This weekend at Darlington Raceway, the NASCAR Cup Series begins its Playoff series with 16 drivers hungry to win and advance to the next round.
Denny Hamlin has captured the most trophies of any active driver at the Track Too Tough To Tame and is the defending race winner. The odds are in his favor but Darlington has a way of leveling the playing field.
Kerry Tharp, president of Darlington Raceway, summed it up best, “You can’t win the race in the first 200 laps but you could certainly lose it.”
It’s a unique race track that requires a specific skill set.
“It takes a tough driver, somebody that can withstand a 500-mile race and the heat,” he continued. “You’re going to have contact during the race. Look at the drivers over the years that have been very successful here, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Cale Yarborough. Those guys were all tough. Those guys were talented, obviously, as they’re all Hall of Famers.
“I think it takes somebody that is patient. You have to be patient at Darlington. I’ve seen several races here where someone might dominate the first two-thirds of the race. And then all of a sudden something happened to him, or something goes wrong with his tire set-up, and all of a sudden they fade to fifth or sixth.
“So I think it’s being a patient driver. And I think, although I never saw him race in person, that David Pearson was that type of driver. He was very patient from what I was told. And, I think that paid off as he had 10 wins here.”
When looking at the drivers in the Playoffs and who might be a contender this weekend, Tharp said, “Denny has won here four times. I think Kevin Harvick has won three times and I think Truex has two, but he’s not in the Playoffs. I think you can look at Harvick and Hamlin as being two drivers that you’ll probably have to contend with. But I think there are some other ones out there that haven’t won here that certainly are capable.”
But before the racing begins Tharp and his staff are already welcoming the early arrivals in the campgrounds with a multitude of events in the days leading up to the weekend. For Tharp, the fan experience is just as important as the racing.
“This morning I greeted the first camper on the property, a man and a young son,” he said. “They were the first campers that entered the facility. So we kind of presented them with a special Darlington swag bag. I get a lot of satisfaction from that.”
As the fans arrive and the clock winds down, the excitement is rising. The Playoffs shift into high gear Sunday evening with the Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at 6 p.m. ET on the USA network.