The Track That Matters

Kevin Harvick (4), en route to victory at Darlington, passes Kasey Kahne. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevrolet)

Kevin Harvick (4), en route to victory at Darlington, passes Kasey Kahne. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevrolet)


Clinton, S.C., Sunday, April 13, 2014, 9:08 a.m.

I can’t judge a NASCAR race at Darlington Raceway. I love it too much. It dissolves me in emotion. Memories flood back of Cotton Owens, Dale Earnhardt, Neil Bonnett and Tim Richmond, all men I saw win there (Owens as an owner) and all of whom have passed away since.

On Saturday night, Kevin Harvick tamed the track too tough to. He led 238 of the 374 laps. Harvick and his Stewart-Haas team earned $328,708 for 367 of them, and thanks to a woolly overtime, the final seven were free.

Darlington is the only track where one driver dominating numbs my interest not the least. At home, it perturbs me when the cameras ignore what I want to see, or move away from what I’m enjoying, but Fox did a decent job of finding the action, probably because it’s what covering Darlington demands. Besides, if I really want to watch it my own way, I ought to get my ass down there.

I’ve decided I’m not going back to “the track,” which is to mean “tracks in general,” without a better reason than that. I expect my next live attendance will be at some place like Greenville-Pickens (asphalt) or Laurens (dirt).

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) came within a lap of winning for the first time at Darlington. (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevrolet)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) came within a lap of winning for the first time at Darlington. (HHP/Alan Marler photo for Chevrolet)

It hurts a little – just a little, mind you – where Darlington is concerned.

At most tracks, with Harvick scattering edible dust in his wake, I would have started reading a book, or playing my guitar, or checking on a ballgame. Darlington held my interest. I was only distracted by that video game, “Need to Tweet.”

For those among you who cannot grasp the majesty of Darlington, there’s nothing I can do. If you don’t see the subtleties, you probably never will.

Winning most races is impressive. Winning Darlington is majestic. Watching Darlington is metaphysical.

To me. I didn’t learn independently. My daddy taught me, prying open messy boiled peanuts and swilling beer on the back straight. He’s gone 20 years, the back straight is the front straight, the one on the left is in the middle, and “the guy in the rear … is a Methodist.”

Bojangles and Budweiser ... what a smooth combination for Kevin Harvick. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevrolet)

Bojangles and Budweiser … what a smooth combination for Kevin Harvick. (HHP/Christa L. Thomas photo for Chevrolet)

Against all odds, I had a hunch, the kind I normally only got when I was at tracks, that Harvick was going to win. Sure, he started on the pole, but no one had won at Darlington from the pole since 1997. Harvick himself had never won a Sprint Cup race there. I’ve always thought there are two sides to statistics. On the one hand, a bountiful record is an indicator of prowess. Sometimes a fruitless record is an indicator of lack thereof. In Harvick’s case, though, I felt he had always had what it takes to win at the oldest and weirdest superspeedway.

He was due. That’s what I was thinking when Phil Kornblut asked me on South Carolina SportsTalk Friday night. I don’t consider myself much of a prognosticator. In fact, I don’t think the average writer is any better at picking winners than the Cub Scout leader sitting with Pack 3497 on the back straight.

No, Freddie, we’ll have sandwiches at the halfway point. Just stay hydrated. You’ll be fine. Who’s gonna win? Oh … Harvick. Brandon! Don’t make me come down there. Behave!

Earlier this year, the one week I got the pick right, Phil ran out of time before he asked me, or, more likely, I used up the time with my big mouth.

I don’t know if the pavement is aging or the cars are better – I suspect it’s some mingling of both, though I don’t know if the recipe has two cups of old and one of new, or vice-versa – but the racing roused me. I watched it with ardor and confined my departures to commercials and caution flags.

Again, though, I can’t judge. Darlington is Mecca to me, or, since I’m not Muslim, Mecca is Darlington. Skip the religion. Darlington is a mecca, not Mecca. It’s secular, but there’s a little spirituality. When I think the word – Darlington! – it sends chills down my spine and sometimes my eyes moisten. It’s similar in my psyche to Fenway Park, Ryman Auditorium, the Jefferson Memorial and my alma maters, Clinton High School and Furman University.

In my mind, Kevin Harvick finally arrived. Cue the fight song.

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About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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13 Responses to The Track That Matters

  1. Paul A. says:

    I’ve never been to Darlington myself, but it has a similar aura and draw for me as well because it’s truly tough (marketing slogan aside, and despite the partial neutering it’s taken by moving the date and time of the race).
    And now a pedantic comment from this Eagle Scout: Cub Scouts come in packs, Boy Scouts in troops, and actors in troupes.

  2. Mark M says:

    I wanted to watch Darlington this year, I really did. I’ve gotten so disgusted with both NASCAR in general & FOX’s abysmal coverage that the only race I had watched so far was Daytona.

    I didn’t get off work until after the race started, so I set up the DVR. Once i got home i fast fowarded through all the pre-race crap & avoided Michael Waltrip, (one Waltrip is already two too many for my taste), & the ever annoying Chris Meyers. Get to the start of the race & begin watching. Maybe 100 laps in I cut it off & deleted it. My wife asked me why & I said it’s because I literally can’t listen to Darrell Waltrip another minute.

    I can’t take him any more. I can barely stand Larry McReynolds & I used to really like Mike Joy, when he was on CBS & TNN, but on FOX he’s brought down to Larry & Darrell’s level & ruined by association with them.

    As a side note, I too was at the 1970 Southern 500, (back when it was ran on Labor Day, as intended), when Cotton Owens won as a car owner, with Buddy Baker driving that winged Dodge Daytona. My first Southern 500, (& 3rd NASCAR race i attended overall), was the 1969 Southern 500, & I can still vividly recall LeeRoy Yarbrough’s last lap pass of David Pearson to win right in front of me in Turn 4. Like you I also saw Dale, Neil, Tim & many others win there.

    BTW, love the Johnny Cash reference! Everybody loves a nut……..

  3. Monte says:

    Thanks for the scouting pointer.

  4. GinaV24 says:

    I really love watching races at Darlington – this was the first year we haven’t gone since 2003 and that was because the schedule change to put the race in April simply conflicts in a major way with my own work schedule. Since I like to get paid, I stayed home and followed the race on raceview, twitter & the radio. For the most part, I no longer watch races on TV either since they often don’t actually show the race, just whoever has $ to be covered.

    Mike M – try putting the TV on mute & listening to the radio feed on your computer since like you, I cannot listen to any of the announcers any more — Waltrips, Meyers or Larry Mac. I like Mike Joy – if he was the only person speaking, I’d put the sound back on.

  5. Al Torney says:

    No other track represents NASCAR’s heritage as well as Darlington. It is what the sport was and what it should be. While I definitely will not be around I really wonder if some of the recently constructed tracks will be around 40 years from now. Primarily because they have no aura to them. Race tracks should have a difficulty factor and the new tracks don’t possess this. Wouldn’t surprise me if they installed the cruise control on their racers for some of these tracks. Certainly wouldn’t make them anymore boring.

    There was a column written the other day about the possibility of Darlington being dropped from the schedule. Helton, being a typical NASCAR bobble head, was very vague when posed the question. I was actually surprised that the topic actually came up. If it has to do with attendence I don’t understand it because many of the other tracks are reducing their seating to accommodate dwindling crowds too. It would be a very big mistake to close this facility.

    I don’t like Harvick, have never liked him and will never like him. Even if he were to drive a Ford. However he and his team did a great job Saturday night and should be lauded for their performance. Like Monte said even if it was somewhat lopsided it is a pleasure to watch a driver dominate at Darlington because you know what it took to master the track and other competitors.

    I think they should get rid of the current Darlington slogans and go with” racing, the way it was meant to be”.

    In closing I’d like to say that after 60 yrs. of attending races all over the country there is still something about attending a race in the southeast that is special. Maybe it’s just a matter of southerners being more capable of “letting their hair” down and knowing how to just plain have a good time. Not to long ago I was camping at Darlington and about 4 in the morning I was awoken by a stereo blasting Hank Williams Jr. as a few fellows pulled onto the parking lot and began to set up camp. Do that at Dover and you’ll be on your way home.

  6. LD71 :D says:

    1st time ever at Darlington, great time! Interesting that the track has MRN on PA during the race, I’m with you to not have to listen to the Fox TV crew. Watching the race was fun but challenging with sight lines from high in turn 1 grandstand. Looked like the best seat in the house was to camp out in the infield at the fence in Turn 1. Harvick definitely the man of the moment Saturday. LD71 😀

  7. Dave Fulton says:

    There used to be no sensory experience quite like entering the Raceway Grill across the side street from Darlington Raceway. Reminiscent of the Blue Ridge or Great Smoky Mountains, there was a haze hanging from the low ceiling over the booths and tables where various crew were assembled. There was no doubt in your mind (or nose) when you encountered someone at Darlington whether they’d eaten at the Raceway Grill. Lawd, how I’d love to sit there just once more with Bud Moore and his gang and eat cheeseburger steaks smothered in onions.

  8. Paul says:

    Dear Monte,
    Your depiction of Darlington is right as can be. My only visit came after a chase scene out of Florida during Hurricane Elena in 1985 and Elliott won a million that day. I’ve been to many racetracks, but there’s only one with the mystique that you captured so well.

  9. Mark M says:

    Gina, if I had been watching the race live on TV, that would have been a great option, I had to work Saturday evening however & wound up DVRing it, so I was “forced” to listen to DW & Larry Mac, until I simply couldn’t take anymore.

    That will likely be my last FOX NASCAR broadcast, & possibly even my last NASCAR race I watch on TV. This year I’m finding F1 to be vastly more entertaining, as well as having much better commentators.

  10. Monte says:

    Many thanks, Paul.

  11. Lou says:

    A story about one of my first trips to Darlington may amuse you.

    As a Yankee (can’t help where I was born), going to Darlington in the early 90’s seemed like visiting another planet. Met up with some folks I’d only communicated with over the Internet to watch the Busch race. One fellow from Texas suggested that I need to try the penders.

    After figuring out what the heck he was talking about, I went and bought a bag. Luckily for me, my cooler was full of liquids to help wash down what I thought to be worst thing I’d eaten in recent memory.

    It was a few minutes later, after they stopped laughing, that my new friends told me I needed to remove the shells first…

  12. Monte says:

    That happens in reverse sometimes, too.

  13. Joe S says:

    I grew up in Alaska watching NASCAR and Darlington Southern 500 always had me excited. Bill won the million dollars the same year I was born. I remember DJ trying to win the million and failing. Gordon finally won the million. I was super sad when Darlington was reduced to 1 race, and lost the Labor Day date.

    I went to USC (Go Gamecocks!) and feel in love with Darlington. Yes went to Charlotte, Vegas, and visited Daytona. But Darlington has this ol’ character that brings back a sense of NASCAR history and southern hospitality.

    My goal is to save up and come to Darlington on Labor Day Weekend 2015 to watch the Southern 500!

    Great post! Go Gamecocks!

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