Cale Leads
Cale Yarborough leads the race in 1968. (NSSN Archives photo)

Taming The Southern 500

On Sept. 4, 1950, a mammoth overflow crowd of 25,000 fans passed through the gates of the newly constructed Darlington (S.C.) Raceway to witness the inaugural Southern 500.

Riding on hard truck tires, Californian Johnny Mantz paced his No. 98 Plymouth and outlasted the remainder of the 75 entries that took the green flag.

On Sept. 3, 1995, another California native won his first of six Southern 500s and began an enviable relationship with NASCAR’s toughest track. Jeff Gordon routinely mastered the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval to establish Darlington Raceway as his best friend, winning four consecutive Southern 500s from 1995 to ’98.

He also won the race twice more in 2002 and ’07.

“From 1995 to ’98, the number of races we won was just insane,” Gordon said, “I would say probably half of my victories throughout my career, if not more, happened during that span of time. It kind of tells you the kind of domination the 24 team and Hendrick Motorsports had at that time.

“During those years, we also had four consecutive Southern 500 victories and six overall, which was amazing. Once you run well there, once you win there, it’s special,” Gordon continued. “I ran well there even back to 1991 in the Busch Grand National (Xfinity Series) car. I ran really strong there.

“I always had great confidence at Darlington and always had great race cars at Darlington. So, when we went to that track, we always felt we were there to win. Of course, you always have to have luck to win.”

The original layout of the track was a narrow, 1.25-mile oval crowned with a single steel guardrail in the turns.

By the time Gordon got there in the early 1990s, the track had been widened and reached 1.366 miles in length, but was still very tricky to navigate.  

“I raced at Darlington for the first time when I was in the Busch Series in 1991,” Gordon recalled. “At that time, I was racing sprint cars and midgets up in Indiana. At that time, I was on tracks such as Salem and Winchester that were very high banked and fast race tracks and very intimidating tracks where you were right against the wall. So, when I first heard about Darlington, it was a very similar experience like everyone else had told me about Salem and Winchester.

“Drivers like to spook you when you’re going to a different place or a fast and intimidating track. Or maybe they’re trying to prepare you, too. It’s like this myth and legend gets built up before you ever see the track or ever get there.

“The first time I ever went to Darlington, I was trying to understand and was trying to figure out what that would be like in a stock car. And it didn’t disappoint,” Gordon said with a laugh. “I guess because of those other tracks and the speeds we were carrying, I seemed to adapt to it pretty well and enjoyed it right away. I looked at it more as a challenge than intimidating.”

Cup Gordonvl Cavali
Jeff Gordon is met in victory lane at the Southern 500. (Phil Cavali photo)

The crusty old veterans, from Buck Baker, Fireball Roberts and Lee Petty to Dale Earnhardt, Donnie Allison and Richard Petty, had their up-close and personal visits with the Darlington wall.

Some were intentional as the best way to get through the turns, while many incidents appeared as if the wall reached out and grabbed race cars that got too close.

“It’s interesting,” Gordon said. “There have been certain races when the competition wasn’t quite as intense or maybe the pace would fall off a bit and you could take it easy on tires and equipment. You could get into this mode. I know I’ve definitely experienced it.

“You might have this big lead and no one is really close behind you and you start to think about things other than your line and not really stay laser focused. To me, Bristol and Darlington are the two tracks that you can never do that.

“There at Darlington, it’s not always a lack of concentration as it is a change of grip level; so much so that you go into the corner the same speed you did the previous lap but the tires can’t take it and you’re saying, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa’ and it just sneaks up on you.

“That’s how it can bite you when you don’t anticipate it,” Gordon added. “It’s almost like every couple of laps you have to understand and adjust how you’re driving the track because you need to adjust for that grip going away just to maintain the right side of the car. That’s hard to do as a race car driver because you just want to push, push, push.

“As a driver, if you feel like you’re backing up every couple of laps, you must be losing time to your competitors. At Darlington, that’s the one place that it’s really not the case. It’s the opposite.”

Before Gordon arrived on the scene, three-time Cup Series champion Cale Yarborough won five Southern 500s.

“To win five Southern 500s is unbelievable,” Yarborough said after his 1982 victory. “Every driver who has been here knows how hard it is to win just a single Southern 500. If you’re lucky enough to win one, it’s one of the most treasured victories of your entire racing life. To win five is simply unimaginable.” 

David Pearson collected 10 victories at Darlington between 1968 and ’80, including three Southern 500s.

Leonard Wood, crew chief for Wood Brothers Racing, won 43 races with Pearson between 1972 and ’79.

“It didn’t surprise us at all that David won his very first race with us (April 16, 1972 at Darlington) because he was good everywhere he raced,” the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee said. “We had raced against him for years, so we knew how good he was. We hit it off right from the start. He liked the way we set up a car and that fit him perfectly. We believed in each other. It has to be that way for it all to work together.

“Darlington was a track that David loved and was so good at. Every time we went there, we went thinking we were going to win. He was just so good there. It was his kind of track and a place he could master better than everyone else could.”

Bobby Allison, the 1983 Cup Series champion, won the Southern 500 four times. Allison considered the famed South Carolina superspeedway one of his favorites for a reason most people wouldn’t think about.

“I consider Darlington one of my very favorite race tracks,” Allison said. “The Southern 500 was always run on Labor Day Monday and it was always hot. I felt I could handle the heat a lot better than most drivers and that was a big advantage for me. I loved the track and won there a lot. One of my favorite wins was when I was with Roger Penske in the (American Motors Corp.) Matador in 1975.

“I won both races that year, which was the spring 500-mile race and the Southern 500. Those wins were very special to me because we proved the Matador could win on one of the toughest tracks on the Cup circuit.”

Two-time Cup Series champion Terry Labonte has the distinction of winning the first and last races of his Cup Series career in the Southern 500.

“I won 22 Cup races during my career,” Labonte noted. “To be honest, I’m not really sure why I won my first Cup race there, which was the Southern 500 in 1980 for Billy Hagan. We had a good car that day and ran up front all day. Everything worked out for us. Then, we came back in 2003 with Rick (Hendrick) and got what turned out to be the last win of my career and it came at Darlington in the Southern 500 that year.

“I don’t know why I ran so well at Darlington. I really don’t. I always ran well there. It was just a good track for me, I guess.”

Now Hendrick Motorsports’ vice chairman, Gordon has time to reflect on what winning six Southern 500s means to him.

“Why it means so much to me is when I came into NASCAR, one of the tracks that everybody really put emphasis on, who were the toughest drivers, which one was the most demanding and hardest to win at was Darlington and it was the top of the list,” Gordon said. “Then, you look at the greats in the sport who won there from Dale Earnhardt to Richard Petty to Cale Yarborough to Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.

“It’s a who’s-who list and to be in that category and to do what we did there at Darlington makes me really, really proud of my efforts, but also our team’s efforts to get that done.”