I cannot explain how excited I get whenever I know NASCAR heads to Darlington. I mean, it’s on a level equal with going to Beaver Stadium to see the Nittany Lions take on someone like Ohio State or Michigan. It’s on the same terms as going to Yankee Stadium to see New York take on the Boston Red Sox, or heading to the Staples Center to witness the Lakers take on the Celtics.
For you hockey fans, it’s like seeing the Pens take on the Flyers, or heading to Heinz Field to watch the Steelers bash helmets with the Ravens. It’s that kind of place where you just know it’s something special.
This weekend, it was made even more special in what happened when the checkered waved, but more on that near the end.
No track on the circuit is like Darlington. When the land was purchased to build the track the land owner had simply one request to NASCAR. He had no issue of them tearing into the dirt, building the track and adding the seats. His only request was that they not disturb his minnow pond, as he wanted to maintain the area for his fish. NASCAR honored that request, and thus the most unique oval on the circuit was born. Two straightaways, same length, but what is turns 1 and 2 are longer than turns 3 and 4. Thus, the now infamous egg-shaped track.
The racing groove is one lane, and there is no margin for error. That one lane wasn’t even the one built for the track. In the 60s, the cars raced on what is considered the apron, with the high banking being the runoff for spins. Drivers soon found out they could run faster on the high side. Now, that high side also means teasing the wall; a wall that starts the night bright white and red. But, drivers bounce off the wall like a basketball.
What is seen after that are paint scrapes on the right side, decals torn off, and battle scars thanks to a dance with the “Lady in Black.” It’s become known as the Darlington Stripe, a stripe many consider an honor to wear.
This historical track has seen million dollar winners, rain take out a leader yet allow him to win a race with damage, and in 2003 saw a photo finish that was won by the narrowest of margins in history.
Saturday night, another milestone was added to that historical list.
When Jimmie Johnson crossed the line, taking his first win of 2012, he marked a monumental accomplishment for his car owner, Rick Hendrick. That checkered flag, at such a historic track, was Hendrick’s 200th career win as a car owner. No other team has more wins than him currently in NASCAR, and all have come in the Sprint Cup Series.
His first win as an owner was in 1984, with Geoff Bodine rolling to victory lane. Legendary names such as Darrell Waltrip, Tim Richmond, Terry Labonte, Ricky Rudd have contributed to that win, as well as a couple from guys such as Jerry Nadeau, Casey Mears, Brian Vickers and even Kyle Busch, who each got their first win in a Hendrick car.
Now, his stable contains one of the hottest shoes in the sport, Kasey Kahne, NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon, and a man simply known as “Five Time.” That man was the one who went to victory lane on Saturday night.
Hendrick was presented with a plaque containing photos from every win he’s experienced as a car owner, minus the one he just earned. The Hendrick employees have been hiding six semi-trucks full of 200th win merchandise, all being saved for that moment. It was one secret that was hard to keep from such a man who means so much to NASCAR, and has gone through incredible heartache in the sport. His battle with leukemia in the late 90s was a big talk of the garage, and then losing his son, other family members and employees in a 2004 plane crash in Virginia are just some of the hardships Hendrick endured as an owner, father, and hero.
But now, the smile he had knowing the wait was over for win number 200 was well worth it. In fact, he’s already showing his true colors in victory lane. He told Johnson he was proud, and then said “Let’s go after 250.”
That’s Rick Hendrick for you…always looking forward, rather than looking back.
RESULTS: 1-Johnson 2-Hamlin 3-Stewart 4-Kyle Busch 5-Truex Jr. 6-Kenseth 7-Edwards 8-Kahne 9-Ambrose 10-Logano
NOTABLE FINISHES: 12-Biffle 16-Harvick 17-Earnhardt Jr. 31-Patrick 35-Gordon
CAUTIONS: 8 for 38 laps. 173-179 (Debris), 195-199 (Debris), 231-235 (Debris), 299-303 (#47 spin), 308-311 (#78 spin), 317-319 (#1, 22 accident-T4), 331-334 (#32 spin), 362-366 (#39, 51 accident-T2).
LEAD CHANGES: 22 among 8 drivers. Biffle 1-48, Kahne 49, Johnson 50, Cassill 51, Kyle Busch 52-72, Biffle 73-98, Hamlin 99-100, Johnson 101-172, Kyle Busch 173, Johnson 174-179, Kyle Busch 180-188, Johnson 189-194, Kyle Busch 195, Hamlin 196-199, Kahne 200-231, Hamlin 232-280, Earnhardt Jr. 281, Truex Jr. 282-298, Hamlin 299, Truex Jr. 300-307, Johnson 308-312, Kyle Busch 313-324, Johnson 325-368.
TIME OF RACE: 3 Hrs, 45 Mins, 25 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 133.802 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.781 Seconds
POINT STANDINGS: 1. Biffle, 411 points; 2. Kenseth, -2; 3. Earnhardt Jr, -14; 4. Hamlin, -17; 5. Johnson, -39; 6. Truex Jr, -39; 7. Stewart, -42; 8. Harvick, -50; 9. Kyle Busch, -62; 10. Edwards, -74; 11. Bowyer, -76; 12. Keselowski, -83.