Darlington, SC (Sports Network) - It's one of NASCAR's biggest traditions -- the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Nicknamed "The Lady in Black" and "The Track Too Tough To Tame" by NASCAR competitors and fans, Darlington held the sport's first-ever superspeedway race in 1950, with Johnny Mantz winning the inaugural Southern 500 from the 43rd starting position in a 75-car field.
The Southern 500 had been held at Darlington on Labor Day weekend annually for 54 years before the holiday event shifted to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA in 2004. NASCAR moved the Southern 500 that year to November as part of the championship chase schedule. In 2005, the track's date switched to the night before Mother's Day, and has remained there since then.
This year, Showtime Networks becomes the title sponsor of the Southern 500.
Darlington is 1.366 miles in length and has a unique egg-shaped layout, making it one of stock car racing's most challenging tracks. Prior to it being repaved in time for the 2008 race, Darlington's rough, sandy surface made havoc for teams as far as tire management. The track's surface now is smooth and quite speedy.
"This track used to be so tough because the surface was so abrasive," said Jeff Gordon, who leads all active drivers with seven wins at Darlington. "You had to use a lot of finesse as a driver while dealing with the two very different ends of the track.
"Now it's smoother and has more grip, but it's still pretty treacherous, because you run right up next to the wall. It's still an awesome racetrack that is much faster now. And it can still bite you."
Every driver at one time or another has earned a "Darlington Stripe," a mark left on the car when it rubs against the track's outer wall.
"Darlington is the hardest place we race," Biffle said. "We run inches off the wall at speeds we run at mile and a half tracks. Any second it'll reach out and bite you, and that's why they call it 'The Lady in Black.' It is also very hard to pass there which obviously adds another challenge. We've been able to have some success there, including a couple of wins, so I always have high expectations when we go to Darlington."
Kyle Busch won the first race on Darlington's repaved surface two years ago. Busch overcame a pit road penalty for a missing lug nut to finish three seconds ahead of Carl Edwards for his third of eight Sprint Cup victories during the '08 season. Last year at Darlington, he finished 34th after cutting a tire and making contact with the wall late in the race.
"I won the first year there (in the Car of Tomorrow), and I think it was just because everyone was new to the car," Busch said. "Last year, a lot of people got a lot smarter, and we fell a little bit behind. You just have to be patient. You just have to bide your time, and I wasn't very good at that last year. You've got to make sure you keep working on your car."
Last Saturday, Busch snapped a 21-race winless streak in the series at Richmond. He started on the pole and led 221 of the first 229 laps before experiencing an ill-handling car. Busch rallied in the closing laps when he passed Jeff Gordon for the lead just after the final restart. He held it for his first win since last August at Bristol.
Gordon, who finished second, let another win slip away from him this season. He also lost the lead late in the races at Las Vegas, Martinsville, Phoenix and Texas earlier this year.
Mark Martin is the defending race winner at Darlington. Martin gambled on fuel late in the race and then held off several challenges from four-time defending series champion and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for his first win at Darlington since 1993.
"It was cool to win there," Martin said. "It had been so long since we'd won the Southern 500 that most people didn't know I had won one. It is kind of cool."
Forty-six teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Showtime Southern 500.