What Makes Darlington's Southern 500 so Special?

Joseph Shelton@@JosephShelton88Contributor IIIApril 10, 2014

Matt Kenseth won the 2013 running of the Southern 500.
Matt Kenseth won the 2013 running of the Southern 500.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

It isn't a vast superspeedway with lavish amenities and a constant pack of snarling stock cars tearing around the track lap after lap. It isn't a mainstream spectacle with an annual date and coverage from all the major news sources. We don't see a group of mainstream A-list celebrities making their way through the crowd just to be seen.

So why is it that the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is one of NASCAR's prestigious events?

The answer is history. Darlington Raceway has been around longer than the Daytona International Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, to name a few of NASCAR's major venues.

With ground breaking on the speedway in 1949, Harold Brasington's egg-shaped oval first hosted a race on Labor Day weekend in 1950. Seventy-five entries took the green flag in what was supposed to be stock-car racing's answer to the Indianapolis 500. At the end of the day, it was Johnny Mantz who took the checkered in the first Southern 500, winning a record $25,000 for his efforts.

Mantz's win kicked off what is now a NASCAR tradition, one that is older than the Daytona 500 or the Brickyard 400. Although it is no longer held on Labor Day weekend, the drivers still hold the event in high regard, especially considering the levity of the race's history.

Terry Labonte won the event twice, in 1980 and 2003. Both events were his first career win and his last career win, respectively.
Terry Labonte won the event twice, in 1980 and 2003. Both events were his first career win and his last career win, respectively.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The race has seen plenty of victors. For one, Cale Yarborough and Jeff Gordon are tied for the most Southern 500 victories with five apiece. Yarborough's first Southern 500 win came in 1968, three years after his terrifying accident with Sam McQuagg. However, it was his 1982 win in the event that is possibly remembered most for the competitive aspect of it all.

The 1982 Southern 500 saw 41 lead changes with 17 drivers. Although it was Yarborough who led the most laps with 99 (including a chunk of 41 straight from lap 242 to lap 282), several drivers struggled to lead more than a handful of laps at a time. Bobby Allison led 88 laps that day, but finished 20th.

Gordon won four straight, from 1995 to 1998 (later winning his fifth Southern 500 in 2002). It was his 1997 victory that stands out, when he managed to hold off Jeff Burton to become the second driver to win the Winston Million prize. 

Other winners include three-time event winners Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and Bill Elliott, whose 1985 victory made him the first winner of the Winston Million and landed him on the front page of Sports Illustrated. 

Ned Jarrett actually won the 1965 Southern 500 by 14 laps over Buck Baker. He would go on to win the Grand National championship for the second time that year, having also won it in 1961.

Despite having the most wins ever in NASCAR, Richard Petty's lone Southern 500 win came in 1967. Meanwhile, other drivers who have won the Southern 500 once include Bobby Labonte, Ward Burton and Regan Smith, whose 2011 victory was one of the most surprising wins in the speedway's history.

But history isn't always established by memorable wins. Sometimes other instances can happen that make the Southern 500 special.

Not that every instance is a positive one; while in contention for the Winston Million in 1992, a crew member on Davey Allison's team misinterpreted the weather radar, resulting in the race's cancellation due to the ensuing rain storm. Darrell Waltrip took the checkered while Allison finished fifth and lost any chance at winning the million.

In the 1960 running, Rex White was scored as the winner at the end of a long race, but after a scoring debacle stripped him of the victory the trophy was handed to Buck Baker. White went on to win the 1960 Grand National championship.

Meanwhile, due to Earl Balmer's spectacular accident in the 1966 Southern 500 that almost saw his car sail into the Turn One press box, the press box was renamed Balmer's Box. No one was injured in the accident, thankfully.

However, the speedway itself is the apotheosis of tradition in terms of NASCAR lore. With such occurrences as Jeff Burton's rainy victory in March of 1999 and Ricky Craven's slam-bang victory in March of 2003, the atmosphere is rich with memories and surprise occurrences.

Granted, Saturday night's Southern 500 isn't the same event that our parents or grandparents watched. It will be under the lights and early in the season, with the climate a little bit friendlier than what it is in autumn months.

Yet to those taking the green flag, they have the opportunity to join their heroes along with several of NASCAR's pioneers by winning big at Darlington. They will have the opportunity to be a part of the history offered by the track's obscure shape and its knack of handing out "Darlington Stripes."

Saturday night, some lucky Sprint Cup victor will have a chance to make his story a part of Darlington's legend. Who will it be?

Follow Joseph Shelton on Twitter: @ThatSheltonGuy, and be sure to check out his racing blog, The Shelton 500.


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