It touts itself as the “Track Too Tough To Tame,” and few drivers would argue with that. Darlington Raceway is regarded as NASCAR’s most difficult track as the odd, egg-shaped oval presents a unique challenge to NASCAR’s drivers. With four distinctly different turns and a narrow racing groove, it takes exceptional skill and finesse to negotiate the layout, much less win there. Dale Earnhardt, one of the greatest drivers in the history of Darlington, called it the “Lady In Black.” “If you pinch her, she will reach out and slap you,” he once said. The list of winners there reads like a NASCAR Who’s Who. Except for Johnny Mantz – winner of the first race there in 1950 – and Lake Speed – who won his only career Cup race there in 1988 – big upsets at Darlington are rare. With that in mind, here’s a look at the top drivers at NASCAR’s oldest and toughest track:
Though he had just two wins there, and it wasn’t one of his best tracks, there’s not a track on the circuit that means more to the two-time champion than Darlington. The old track will always hold a special place in Labonte’s heart for two reasons – it was the site of his first career Cup win, and his last. Labonte shocked the NASCAR world when he won the 1980 Southern 500 at age 23. He shocked it again 23 years later, when he won the 2003 Southern 500 as his career was winding down. Not only did Labonte conquer Darlington for his final career victory, but he won the final Southern 500 run on the traditional Labor Day weekend.
Like Mark Martin, age was not a detriment to Gant, especially at Darlington. Gant won at Darlington in 1983 at age 43 and again in 1991 at age 51. He won four Cup races and four Busch races at the famed track.
Jarrett was another driver who put his patience and intelligence to good use at Darlington, winning three Cup races there from 1997-2001. When he was at his best with Robert Yates Racing, Darlington was one of Jarrett’s best tracks. His most impressive feat was winning the spring races in ’97 and ’98 – during Gordon’s dominant stretch at the track.
Like Martin, Burton should have more wins at Darlington than he does. He has won there just twice in the Cup series, but has four Busch Series wins and has an average finish of 11.5 in Cup races. Burton is best remembered for his mastery of the track from 1997-99. He banged fenders and traded paint with Gordon at the end of the ’97 Southern 500, with Gordon hanging on to win. The following year, he was a threat again, only to see Gordon prevail again. Finally, in 1999, Burton broke through, sweeping both races at Darlington.
Martin has just two victories at Darlington, which is remarkable considering his record there. Darlington seems built for Martin’s patient, methodical approach, and he has been stellar there over the years with 17 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes in 43 races. He won the 1993 Southern 500 and then, 16 years later, won it again last year at age 50. Martin’s mastery of the track has been displayed more prominently in the Busch and Nationwide Series, where he is Darlington’s all-time winner with eight victories.
When Elliott was dominating superspeedways in the 1980s, Darlington was one of his favorite and most memorable tracks. He swept the Darlington races in 1985, when he won 11 superspeedway races. When he won the 1985 Southern 500, he became the first driver to snare the Winston Million for winning three of NASCAR’s four crown jewel events (Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte and Talladega). Elliott won at Darlington in 1988 and then again in ’92 and ’94. Like Yarborough and Waltrip, Elliott enjoyed part of his success at Darlington with car owner Junior Johnson, who won a total of 11 races at the track.
Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison
These three are practically inseparable in many ways. They are together on the all-time win list, with Allison and Waltrip winning 84 races each and Yarborough winning 83. And each of them won five times at Darlington. All three drivers represented Pearson’s biggest challenges throughout the ’60s and ’70s, but none driver enjoyed a dominant stretch, though Allison did sweep the races there in 1975. Allison and Yarborough did excel in the Southern 500, however, with Allison winning it four times and Yarborough five. Waltrip won it only once – in 1992. Ironically, Darlington was one of the few tracks where all three drivers held an edge on longtime rival Richard Petty, who won only three times at Darlington.
Pearson, a South Carolina native, was known as the “Silver Fox” for his cunning and patience. He was a master at laying back, biding his time and then coming on strong in the final segment of a race. He was so good at Darlington that he didn’t have to do that. He won a record 10 races from 1968-80, and he often dominated. But while Pearson is Darlington’s winningest driver, in his 10 victories there were never more than four cars on the lead lap at the finish and four times he lapped the field. He won there in 1973 by a whopping 13 laps over Benny Parsons. He also rarely ran the full Cup schedule when he was dominating Darlington. Pearson won his final two races at Darlington in 1979 and ’80, but he ran just nine races in each of those seasons.
Earnhardt dominated the late '80s and early '90s like Gordon dominated the mid- to-late '90s. He won his first race at Darlington in 1982, and then owned it from ’86-90, winning three in a row in ’89 and ’90. Earnhardt had the perfect mix of aggressiveness and patience for the track. Perhaps more than any other driver, he understood that at Darlington, unlike at other facilities, you raced the race track and not the competition.
Yes, I know he is only third on Darlington’s all-time win, but Gordon’s seven wins have come in NASCAR’s most competitive era. He won his first race there in 1995, his breakout year, producing one of the first hints of how great he would be. He then proceeded to do something no one else has ever done at Darlington – win the traditional Labor Day weekend Southern 500 four years in a row. No one else has ever won even three in a row. Gordon won five of seven races at Darlington from 1995-98, including three in a row. He won again in 2002 and again in 2007, continuing to tame the track throughout his career. Don’t be surprised if he gets No. 8 this weekend.