- Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 May 2011 15:54
- Published on Wednesday, 04 May 2011 15:54
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Saturday night Darlington Raceway kicks off a busy month for race fans as it continues the new version of the Southern 500. A Labor Day Weekend tradition since the track’s opening in 1950, the Southern 500 was NASCAR’s first and longest running Super Speedway Classic.
Sad but true, after the 2004 season, NASCAR’s brain trust got the brilliant idea that the circuit had outgrown its small town southern roots. They wanted to be big time. In order to compete with the NFL and Major League Baseball tiny Southeastern venues like Darlington and Rockingham
weren’t going to get it done. What the sport needed was more events in major markets from coast to coast.
North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, a fan favorite since the Speedway opened in 1965, was dumped from the circuit entirely. Darlington’s traditional Labor Day weekend race date was given to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Labor Day in Southern California never did register with race fans.
Tiny Darlington? They got one date on the Cup Circuit schedule. A weekend that was previously thought to be poison for race promoters; Mother’s Day Weekend.
Perfume, flowers, dinner at a nice restaurant, were traditional standby gifts for Mom on her special day. Somehow “Take Mom to the races on her special day” has not caught on as the track’s slogan. Sounds catchy to me.
So they brought back the old standby, “The Southern 500.”
This newest tradition is a Saturday night under the lights race, and surprise, surprise. The race has become a big hit.
This Saturday night could be another strong race for Joe Gibbs Racing. Gibbs drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin finished 1 - 2 last week at Richmond. Richmond Runner-up Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner at Darlington. Hamlin set a new track record in qualifying last May, with a speed of 180.370 mph. He has proven to be quite a fast study when it comes to Darlington. In five Darlington starts Denny Hamlin has four top 10 finishes. The Virginia native accomplished a rare feat last year at Darlington, capturing both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races in back-to-back days. Hamlin became the first driver since Mark Martin in 1993 to sweep a Darlington weekend.
You can’t talk about current-day drivers and Darlington without mentioning Jeff Gordon. If anyone knows how to get around the Darlington, it’s Gordon. With seven wins in 30 starts at the track “Too Tough to Tame,” the four-time Sprint Cup Series Champion leads all active drivers in Darlington victories. Altogether, Gordon has recorded 21 top 10s, including 18 top fives and has led 1,720 laps. He also has three Darlington poles.
Gordon’s most memorable Darlington outing was the 1997 Southern 500 on Labor Day Weekend. Needing to win the race to claim a $1 million bonus from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Gordon did just that by holding off a furious charge by Jeff Burton in the final laps. The win helped boost Gordon to a second series Championship and cemented his place as one of the series brightest stars.
The following week the circuit heads north to Dover Delaware for the FedEx 400 at the Monster Mile, before settling in for Charlotte’s version of Speedweeks for the balance of the month of May.
The events at Charlotte kick off with the Sprint Cup All-Star Race Saturday Night May 21. Saturday night’s All-Star race is followed on Monday, May 23, with the induction ceremony for The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s second class. Being inducted this year are drivers David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, Bobby Allison and Lee Petty, and car owner/crew chief Bud Moore.
Friday night, May 27, the Memorial Day weekend racing kicks off with The World of Outlaws Sprint Cars in action on the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s dirt track. Saturday, it’s the Nationwide Series. Sunday of Memorial Day weekend is the year’s biggest double header for race fans.
The day begins with the Indianapolis 500, then it’s back to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600. Make your Memorial Day weekend plans now.