Monday, May 10, 2010

If Any Track Deserves a Second Date, It's Darlington

By Reid Spencer, Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

No matter what happens at Darlington, the Track Too Tough to Tame invariably becomes the Track That Leaves You Wanting More.

Ask any driver or crew chief in the Sprint Cup garage where they’d most like to watch a race from the grandstands, and it’s a dead heat between the Daytona 500 and Darlington. The same goes for the core fans of the sport.

The egg-shaped track in the middle of the South Carolina sandhills presents a unique set of variables and more action in 500 miles than you’re likely to see in five years at Pocono or Fontana. Nothing against those tracks—they just don’t produce the sort of always-on-the-edge racing that’s second nature to the Lady in Black.

Just ask driver Jeff Burton, who fought from 18th place to finish eighth in Saturday night’s Showtime Southern 500 after suffering pit-road penalty late in the race.

“It has a special meaning to me,” Burton said of the 1.366-mile track, which owes its asymmetrical shape to landowner Sherman Ramsey’s desire not to disturb a minnow pond at the west end of the property during the construction that began in 1949. “I think that the history of our sport is right here. The thought that someone would build this racetrack, the shape they built it, the size they built it at the time that they built it was pretty phenomenal.

“You go back and watch video. It’s narrow now, but it was really narrow then. You watch that old video, and it’s just really cool to be here. To me, it’s the most historic weekend of the year. That makes it special.”

In 2003, NASCAR took one of its most iconic races—the Southern 500 run on Labor Day weekend at Darlington—and turned it into a nondescript event at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Seven years later, it’s time for NASCAR to admit its mistake and restore Darlington to the stature its deserves as the sport’s oldest—and arguably most exciting—superspeedway.

Kansas Speedway is earmarked for a second Cup date, likely in 2011, as part of a casino development contract awarded to partners International Speedway Corporation, which operates 12 Cup tracks, and Penn National Gaming. Paving the way for the approval from the Kansas Lottery Gaming Facility Review Board was ISC’s promise to petition NASCAR for a second Kansas date.

The highest probability is that Auto Club Speedway will lose one of its two dates to Kansas. As NASCAR constructs its schedule for 2011 and beyond, however, the sanctioning body should consider returning a pivotal race to one of its most historic venues.

Since the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup debuted in 2004, the September race that finalized the field for NASCAR’s playoff has been held at Richmond. Nothing against the three-quarter-mile short track, and not to suggest that Richmond should lose a date—which it absolutely should not—but Darlington might be a better choice for that crucial race.

Jimmie Johnson’s wrecked car and Tony Stewart’s lack of speed notwithstanding, Saturday night’s race, capped by a heroic drive from Denny Hamlin, went a long way toward identifying the real wheel men in the series.

All of the top nine finishers currently are in the top 17 in the Cup standings, which means they’re either currently in the top 12 (Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton) or no more than 54 points out of 12th place (Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya).

In the 26th race of the season, each one of those drivers likely will be competing for a position in the Chase.

To have that happen at Darlington would be particularly compelling—especially if it’s the second trip of the year to the legendary track.

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