Courting Darlington a tough job


DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Put it this way ...

She knows I love her
I know I need her
God knows, to please her
I've tried ... and I've tried

That old country song, "She Never Knew Me" by Don Williams, pretty much sums up the relationship between NASCAR drivers and Darlington Raceway.

They love the Lady in Black, almost to a person, for what by consensus is the toughest challenge on the Cup tour -- a true egg shape with outside walls that snake out in places, almost as if actively snatching cars.

And this time, in Saturday night's Southern 500, several of them need her.

Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle, all of whom have mastered Darlington in the past, are winless thus far in a season in which a race win virtually locks a driver into the Chase.

Johnson and Kenseth won the past two years here, and Gordon is the winningest active driver here with seven victories.

So, with so many of the Lady's favorites needing her now, the odds look good for the season's eighth winner in as many races this season.

Cup rookie Kyle Larson learned quickly that "It's the toughest track we go to," he said after crashing his primary car in Friday's first practice session and going to a backup for the rest of the weekend.

"The wall reaches out and grabs you really quick here," Larson said.

Yet Johnson called this "a track that is a favorite of so many, including myself."

Though Darlington is only 1.366 miles around -- hardly half the circumference of NASCAR's biggest oval, at Talladega -- "the sensation of speed here is higher than any other track we go to," Johnson said. "And the line and the racing surface are so narrow and unique and challenging that it really is an accomplishment to run 500 miles here."

"I don't know if I can tell you what it's like to drive around this track," said Biffle, who won two in a row here in 2005-06. "This is probably the toughest place we race, as far as concentration and what it takes to get around here.

"You drive [into] the corner about 190 mph and the car slides up and hopefully stops about 6 inches from the wall as you are pushing the power to it.  ... It's really hard to manage, and it's easy to step over that edge and get a little stripe on the side of it."

Richard Petty decades ago dubbed it "a Darlington stripe" -- the virtually inevitable scrape mark along the right side of the car.

"You're working so hard in the corner [that] just one lap around here is a lot of work," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who doesn't need her (he already has a win this year, the Daytona 500) but wants her: He has never won at the place where his father won nine times, second only to David Pearson's 10 all time.

"To have to run 500 miles is a pretty tough test," Earnhardt said.

Larson also has yet to win in Cup, but assumes nothing at this place -- indeed, he had a second mishap Friday, spinning during Nationwide qualifying.

"Both ends are so different," Larson said, referring to the configuration like the large and small ends of an egg. The large end, Turns 1 and 2, "is a lot faster corner, and then the exit slows up a bit. I drilled the wall off Turn 2 earlier today ..."

Then, his Nationwide spin came at the same end of the track.

On the other end, Turns 3 and 4 amount to a virtual U-turn at high speed. That's because the original land owner here demanded that the builders, when construction began in 1949, keep a nearby minnow pond intact. To leave the pond, that end of the track had to be drastically tightened.

"It's been around a long time," Earnhardt said of NASCAR's oldest superspeedway, which opened in 1950.

And ever since, they've tried ... and they've tried.