McCarter: Drivers must earn their stripe at Darlington

McCarter: Drivers must earn their stripe at Darlington

August 31st, 2017 by Mark McCarter in Sports - Nascar

Kevin Harvick, front, and Joey Logano compete in a NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway in April 2014. The South Carolina track will host the Bojangles' Southern 500 on Sunday night.

Photo by Mike McCarn

The Darlington Stripe. Cale Yarborough. The egg-shaped oval. David Pearson. Ramsey's Pond. All those hokey 1960s movies where they went racing for glory and girls. All that lore.

I am headed to Darlington Raceway this weekend.

Waxing poetic once in another publication, I suggested "Darlington is a visit to the attic in your grandmother's old house in the country."

Now, I suspect, it's going to seem like a visit to a class reunion. It's been 20 years since I've last seen the South Carolina track, and I'm curious how it has aged. Better than I have, I hope.

I love my sports history. Which is probably why Darlington was always my favorite of the two dozen NASCAR speedways where I've watched races. I can pelt you with all sorts of lore, old quotes and memories.

Damage is shown on NASCAR Cup Series driver Danica Patrick's car in May 2013 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Known as "The Track Too Tough to Tame," many drivers have earned the so-called Darlington Stripe by making contact with the wall at the egg-shaped, 1.3-mile oval.

Damage is shown on NASCAR Cup Series driver...

Photo by MIC SMITH

The rear of Jeff Gordon's car (24) comes off the ground during a wreck with Casey Mears, top left, Johnny Benson (10) and Dave Blaney (77) during the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend in 2003 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.

The rear of Jeff Gordon's car (24) comes...


I traveled there a couple of times with the late Conner Gilbert, who covered racing for the Chattanooga News-Free Press. That was so long ago that we lowly sportswriters would stay in the same motel as drivers. There we were one day, fishing through pockets for change for the vending machine as Dale Earnhardt Sr. walked up doing the same.

Darlington was NASCAR's first fully paved track, and it ran its first race in 1950. There were 75 cars in the field, lined up three abreast in an homage to the Indianapolis 500. Johnny Mantz won the race in a Plymouth co-owned by Bill France. To minimize the wear from the gritty pavement, the team used truck tires instead of automobile tires.

According to local legend, track owner Harold Brasington won the land from J.S. Ramsey in a poker game and bowed to one of Ramsey's wishes — that he leave intact a minnow pond as he built the speedway. To do so, the track wouldn't be a perfect oval, with a more pointed set of turns at one end.

The Darlington Stripe is historic. It's the tattoo every racer eventually gets from running too high and brushing the wall, leaving streaks of gray-white paint on the car and smudges of rainbow colors all over the wall.

An old quote I collected from Kyle Petty: "You hear 'Race the race track, race the race track,' and that is pretty much the case a lot of the time. But it goes further than that. You're not only racing the race track, you have to race and dodge all of the guys who forgot to race the race track."

NASCAR fans of a certain generation complain the sport has turned its back on its past, but Darlington tries to bring it back. Track officials are paying homage to all that history with a throwback theme, with some cars bearing special paint schemes that will bring back memories.

I can't wait to get there and go rummaging through the attic one more time.

* Last race: Kyle Busch won the most recent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, on Aug. 19 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

* Next race: Bojangles' Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, 6 p.m. Sunday, NBC Sports Network.

* Pick to win: A different driver has won each of the past 11 races here, but we'll pick 2013 winner Matt Kenseth to break the streak.

* Pit notes: If you liked "Ocean's Eleven" and director Steven Soderbergh's other caper movies, catch "Logan Lucky," which has been labeled "Ocean's 7-11." It centers around the Coca-Cola 600 and — pay attention — it's loaded with NASCAR driver cameos. The most ironic: A guy once caught doing 128 mph in a 45 mph zone plays a state trooper. ... Expect Martin Truex Jr. to clinch the regular-season title Sunday. He needs only 20 more points to do so, which means he only needs to finish 17th or better. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been carrying on fun banter with Uber on Twitter, complaining his Uber rating had dropped. The company offered advice: "1. Don't ask to swap seats with the driver. 2 Less pit stops. 3 Use the doors — no exiting through the window."

* Fast 5: 1. Busch, 2. Truex, 3. Kenseth, 4. Denny Hamlin, 5. Kevin Harvick.

* What they're saying: "My first Cup race at Darlington was 2007, and I won the pole. Truth be told, it scared the daylights out of me." — Clint Bowyer

Contact Mark McCarter at

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