Darlington Raceway set for first of 2 NASCAR weekends

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Darlington Raceway officials are excited about hosting the first of two scheduled NASCAR weekends, something the track hadn’t featured since 2004.

The old, country track holds races for NASCAR’s top three series this weekend, which will be capped off by the Cup Series’ Goodyear 400 on Sunday. Darlington will also host another NASCAR series event Labor Day Weekend.

There were times since losing its second race 17 years ago when the track dubbed the “Lady In Black” seemed closer to extinction than rebirth.

“We’re certainly excited with what’s occurred,” Tharp said. “We consider ourselves like the Wrigley Field of NASCAR.”

The track hosted two NASCAR weekends a year from 1960 through 2004 before organizers cut that in half and took away Darlington’s Labor Day race date. At that time, Darlington seemed closure to closure than revival.

But with the Goodyear 400 set for Sunday, track president Kerry Tharp believes it’s a restart that’s every bit as significant as when Harold Brasington carved the oval-shaped layout from some farmland more than 70 years ago.

The Wrigley Field analogy will be on display this weekend at Darlington with the truck race on Friday night, the Triple-A Xfinity Series on Saturday before the Cup Series’ Goodyear 400 on Sunday.

Kurt Busch, who was second here in 2003 to Ricky Craven by 0.002 seconds in the closest finish in NASCAR history, says the more visits to Darlington the better.

“I feel like the track is a fun challenge that is very different than all the other tracks,” said Busch, who drives the No. 1 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing and who has not won in 26 starts at the track.

Darlington played a major role in NASCAR’s growth since first hosting a race in 1950 and was again front and center in racing’s return from its three-month pandemic suspension last spring. It was Darlington that held the first NASCAR Cup Series event in May 2020, without fans, that resumed a season interrupted by COVID-19.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who drives the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing, said Darlington has a history that can’t be matched by more modern facilities.

“It’s an iconic race track,” he said.

But the racing icon needed a jolt of reality before track was brought back up to speed.

Track officials took for granted Darlington’s status as a staple on NASCAR’s schedule, which led to neglect and disrepair at the raceway.

When Darlington lost its Labor Day weekend date after 2003, the whispers grew stronger about track possibly being shut out of NASCAR’s top series like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro in North Carolina.

But Darlington leaders and officials at International Speedway Corporation, which owns Darlington Raceway, have worked the past two decades to modernize the track, adding lights, new grandstands, suite areas and a tunnel entry to improve access for NASCAR teams.

Tharp understands Darlington can’t make the same mistake again by contently sitting back after regaining its two-weekend races-a-year status. There are areas in and around the facility he and ISC are targeting for improvements going forward, although “there’s no timetable yet,” the track president said.

The path back has been rocky. The first big step came in 2015 when Darlington regained its Labor Day date for the Southern 500. Track organizers also initiated a throwback weekend celebration at the Labor Day race six years ago.

The practice — think of it as Old Timer’s Day for NASCAR’s past — has become popular among fans, drivers and teams who don vintage outfits and dress out cars in paint schemes of the past honoring the sports’ history.

Going forward, the throwback celebration will take place during the Mother’s Day weekend race. The Southern 500, set for Sept. 5, will open NASCAR’s playoffs.

Tharp said the switch will help racers and teams concentrate fully on the postseason.

“It’s something that made sense to us,” he said.

Stenhouse likes seeing Darlington on the schedule twice because it’s a raceway where every driver hopes to take the checkered flag because of its profile as one of the hardest, historic layouts in the sport.

“It’s fun. It’s tough. It’s challenging,” Stenhouse said. “And it puts on good racing.”

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