar bonus races in '97 and '98. Along the way, he also won the spring race in '96, a fifth Southern 500 in 2002, and the '07 Mother's Day weekend race with a Chevy Impala aptly named "Stanley Steamer."

Save for Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson, who have arguably been two of the best Cup racers this season, there's been no other driver consistently putting up winning efforts like Gordon.

Saturday's race provides his DuPont team with their best chance at victory all season long, at arguably Gordon's best track on the circuit.

 

2) What's up with Stewart-Haas Racing?

No need to fret, Smoke and Rocket Ryan fans. Sure, they're off to a rather peculiar slow start to the season, with Ryan Newman's victory at Phoenix last month serving as the second-year organization's highlight thus far.

Tony Stewart hasn't been all that spectacular yet, with only a runner-up finish at Bristol in March as his only bright spot in a cloud-filled campaign. That said, his slump will come to a screeching halt, given his track record of steadily improving down the stretch of a season.

If Stewart still sits outside the top-12 by this time next month, then we can press the panic button the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy team.

As for Newman, it's one of those unexplainable moments with his career. Borrowing a page from former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe, when the pressure's there, he either excels or stumbles into mediocrity. He hasn't forgotten how to drive a racecar, but he hasn't shown much either in the recent years.

However, if Stewart's efforts improve soon, the same case will be said for the No. 39 team, who sorely needs another reason to keep on striving in 2010 aside from their Phoenix triumph.

 

3) Where will Kevin Harvick go in 2011?

After Kurt Busch and Penske Racing announced their intentions for next season, which includes a shift to the No. 22 Dodge backed by Shell/Pennzoil, it appears as if Harvick's options have been greatly limited for next season.

Most rumors point to the 10 year racer going to Stewart-Haas Racing, although Stewart has repeatedly said that he has not been in position for a sponsor to back a third team. Given the tough economy, the realities and practicals have to be realized for corporations.

While I would say that Harvick will bolt to SHR, I have a feeling that he'll stick around with Richard Childress Racing. His team has built itself around him, making constant changes internally to provide the Bakersfield, Calif., native with the tools necessary for wins and titles.

As for his sponsor next season, that might be a tough question to even provide a guess. However, Childress has the pockets and resources to at least compile a package deal for sponsors on board in an allotment of races.

 

4) How about Kasey Kahne, who publicly announced (a while ago) that he's going to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012? Where will he be next year?

Obviously, he will drive with the Chevrolet brand next year. Not that there's much difference on the surface with the four makes, but the technological aspects of each manufacturer, plus endorsements, translates to the pride of Enumclaw, Wash., needing to acclimate himself to Bowtie sheet metal.

Would it surprise anyone at all if he does indeed drive for Hendrick next year? And I'm not saying he'll go to a satellite organization. I mean, how about the possibility of Kahne going to Hendrick next year?

It happened with Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray's deals in 2006. Mark Martin was the common denominator with those transactions. When McMurray signed a contract with Jack Roush's organization, he was supposed to pilot the No. 6 Ford.

However, when Busch signed a deal with Penske Racing for the '06 season, Roush needed someone to fill the No. 97's seat. McMurray would take over for Busch, including a number change from No. 97 to No. 26.

Martin stayed on another year, closing out his Roush years with a Chase seed and ninth-place finish in the points standings.

Fast forward to the present, and once again, NASCAR's version of Brett Favre and Gordie Howe could be the common denominator for Kahne entering the Hendrick fold one year earlier.

Then again, it may not happen, since Martin has been adamant about his commitment and duties to drive the No. 5 Chevy in 2011.

And do not mention the word retirement to the Batesville, Ark., hero, who will have none of it, with Jordanesque like skills in what's supposedly the "twilight of his career."

 

5) We've had a few races now with the rear spoiler...so has it made a difference?

It could just be a mind over matter deal, but at least at Talladega, it has made a tremendous difference with the racing.

The racing feels more purely competitive, with drivers unafraid to trade paint, even prompting some teammates to drop the ranks and compete against each other with the mentality that "it's every man for themselves."

Give it another month or so, but for now, it's made some impact with the quality of racing on the track.

Perhaps NASCAR may examine the front-clips of the car, perhaps considering making some alterations to them in congruence to the Nationwide Car of Tomorrow.

For now, NASCAR's made some progress in cosmetically improving the Cup machines, which look a bit bearable to look at nowadays.

 

6) Is there too much NASCAR today?

It's something that some of my sports friends ask me and a topic of discussion with some fans in general.

As an observer of the sport since 1991, I remember just appreciating any coverage that NASCAR would get, be it a monthly magazine, sports programs, and the races themselves on the tube.

Specialty magazine programs on-air would cater to the sport's news, features, and happenings in the mid-1990s, with shows like espn2's rpm2nite and NASCAR2day providing some insights into the racing weekend.

TNN had Inside NASCAR and Raceday , which were World Sports Entertainment's ways of reaching out to fans who craved the personal and feature side of the sport.

Enter the 2001 TV deal, which signaled a revolution in coverage for the sport. By then, NASCAR.com transferred from ESPN to Turner Sports, whose presence became greatly enhanced with TNT sharing some races with NBC Sports for five years.

FOX Sports also made its splash with the national phenomenon at the time, introducing football and baseball fans to the unique brand of racing to Northeastern residents and those in the major markets of America.

During those years, it was interesting to see all the coverage dedicated to informing audiences across the country about a silly season move, the new schedule for an upcoming season, or the human side to the sport.

Nowadays, NASCAR can be found on HBO, Showtime, Versus, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, FOX, and ABC (through its ESPN on ABC brand) to name a few.

With the Internet via outlets like NASCAR.com, Jayski, the NASCAR Media Corps' Citizen Journalism brand of sites, and Twitter, it seems like there's a superfluous amount of NASCAR coverage.

Some fans will say, "Get over it, you're not a real fan if you can't handle it." Supposedly, a real fan sits on their couch, digests all there is to know, even if it means seeing/reading a story that's essentially the same but interpreted in another angle.

Others feel that it depreciates the value for the sport, sometimes overly saturating itself to the point of having too much of a good thing. After all, not many of us would eat our favorite meals by the surplus, simply because it's unhealthy.

The same can be said for the coverage of the sport. While it is good and does a lot in promoting the sport, there has to be a line drawn.

Then again, those are my thoughts as a longtime fan and a budding sportswriter. Time will tell if it reaches out to audiences whom the sport may have never thought it could reach, but by then, will it offset the amount of fans who may turn to other sports or interests?

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