As the majority of the sports world focuses its attention on The Masters, 150 miles northeast another longstanding southern tradition is being staged.
While it's no longer held on Labor Day weekend or under the beating sun, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway still maintains its stature as an iconic race on the NASCAR calendar. Alongside the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte) and Brickyard 400 (Indianapolis), Darlington is considered one of the majors. A driver's résumé is incomplete without a win on this track.
"This is one of those I guess what we would refer to as a crown jewel race," said pole-sitter Kevin Harvick, who has wins at Daytona, Charlotte and Indy but not yet at Darlington. "The one that is not sitting in our trophy case, so not only that but it's just Darlington and this is what NASCAR racing is all about. To win here would mean a lot."
What makes Darlington special is twofold.
The first is its uniqueness. When constructed in 1949, builders were not allowed to disturb a minnow pond resulting in a track that best resembles an egg: wide, sweeping turns in one end; narrow and confined in the other.
"One of the toughest race tracks physically that we race on," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "Five hundred miles here is a really long race because the track is quite a big race track and the pace slows down. You are working so hard in the corner so just one lap around here is a lot of work. To have to run 500 miles it's a pretty tough test of man and machine."
It is this distinctiveness which leads to the second facet of why the track known as "Too Tough to Tame" maintains its allure. The design has created a track as difficult as any in NASCAR where great wheelmen are rewarded and fluke winners are uncommon.
Of the 43 drivers in Saturday's field, only six have paid a visit to Darlington's Victory Lane. And for those who have yet to tame the "Lady in Black," a Darlington win is hungrily sought. Among the top names still in search of their maiden Southern 500 victory include Harvick, Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch.
It's no surprise then that Darlington is often unkind to those lacking experience. A characteristic that again proved true in practice Friday when rookies Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Alex Bowman each encountered trouble.
But it was Larson who came out the worst for the wear, body-slamming the Turn 2 wall and sustaining enough damage that he will be in a backup car Saturday night. He also wrecked his Nationwide Series car Friday during qualifying.
"Both ends are so different," Larson said. "Turns 1 and 2 are a lot faster corner and then the exit slows up a lot. I drilled the wall off Turn 2 earlier today, as well as a couple of people did. I need to get better to just get around the track faster."
Larson isn't the first nor will he be the last who is mystified by Darlington; an all too common occurrence which likely will transpire many times Saturday night.
To make things all the more confounding for drivers, the Southern 500 begins under sunlight and finishes under the stars. Combine those elements with a surface that chews up tires and Darlington is unlike anywhere else in NASCAR.
"To be able to win here in any kind of race, any kind of car, any conditions and certainly the Southern 500 is I think special, said defending winner Matt Kenseth. "I think you could ask anybody and they would tell you that. In my mind that's one of the biggest races of the year and you always want to come here and try to run good."