The hard road of Darlington, a historic starting point for the playoffs

The idea that Darlington Raceway and its Labor Day weekend (always steeped in tradition) should play a big role in determining the NASCAR Cup Series champion seems like a no-brainer.

It will happen on Sunday (6 pm ET on USA Network) when the 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs line up as part of the starting grid for the 73rd Southern 500, a race so steeped in heritage, tradition and lifestyle like any American motorsports event. this side of the Indianapolis 500.

For the champion to take his first step on 1,366 miles of NASCAR’s oldest paved track, driving 500 miles of hard road in the heat and humidity of a southern summer afternoon in South Carolina, seems about right. Appropriate, yes, even in these days of modernized, forward-thinking NASCAR that would confuse many who gathered at the gleaming new Darlington Raceway on September 4, 1950 for the first Southern 500.

A street race in Chicago? A specially designed track inside a soccer stadium in Los Angeles? Deciding the champion in the desert southwest? None of this could have been imagined in the early days of stock car racing, when the sport took its first amazing steps toward becoming organized.

Now, through all those years and with so many changes, especially in recent years, the sport still lands in secluded Darlington for one of its greatest moments.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. In 2003, at a time when the NASCAR hierarchy would come to regret it, Darlington’s Labor Day weekend date, considered something of a birthright in that part of South Carolina, was moved to Auto Club Speedway. in California, as far away in distance and culture as possible.

It was part of NASCAR’s effort to focus on larger markets at a time when the sport was growing and gaining more national attention. Darlington was left with scattered race dates on Mother’s Day (generally considered a closed “day off” for NASCAR for years), in April and November. It was a dizzying and confusing time for many immersed in the Carolinas’ strong sports tradition.

The Southern 500 returned to Darlington Raceway and Labor Day weekend in 2015 and has been there ever since. The playoff look adds some glare and shine to the old place.

Here’s some of what led us to this moment throughout Darlington’s long history:

  • The first Southern 500, in 1950, was chaotic. The packed starting field had 75 cars, and Johnny Mantz, the slowest qualifier, won after six hours and 38 minutes of racing. The teams were in town for more than a week to practice and qualify. Bud Moore, a crew chief/car owner who would be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, once spoke of checking into a downtown Darlington hotel for that first race and walking out a few minutes later after seeing what who called an army of cockroaches into his car. room. He slept in a tent on the track for days.
  • The late Senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond, seemed to be at every event happening in Darlington. He was there for the ribbon cutting to open the track and attended many a Southern 500. Fans remember him, a perennial fighter, wandering down pit road before the start of the races, shaking hands with everyone who was nearby. . Thurmond often handed out tokens as key chains as he made his rounds in the pit and garage area. One man recalled Thurmond shaking his hand five times and giving him five key chains.
  • Ned Jarrett, also a Hall of Famer, won the 1965 Southern 500 by a staggering 14 laps. One of the drivers he overtook that day was Cale Yarborough, who was unable to finish the race because his car went over the wall on lap 118 after touching another car. The incident came somewhat full circle for Yarborough. He remembered going under the fence to watch races as a child; he now he had jumped the fence.
  • In 1985, the race track was abuzz with million-dollar rumors. If Bill Elliott won the race, he would get a $1 million bonus for winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and Southern 500 in the same year. Despite the tense atmosphere (a couple of South Carolina State Troopers guarded Elliott’s garage for much of the weekend), Elliott won the race and left town with a big check and a new nickname: Million Dollar. Bill.
  • The 1962 Southern 500 resulted in one of NASCAR’s most ignominious scoring dramas. Junior Johnson took the checkered flag first, but Larry Frank and more than a few spectators and members of the media were sure that Frank had won the race. Hours after Johnson had enjoyed the fruits of victory lane, Frank was declared the winner by virtue of a lengthy score check.
  • The Darlington infield on Southern 500 weekend is much quieter these days, but for many years it was the center of the party for an eclectic mix of race fans, college students and dedicated revelers determined to stack their used beer cans higher than the gang at the next pickup. For a time, there was a prison in the inner field.
  • Despite so much success on the racing map, Richard Petty won the Southern 500 only once. That came in 1967 as part of a remarkable 10-race winning streak, a record that will probably never be broken. Three years later, Petty suffered one of the worst crashes of his career in the spring race at Darlington. His Plymouth bounced off the outside wall at Turn 4 and went hurtling down the track before crashing full force into the pit wall, shattering that section of the pit wall into hundreds of pieces. Petty’s car then rolled violently down the front straight, his head and arms shooting out the driver’s side window with each turn. The car stopped on its roof on the tarmac. Many in the hushed grandstand probably thought Petty had been killed. He was rushed to the infield medical center, eventually diagnosed with a broken shoulder, and missed five races.
  • The 500 weekend is a special one for Harold Brasington III, grandson of Harold Brasington Sr., the local dreamer who built the track with his own bulldozer. Brasington Sr., who defied non-believers to build the race track that introduced NASCAR to paved track racing, lost administrative control of the race track a few years after it opened. A later generation of track operators patched things up with Brasington, who died in 1996 at the age of 86. “After 1953, there were a lot of bitter feelings about him leaving the track,” Brasington III told NBC Sports. “I don’t think that softened during the ’70s. But, as a young man, he took me to the track. Once, spontaneously, he pulled up to the gate in his little truck. The guard let him in. He took me around the track just because. Actually, he didn’t say anything and went back out. That was how he was with me: a man of few words. I know he would be delighted if people have come to appreciate the story and the special place that track has in the hearts of everyone who loves it. That would be gratifying for him. His first love is still there, going strong despite the threats to his existence over the years.”
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