Darlington Raceway set for first of 2 NASCAR weekends

NASCAR and Motorsports

Darlington Raceway (AP photo)

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Darlington Raceway was strangely busy at the start of the pandemic when the old, country track opened its gates to help NASCAR restart its engines during a hectic stretch of three races in five days.

It was the perfect warmup for a return to two scheduled Cup Series races this season at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway for the first time since 2004.

Darlington hosts all three of NASCAR’s national series this weekend that closes with the Cup stars celebrating Mother’s Day on Sunday. NASCAR then returns in September for the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.

It is something of a rebirth for a track that seemed closer to extinction during the 17 years since NASCAR stripped the “Lady In Black” of one of its coveted race dates.

“We’re certainly excited with what’s occurred,” said Kerry Tharp, track president since 2016. “We consider ourselves like the Wrigley Field of NASCAR.”

The track hosted two NASCAR weekends a year from 1960 through 2004 before the Labor Day race was moved to a larger market.

It’s not that Darlington wasn’t appreciated. Harold Brasington carved the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval out of farmland and “The Track Too Tough To Tame” is one of the most unique on the circuit. But it opened in 1950, seats less than 50,000 in the grandstands and sits along a four-lane highway on the way to the beach.

Simply put, NASCAR outgrew the place.

But, track officials also took for granted Darlington’s status as a staple on NASCAR’s schedule and it led to neglect and disrepair at the raceway.

When Darlington lost its Labor Day weekend date after 2003, the whispers began about the track maybe shutting down. It’s what happened to two other NASCAR originals: Rockingham and North Wilkesboro in North Carolina are now shuttered.

But Darlington leaders and officials at NASCAR, which now owns the track, have worked to modernize the venue by adding lights, new grandstands, suite areas and a tunnel entry to improve access for teams.

Tharp understands Darlington can’t make the same mistake again by sitting back content with its two races a year status. There are areas he and NASCAR are targeting for improvements.

The path back has been rocky. The first big step came in 2015 when Darlington regained its Labor Day date for the Southern 500. Track organizers also initiated a throwback weekend celebration at the Labor Day race six years ago.

The practice — think of it as Old Timer’s Day for NASCAR’s past — has become popular among fans as drivers and teams don vintage outfits and the cars are replicated in paint schemes that honoring the sport’s history.

Chase Elliott, the reigning Cup champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver, will be driving the same paint scheme the late Alan Kulwicki was the day Kulwicki beat Elliott’s father for the 1992 Cup championship. Joey Logano will be in the colors from Mario Andretti’s first Formula One victory in 1971. Bubba Wallace was inspired by Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win at NASCAR’s top level.

Going forward, the throwback celebration will take place during the Mother’s Day weekend race. The Southern 500, set for Sept. 5, will open NASCAR’s playoffs.

Tharp said the switch will help racers and teams concentrate fully on the postseason.

“It’s something that made sense to us,” he said.

NASCAR CUP SERIES

Goodyear 400

Site: Darlington, South Carolina.

Schedule: Sunday, race, 3:30 p.m. (FS1)

Track: Darlington Raceway

Last year: Kevin Harvick won the first of two races in early May after starting sixth.

Last race: Kyle Busch took the lead on a restart with two laps to go and won on his 36th birthday at Kansas, becoming the 10th different winner in 11 races this year.

Fast facts: Denny Hamlin continues to lead the point standings by 87 over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. despite a second straight finish outside the top 10. William Byron is third, now with a series-best nine top-10 finishes, followed by the Team Penske trio of Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski. … Hamlin’s 774 laps led are more than twice the next best, 360 by Truex. … Hamlin also shares the series lead for lead lap finishes with reigning series champion Chase Elliott. Both have 10 through 11 races.

Next race: May 16, Dover, Delaware.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

NASCAR XFINITY SERIES

Steakhouse Elite 200

Site: Darlington, South Carolina.

Schedule: Saturday, race, 1 p.m. (FS1)

Track: Darlington Raceway.

Race distance: 147 laps, 200 miles.

Last year: Chase Briscoe won after starting 11th.

Last race: Jeb Burton moved to the lead after a seven-car pileup and stayed there for a rain-shortened win at Talladega, his first in the series.

Fast facts: Burton became the seventh different winner in eight races this season. Only Austin Cindric, the defending series champion, has won twice. … Burton’s victory came in his 51st start in the series. … Cindric finished second and leads Daniel Hemric by 59 points in the standings with Harrison Burton, Jeb’s cousin, third, 92 back. Jeb is fourth, 97 back, and Justin Haley is 98 off the pace. … Five race winners are outside the top five in points.

Next race: May 15, Dover, Delaware.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

NASCAR TRUCK SERIES

LiftKits4Less.com 200

Site: Darlington, South Carolina.

Schedule: Friday, race, 7:30 p.m. (FS1)

Track: Darlington Raceway.

Race distance: 147 laps, 200 miles.

Last year: Ben Rhodes won after starting fifth in September.

Last race: Kyle Busch won both stages, led the most laps and earned his series-record 61st victory, the fifth in a row for KBM in the series.

Fast facts: Busch became the third two-time winner through seven races, joining Rhodes and KBM driver John Hunter Nemechek. … Nemecheck leads Rhodes by 33 points in the standings, followed by Austin Hill, who is 78 back. … Three of the seven winners this season — Busch twice and Martin Truex Jr. — are not eligible in the points race. … Busch has finished first or second in all four of his starts in the series. … Ron Hornaday’s 51 victories in the series are second most for a career.

Next race: May 22, Austin, Texas.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

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