Darlington Raceway is a racing paradise. Instead of looking out of place backed up to a four-lane road, the track, egg-shaped and old, sits perfectly near houses, camping areas and an auto repair service.
It’s always hot and humid there, and yet it’s OK, because it’s tradition. It’s Darlington, South Carolina, on Labor Day weekend, and that’s how things should be in NASCAR. So, you go and enjoy the way the pavement throughout the infield is as rough as the racing surface.
It’s all so perfect.
What makes being there feel even better is that Darlington was nearly killed off. The track lost its two dates, including having its Labor Day date shipped off elsewhere from 2004-2014. But fortunately, officials eventually acknowledged their mistake. Darlington has had its rightful spot on the calendar back since 2015, and two dates once again.
But if all of that wasn’t enough, the last two years at Darlington have proven something else. The track is perfect as the NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener.
Sunday was a bit chaotic, was it not? Nearly every playoff driver had a tough night; even those who pulled off solid finishes would say it wasn’t the cleanest race. Nine of them finished 16th or worse, including four who crashed and failed to finish. Of the seven cautions for accidents (meaning exclude the competition caution and stage breaks), six were for playoff drivers who found trouble.
“Darlington, in general, is just one of those places that creates chaos in itself,” Kevin Harvick said. “There are a lot of places that you can make a mistake, and it’s the first race of the playoffs, and everybody always loses their mind in the first race of the playoffs.”
There is little – more likely no – room for error. A Darlington stripe can quickly become a trip to the pit road for significant repairs or a head start back home. Losing focus or not hitting your marks lap after lap is costly.
Darlington is challenging and tests the competitors. That’s exactly how racing should be. It’s exactly how racing for a championship should be.
Race-winning crew chief Chris Gabehart made a comment late Sunday that struck a chord. Gabehart disagreed that there was an unusual amount of mistakes made for the first race of the playoffs.
“It’s the Southern 500 at Darlington,” Gabehart said. “These guys, they’re the best stock car drivers in the world, so they make it look easy, no different than Tom Brady makes winning the Super Bowl look easy. But it’s not easy. And Darlington at the Southern 500 will remind you of that.
“NASCAR racing was born on endurance racing, and in a lot of ways, it’s sort of ran its course. There are not a lot of 500-mile races that are a thriller anymore. Bur Darlington is the true quintessential NASCAR race in that endurance really is the test. Man, machine for 500 miles, and you saw that tonight. There were only a few guys left standing at the end with a shot to win, and that’s just a tribute to this racetrack and this race.”
Every lap matters at Darlington, just like every lap and spot matters while racing for a championship. Ten races split into three-race rounds is stressful. Having the 16 teams who make the postseason begin their championship hunt at a mentally and physically demanding racetrack like Darlington just seems fitting.
The drama hasn’t lacked in the two playoff-opening races Darlington has hosted. Sunday night was not an anomaly. Last year, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. wrecked together late, handing the win to Kevin Harvick. Other would-be contenders like the Penske cars struggled.
Darlington is perfect – from the racing, to the stories it produces. And just as we learned it needs to stay on Labor Day weekend, we should know by now that it’s earned its place and needs to be the playoff kickoff.