NASCAR Darlington Raceway Preview 2012: Southern 500 On Tap

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 07: Fans watch the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 7, 2011 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

She's a temptress with curves unlike any other. There have been many who've tried to conquer her, and yet every time they think they do, she jumps up and teaches them a lesson they'll never forget.

They respectfully call Darlington Raceway the "Lady in Black" and she has a long and storied history in NASCAR.

When she first opened her doors on Labor Day 1950, it was a unique track, one almost unlike any other found in motorsports, with the only other oval similar to her being the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While almost all stock-car races at the time were run on dirt tracks a half-mile or less, Darlington was not only paved, it was a daunting 1.25-miles in length.

"Darlington is definitely a throw-back racetrack," Paul Menard said. "You go to this little town and you don't see anything except that huge racetrack. It definitely gets you to feel the roots of NASCAR."

Even though occasionally a driver will come out of left field and pull a surprise – much like Regan Smith did a year ago when on old tires he somehow held off the faster Carl Edwards – this lady doesn't dance with just anyone.

To dance with her you need to be someone special.

Someone of great importance.

A champion.

Of the 108 races run on the egg-shaped track, 61 percent of them have been won by drivers who have a Sprint Cup Series championship. Included in that group are David Pearson (a track-best 10 trips to Victory Lane), Dale Earnhardt Sr. (nine wins), Jeff Gordon (seven) and Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison tied with five victories apiece.

Without a win on NASCAR's oldest superspeedway on your resumé, you're just another driver, as this lady knows how to decipher between champion drivers and those who are mere mortals.

"A lot of it has to do with the history of the track," said Tony Stewart, who is still looking for his first Darlington Cup victory. "If you can say you won a race at Darlington, that's a feather in your cap. That's something to be proud of, knowing that you're in a group of drivers with names like Pearson and Petty."

Saturday night, the lady in question – who often doubles as a vengeful vixen from a 1930s black-and-white movie – will again have a date with a 43-car field.

And as she has proven countless times, the only way to conquer her will be through a combination of endurance and patience. Both are usually in short supply anytime the series rolls into the racetrack that holds more than 10 times the amount of people who live in the small, sleepy southern town which the facility gets its name.

But biding ones time will get you only so far. Sometimes the lady will strike when you least expect it, just to let you know who's boss.

"This is a very tough track and it's a challenge just to stay off the walls," Gordon said. "It's a big transition (from straightaway to apron to turn) that is very narrow. The track can reach out and bite you in a hurry. Darlington is the 44th competitor. There is very little room for error here and you're doing everything possible to go fast but stay off the wall."

Though she occasionally shows her age and has had some work done a time or two to help keep up her youthful appearance, to dance with a lady as lovely as the one in black is always a special treat.

"As you go to Darlington, obviously you see the deep history of the sport and it's probably the place highest on my list to try to get my first win there," Kevin Harvick said. "I'm looking forward to going there this weekend. It'd be pretty awesome just for the fact that everyone knows the significance of the Southern 500 and to win at Darlington is something as a driver that you want to check off your checklist when you have the opportunity."

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