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Darlington: NASCAR Notebook

NASCAR
Friday, May 08, 2009

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The elite of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series returns to action this Saturday night at the Darlington Raceway for the running of the Southern 500 presented by Go Daddy.Com. The track, known as the "lady in black" as well as the "track too tough to tame", will redefine the world challenge for both drivers and crew chiefs.

Now if you will please indulge me I would like to start this week's column on a very personal note.

SOME PERSONAL THOUGHTS ON "BIG D"

With all due respects to the fine citizens of Dallas, Texas, the term "Big D" will always be Darlington, South Carolina to me. I was born and raised near there close to 58 years ago. The legendary pioneers who played a major role in creating NASCAR racing were my childhood heroes. Many of them, such as Richard Petty, are my heroes to this day.

The many trips I made over the years to Darlington Raceway were special because they remain as my fondest memories of quality time I shared with my Dad. I made my first trip to the Southern 500 with Dad in 1959. I recall after the race that the fans were in a highly agitated state. That's because a bona fide Yankee, from New York state, named Jim Reed had the audacity to drive to South Carolina and win the Southern 500. In those days such a thing was considered to be an act of blasphemy.

The 1960 Southern 500 was a memorable race also because of an amazing display of car control by NASCAR icon Buck Baker. Baker won the Southern 500 three times in 1953, 1960 and again in 1964. But it was that second win that everyone remembers so well. Baker was driving a Pontiac owned by Jack Smith who was another one of the legendary NASCAR Grand National Division barnstormers. In the late 1950's Smith was involved in a horrific crash at Darlington. While his career continued for several more years, Smith declared an early retirement on Darlington Raceway and never raced there again. That's why Baker was put into the seat of Smith's car for the 1960 race.

In the waning laps of the race Baker was leading and seemed to be well on his way to victory lane. However a left rear tire blew out. Baker had a big lead at the time and the decision was made to stay on the track and try to save the win. Baker finished the race with three tires on the car. The left rear tire was completely gone and the metal rim bounced up and down on the track surface as he sailed under the checkers.

Despite having all of the makings of a genuine snooze festival, the 1965 Southern 500 actually ended in a very dramatic fashion. All of the pre race favorites were victims of the early race retirement rate. That included Cale Yarborough whose Ford took off like an airplane and went sailing over the turn one wall. Miraculously the future NASCAR champion emerged from the twisted ball of sheet metal uninjured. Video of this crash was eventually included in the opening credits of ABC's "Wide World Of Sports" and remained there for quite a few years.

At the end of the 1965 race Ned Jarrett's Ford had a whopping 14 lap lead over his nearest competitor and everyone at the track was just sitting around waiting for the foregone conclusion. Then came reports that Jarrett's car was badly overheating and he was likely going to become the next victim of the track too tough to tame. That possibility also meant that Buck Baker, riding in second at the time, was going to win his fourth Southern 500. As if it was an act of divine providence, Jarrett's engine somehow finished the race although it was blowing steam like an old fashioned locomotive train when he arrived at victory lane.

My Darlington Raceway experiences hit a fever pitch in the latter half of the 1960's. By now Dad was a member of the Darlington Rescue Squad. That meant we got to spend the race weekends camping out in the giant Army style Red Cross tents located in the track's infield. My job was to pass out aspirin and Dixie Cups filled with water to race fans with hangovers. Considering the famed party level of the Darlington infield at the time that job kept me quite busy.

Saturday nights, during a Darlington weekend, were always fun because of the special visitors who dropped by to say hello. It was commonplace for drivers in those days to drive through the infield to say hello to the fans the night before the race. Invariably many of them, like Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, would stop at the Rescue Squad's tents for a cup of coffee.

Over the years I have often laughingly said that it was NASCAR racing that helped Dad and I get through the so called generation gap during my turbulent teen years. The impact of those memories made it easy for me to create and maintain a personal connection with the sport that eventually transformed itself into a professional connection.

Meanwhile here in southern California I will of course be monitoring the 2009 Southern 500 on television this Saturday night. But if this annual tradition follows its normal course then I will be somewhat preoccupied during the broadcast. I will be thinking about the early days of NASCAR and my own personal memories of "Big D." Ironically, on this Mother's Day weekend, I will also be thinking a lot about my Dad.

THE DARLINGTON RUNDOWN

The Southern 500, presented by Go Daddy.Com is 367 laps long around Darlington's 1.375 mile egg shaped oval. The race has 45 official entries with ten of the teams being on the "go or go home list" meaning they will have to earn a starting berth based on qualifying speed.

The race will be broadcast live Saturday night by Fox Sports beginning at 7pm eastern time. The rebroadcast will be on Wednesday, May 13th, at 12pm eastern on the Speed Channel.

The event is expected to be fast paced due to the track being repaved last year. The raceway has 25 degrees of banking in turns one and two along with 23 degrees of banking in turns three and four. The pit road speed for the race will be 45 mph. The track currently seats approximately 68,000.

Kyle Busch
The defending race champion is Kyle Busch.

Jeff Gordon has the most wins at Darlington among active drivers with seven. David Pearson has the most wins of all time with ten visits to Darlington's victory lane.

Rick Hendrick has the most owner's wins with 12.

Chevrolet leads the manufacturer's win list with 37.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has raced at Darlington Raceway 105 times since California's Johnny Mantz won the first race there back in 1950. The races have featured 43 different winners with 22 of them visiting victory lane two or more times.

The track qualifying record, 173.797 MPH, was set by Ward Burton in March of 1996.

Among active drivers Bill Elliott has won the most poles at Darlington with five. David Pearson leads the all time driver's list having won the pole position 12 times.

In a very appropriate move 70 year old Cale Yarborough, a three time NASCAR champion and five time Southern 500 winner, will drive the pace car.

The companion event is Friday night's Diamond Hill Plywood 200 for the NASCAR Nationwide Series. The race will be aired by ESPN2 beginning at 730 pm eastern.

THE VEGAS REPORT

The Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange-WSE didn't surprise anyone this week when they placed Kyle Busch at the top of their pick list. The rowdy one comes in at 5 to 1 odds to score a repeat win at Darlington this week.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are listed 6 to 1 and 7 to 1 while Carl Edwards is ranked at 8 to 1 to be the next Sprint Cup winner. Other notables include the quartet of Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin who are rated at 10 to 1 odds. This week's listing also includes the other Hendrick Motorsports team mates Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr who are listed at 15 to 1 and 18 to 1 respectively.

It's time once again for the weekly disclaimer. The part of the column where I remind you that NASCAR's says these wage ratings are for entertainment purposes only and they do not condone placing bets on their events.

This is also normally where I deliver a sarcastic remark telling you to go ahead and place the bet anyway. I'm going to break that tradition for this week only and suggest that you instead make better use of your gambling allowance by doing something nice for Mom this Sunday.

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