Denny Hamlin won the Southern 500 Saturday night at Darlington Raceway. The track has many nicknames including "The Track Too Tough To Tame" and "The Lady in Black.” It is still one of the most challenging speedways to drive. But this is not your grandfather’s Darlington.
The South Carolina oval’s history dates back to being NASCAR’s first superspeedway. Its lore also falls into a tire-eater category. There are certain racetracks that have surfaces that grind away tires and cause quick wear. Rockingham in North Carolina and Five Flags in Florida come to mind. Darlington is under the used-to claim.
For years tires wore off in a matter of just a few laps and brought the most talented chassis specialists and drivers to the top of their games to make a car handle and remain fast for a fuel run. There was a running joke around crew members that scuffing tires meant pushing the car through inspection.
When a caution flag waved, there was never any debate about what team would do what under the next pit stop round. Four tires were changed, period.
Prior to the 2008 NASCAR weekend, Darlington got a face lift with a repaved racing surface. Gone was the gritty, cheese-grader like track. Appearing was smooth asphalt and tires that no longer screamed for mercy.
That weekend I was employed at Germain Racing with their Nationwide Series entry working as a tire specialist. We were turning laps on tires in practice, scuffing sets looking for grip on the new pavement. During the race, tires coming off the car were not thrown away but saved for spares in case they were needed later. The words scuffing tires and Darlington had never appeared in the same story before.
Kyle Busch claimed after Friday’s Nationwide event that track position was more important than fresh tires. The Southern 500’s final yellow flag yielded many two tire stops, giving up fresh rubber for restart positioning.
Darlington has changed. Your own opinion will decide whether it is for the better or worse. I appreciate the unknown quality that has been thrown into the strategy. Four tires, two tires, or fuel only are now in play.
At the same time worn-out track surfaces tend to bring out the best behind the wheel. A careful tightrope is walked to go hard and be fast on a narrow groove at Darlington. Yet not to be setting track-record times at a run’s beginning and falling off the lead lap when the next pit stop finally arrives.
"The Lady in Black" has earned her right to choose her dance partner. Strategy and finesse or brute speed and track positions are the choices for a Southern 500 victory.
All of auto racing has evolved. Darlington Raceway, being a traditional NASCAR landmark, has held onto its character while staying strong and relevant in 2010. There is just now more than one way to try and tame it.
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