Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – What better place than the track known as “Too Tough to Tame,” the venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway to provide a final frantic push for NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series championship set-up.
The series arrives at the historic oval for Sunday night’s Bojangles Southern 500 (at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with Playoff hopes on the line and only two regular season races to guarantee a shot at the title.
The 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway, in particular, has always proven itself to be a high test of man and machine. The “Darlington Stripe,” as it is somewhat-affectionately known, leaves an unmistakable trace of grit on the side of the car for those that push the limits here.
And with the regular season wrapping up, there will be plenty pushing.
Of those still looking to secure their postseason chances with a win, defending Darlington race winner Denny Hamlin and seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson are at the top of that list this weekend. They both are ranked safely among the 16-driver Playoff cutoff on points, but a victory at this point in the season could be a well-timed boost.
Certainly, Hamlin brings his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to South Carolina feeling simultaneously pressured to get that first win of the season and buoyed by his stellar record here. Since his first win at Darlington in 2011 – a span of seven races – Hamlin has only finished worse than sixth, one time. He has an amazing five top-three results in the last eight races.
Hamlin and Kyle Larson each led a race-best 124 laps in last year’s race, with Hamlin taking the lead from Martin Truex Jr. with three to go to earn his second Darlington victory. Hamlin led a race best 54 of the final 105 laps.
Johnson, has three Darlington wins, the last coming in 2012. But the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has led only one time for eight laps in the five races since his last victory. He was 12th last year in the Southern 500.
Johnson was 10th at Bristol Motor Speedway – the last race before the recent off-week – and that was his best showing since an eighth-place finish at the first Pocono race early in the summer.
Watching these two veterans – along with a handful of others with championship hopes on the line – navigate the Darlington challenge only adds to the mystique of this time-honored event that dates all the way back to 1950.
And judging by the list of winners, once a racer figures out the mystique and mindset necessary to prevail here – there’s a lot of trophy hoisting that awaits.
Legendary names proved to be multi-time winners here – from three-time Darlington champs Herb Thomas, Buck Baker and Richard Petty – to those that dominate the all-time wins list such as South Carolinians David Pearson – a 10-time winner – and Cale Yarborough (five wins) to Hall of Famers Bobby Allison (five wins), Dale Earnhardt (nine) and Jeff Gordon (seven).
In more recent times, however, the idea of winning in bunches is rare. Johnson (who swept 2004 races) and Greg Biffle (who won in 2005, 06) are the last drivers to win consecutively. And since Gordon’s retirement two years ago, there isn’t that “one” driver with a huge haul of Darlington trophies.
Since Johnson’s 2004 win, only five fulltime active drivers (Johnson, Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.) have even scored victories at Darlington. Current part-time Roush-Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth won there in 2013.
It is that kind of elite victory that motivates and captivates the starting lineup. The Southern 500 is long considered one of the sport’s most treasured wins and one so hard to come by.
In recent years, the sport has embraced this firm tradition by celebrating “throwback” paint schemes and even team uniforms.
This year’s theme is “Seven Decades of NASCAR” – encouraging an even wider celebration of time that has marked incredible milestones from Ned Jarrett’s 14-lap win in 1965 to Ricky Craven’s photo-finish victory over Kurt Busch in 2003. The drivers who have held Darlington trophies high are a “Who’s Who” of the sport in every different era.
Tickets are still available for Sunday night’s race – and a chance for fans to feel very much a part of the next chapter in a historical event at a historical venue – a race that could have important Playoff implications this season.