The old saw that racing was a lot better decades ago just doesn’t hold up when you look at it empirically. A good case in point is the Bojangles’ Southern 500, which will be run Sunday night at historic Darlington Raceway.
There have been nine different winners in the last nine Southern 500s. Last year, Kevin Harvick was the winner in a race where 12 different drivers led and 22 drivers finished on the lead lap.
Now flash back to the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington.
The ’65 Darlington race is infamous for two reasons: The first is that after completing 118 laps, Cale Yarborough and Sam McQuagg had contact that sent Yarborough’s Ford over the guard rail and completely out of the track. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured.
The second is that Ned Jarrett won the race by 14 laps.
Think about that for a minute: 14 laps at Darlington is more than 19 miles, yet that was Jarrett’s margin of victory as he headed toward his second and final NASCAR Premier Series championship.
Last year at Darlington, 22 cars finished on the lead lap of the Southern 500. In 1965, only 15 cars finished at all. Darel Dieringer burned the differential out of his Bud Moore-owned Mercury while leading late in the race and retired with 19 laps to go. He finished third.
The attrition was so bad in the ’65 race that it almost got Jarrett, too.
"We ran good during the race and led some laps and then things began to turn our way in the last 100 miles or so," said Jarrett, now a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "I had no idea how far ahead we were, but I know the Ford officials that were there came down and camped in my pits, and they knew how much of a lead I had and they tried to get the crew to bring me in.
"We didn’t have radio communications back then, so they just wrote on the black board for me to pit," said Jarrett. "I knew we didn’t need to pit, but they knew the car was overheating, so I kept going because something told me stronger than the officials of Ford and my own pit crew that I needed to stay out there and keep going."
Jarrett held on to set the biggest margin of victory in NASCAR Premier Series history, winning by an astonishing 14 laps over fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame racer Buck Baker.
"Our goal was reached in a fashion that that record will never be broken," said Jarrett. "Today’s races are too close for that to happen."