Best of the Best: Top-Five Drivers at Darlington Raceway
By: Jared Turner
DARLINGTON, S.C. (April 14, 2010) – In 60 years of racing at Darlington Raceway, few drivers have enjoyed continued success at the famed 1.366-mile oval. Most never have and never will.
Winning at the track “Too Tough To Tame” requires unparalleled skill and patience and a lot of luck. Here’s a breakdown of the best Sprint Cup Series drivers to ever compete at Darlington.
1. DAVID PEARSON
No driver has ever executed a greater mastery of Darlington Raceway than Pearson. The “Silver Fox,” as Pearson has long been known, is the all-time wins leader at Darlington with 10 triumphs in 47 starts. Driving for the legendary Holman-Moody team, Pearson won for the first time at Darlington in spring 1968 and returned to victory lane in the same event two years later. Pearson’s Darlington dominance continued after joining the Wood Brothers in 1972 as he won the track’s annual spring race in three consecutive seasons. Pearson completed the Darlington sweep in 1976, finally earning a coveted SHOWTIME Southern 500 trophy in the fall of that year. Pearson’s final trip to Darlington’s victory lane with the Wood Brothers came in the 1977 SHOWTIME Southern 500. The three-time Cup series champion won at Darlington twice more – in fall 1979 and spring 1980 – driving for team owners Rod Osterlund and Hoss Ellington, respectively. Despite his success, the native of nearby Spartanburg, S.C., failed to finish 17 times at the track “Too Tough To Tame,” leaving him with an average Darlington finish of 12.0. He led 2,116 laps and scored 30 top-10s, including 24 top-fives. Pearson won with three different manufacturers – Ford, Mercury and Chevrolet.
2. DALE EARNHARDT
If there was ever a driver who knew how to conquer “The Lady in Black,” as Darlington Raceway is known, it was “The Man in Black.” With nine wins in 44 starts at Darlington, Earnhardt excelled at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval like few others and was always a force to be reckoned with. After winning for the first time at Darlington in spring 1982 with team owner Bud Moore, Earnhardt needed four more years to recapture his Darlington magic. Once he did in the spring 1986 event, Earnhardt reeled off two more wins over the next three Darlington races and notched his first SHOWTIME Southern 500 triumph in fall 1987. His next three Darlington triumphs came in succession, beginning with the 1989 SHOWTIME Southern 500 and culminating with a sweep of the track’s two races in 1990. Earnhardt’s triumph in the 1990 SHOWTIME Southern 500 came after starting from the pole. Earnhardt recorded his last two Darlington checkers in spring 1993 and spring 1994 as he was shut out of victory lane in his final 13 starts at the fast, tricky facility. Earnhardt finished his Darlington career with 24 top-10s, including 19 top-fives, and six DNFs. His nine Darlington wins are second only to Pearson’s 10.
3. JEFF GORDON
One of only nine active drivers with a Darlington win on his resume, Gordon has always had a knack for navigating the tricky egg-shaped track. Seven times a winner at Darlington, Gordon trails only Earnhardt and Pearson in victories at the famed track. The most notable of the four-time Cup champion’s Darlington triumphs came in the 1997 SHOWTIME Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. Needing to win the race to claim a $1 million bonus from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Gordon captured the “Winston Million” by holding off a dramatic charge from Jeff Burton in the last two laps. The victory helped catapult Gordon to a second series title and cement his place as one of the sport’s brightest stars. But while Gordon’s million dollar payday might be the highlight of his achievements at Darlington, there are several others that remain notable. After finishing no better than sixth in his first five Darlington starts, Gordon recorded an incredible five wins over his next seven Darlington appearances. All but one of those wins came in the SHOWTIME Southern 500. He added another SHOWTIME Southern 500 trophy to his collection in 2002 and picked up his most recent Darlington victory in spring 2007. Gordon, who calls Darlington “without a doubt, the most difficult track to race on the circuit,” has 20 top-10s, including 17 top-fives, and three poles in 29 Darlington starts.
4. BILL ELLIOTT
Elliott had a million reasons to win the SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend 1985. He showed up and did just that. Elliott started from the pole and led 100 laps on the way to becoming the first driver to claim the $1 million payday from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for capturing three of the season’s four crown-jewel events. “It was a pretty big deal back then,” Elliott said before the 2009 SHOWTIME Southern 500. “Twenty-four years later, it still is.” While Elliott will always be remembered most in Darlington lore for his million-dollar run, the Dawsonville, Ga., native has enjoyed plenty of other strong performances at the track “Too Tough To Tame” as well. The 1988 Cup champion amassed 35 top-10s, including 22 top-fives and five wins, at the track on the way to solidifying a spot as one of the Darlington’s greatest drivers of all-time. Three of Elliott’s wins came in the SHOWTIME Southern 500 and all of them came within a 10-year period. Elliott first won at Darlington in spring 1985 and last found victory lane at Darlington in fall 1994. It’s the day he became “Million Dollar Bill,” however, that will forever be etched in history as one of the greatest events NASCAR has ever seen.
5. BOBBY ALLISON, CALE YARBOROUGH, DARRELL WALTRIP
These three drivers each scored five wins at Darlington and boast a comparable number of top-10s and top-fives relative to their number of starts at the track. While Waltrip’s 18-top-fives are more than those of Allison (13) and Yarborough (11), he has three fewer top-10s (23) and two fewer poles (2) than Allison, who made 10 fewer starts (45). Yarborough trails Waltrip and Allison in top-10s but, unlike them, scored all of his Darlington wins in the SHOWTIME Southern 500. Allison won the SHOWTIME Southern 500 four times and Waltrip won it only once.
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Darlington Raceway or the track “Too Tough to Tame” as it is known to many, is where the purest of NASCAR competition meets true southern hospitality. A NASCAR staple since 1950, Darlington Raceway has seen some of motorsports most talented drivers thunder to Victory Lane. In 2010, NASCAR’s stars return to battle the track “Too Tough to Tame” in the Sprint Cup Series SHOWTIME Southern 500® and Nationwide Series Darlington 200. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will also make a stop at Darlington for the first time since the 2004 season.
Don’t miss any of the paint-scraping action at Darlington Raceway in 2010. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series will visit the track on Mother’s Day Weekend, May 7-8, for the SHOWTIME Southern 500® and Darlington 200. The Camping World Truck Series will make its return to Darlington Raceway for first time since 2004 on August 14 for the Too Tough to Tame 200. Tickets for all three events are on-sale now. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Darlington Raceway ticket office at 866-459-RACE or online at http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/tickets/.