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Darlington’s hard road a landmark starting point for playoffs

Ryan Blaney explains how he approached the Daytona Cup Series race, knowing what was at stake, and what it means to have secured the final spot in the playoffs.

The idea that Darlington Raceway and its Labor Day weekend – always awash in tradition -- should play an important role in determining NASCAR’s Cup Series champion seems like a no-brainer.

It will happen Sunday (6 p.m. ET on USA Network) when the 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs line up as part of the starting grid for the 73rd Southern 500, a race as draped in legacy, lore and lifestyle as any American motorsports event this side of the Indianapolis 500.

That the champion will take his first step on the 1.366 miles of the oldest paved track in NASCAR – driving 500 miles of hard road in the heat and humidity of a Southern summer evening in South Carolina -- seems right. Appropriate, yes, even in these days of a modernized, forward-thinking NASCAR that would confound many of those who gathered at shiny new Darlington Raceway on Sept. 4, 1950, for the first Southern 500.

A street race in Chicago? A purpose-built track inside a football stadium in Los Angeles? Deciding the champion in the Southwestern desert? None of this could have been imagined in the rough-and-tumble early days of stock car racing as the sport took its first staggering baby steps on the way to becoming an organized thing.

Now, across all those years and with so many changes – especially in recent years, the sport still lands in out-of-the-way Darlington for one of its big moments.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. In 2003, in a moment NASCAR’s hierarchy would come to regret, Darlington’s Labor Day weekend date – considered something of a birthright in that part of South Carolina – was moved to Auto Club Speedway in California, about as far away in distance and culture as was possible.

It was part of NASCAR’s effort to focus on bigger markets at a time when the sport was growing and gaining more national attention. Darlington was left with scattered race dates on Mother’s Day (generally considered a locked-in “off day” for NASCAR for years), in April and in November. It was a dizzying, confusing time for many steeped in the sport’s Carolinas-heavy tradition.

The Southern 500 returned to Darlington Raceway and to Labor Day weekend in 2015 and has been in that spot since then. The playoff aspect adds some dazzle and sparkle to the old place.

Here’s some of what got us to this moment across Darlington’s long history:

  • The first Southern 500, in 1950, was chaotic. The packed starting field held 75 cars, and Johnny Mantz, the slowest qualifier, won after six hours and 38 minutes of racing. Teams were in town for more than a week for practice and qualifying. Bud Moore, a crew chief/car owner who would be named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, once talked of checking into a downtown Darlington hotel for that first race and leaving a few minutes later after seeing what he called an army of roaches in his room. He slept in a tent at the track for days.
  • The late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond seemed to be at every event that happened at Darlington. He was there for the ribbon-cutting to open the track and attended many Southern 500s. Fans remember him – an eternal campaigner -- wandering pit road before the start of races, shaking everyone’s hand within reaching distance. Thurmond often handed out tokens such as key chains as he made his rounds in the pits and garage area. One man remembered Thurmond shaking hands with him five times and giving him five key chains.
  • Ned Jarrett, also a Hall of Famer, won the 1965 Southern 500 by a staggering 14 laps. One of the drivers he outran that day was Cale Yarborough, who failed to finish the race because his car sailed over the wall on lap 118 after contact with another car. The incident completed a circle of sorts for Yarborough. He remembered climbing under the fence to watch races as a kid; now he had gone out over the fence.
  • In 1985, the speedway was all aflutter with talk of a million dollars. If Bill Elliott won the race, he would pick up a bonus of $1 million for winning the Daytona 500, Winston 500 and Southern 500 in the same year. Despite a tense atmosphere (a pair of South Carolina state troopers guarded Elliott’s garage stall much of the weekend), Elliott won the race and left town with a big check and a new nickname: Million Dollar Bill.
  • The 1962 Southern 500 resulted in one of NASCAR’s most inglorious scoring dramas. Junior Johnson took the checkered flag first, but Larry Frank and more than a few spectators and media members were certain that Frank had won the race. Hours after Johnson had enjoyed the fruits of victory lane, Frank was declared the winner by virtue of an extended scoring check.
  • The Darlington infield on Southern 500 weekend is much tamer these days, but for many years it was party central for an eclectic mix of hard-core race fans, college students, and dedicated revelers determined to stack their used beer cans higher than the gang in the next pickup. For a time, there was a jail in the infield.
  • Despite so much success across the racing map, Richard Petty won the Southern 500 only one time. That came in 1967 as part of a remarkable 10-race winning streak, a record that likely will never be broken. Three years later, Petty endured one of the worst wrecks of his career in Darlington’s spring race. His Plymouth bounced off the outside wall in Turn 4 and shot across the track before slamming full-force into the pit wall, shattering that section of the pit barrier into hundreds of pieces. Petty’s car then rolled violently down the frontstretch, his head and arms flying out of the driver-side window with each flip. The car stopped on its roof on the track. Many in the hushed main grandstand probably thought Petty had been killed. He was rushed to the infield medical center, eventually diagnosed with a broken shoulder and missed five races.
  • The 500 weekend is special for Harold Brasington III, grandson of Harold Brasington Sr., the local dreamer who built the track with his own bulldozer. Brasington Sr., who defied non-believers to build the speedway that introduced NASCAR to paved-track racing, lost management control of the speedway a few years after its opening. A later generation of track operators mended fences with Brasington, who died in 1996 at the age of 86. “After 1953, there were plenty of bitter feelings about his departure from the track,” Brasington III told NBC Sports. “I don’t think that had mellowed through the ‘70s. But, as a youngster, he took me to the track. One time spontaneously he pulled up to the gate in his little pickup truck. The guard let him in. He drove me around the track just for the heck of it. He didn’t say anything, really, and drove back out. That’s the way he was with me -- a man of few words. I know he would be tickled that folks have come to value the history and the special place that track has in everybody’s heart who likes it. That would be gratifying to him. His first love is there still going strong despite the threats to its existence through the years.”