Not All Action at Darlington Was In The Southern 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 10 2023

The NASCAR Cup teams head to Darlington Raceway this week. (File photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jeff Hood | Senior Writer

NASCAR will roll into historic Darlington Raceway, home of the egg-shaped, 1.366-mile oval, this weekend.

While the facility’s annual Southern 500, held each Labor Day weekend, is one of the most coveted prizes in stock car racing, the spring race at the track nicknamed the “Lady in Black” and “Too Tough to Tame” has produced some of the most memorable races in the history of the sport.

Look no further than the 1979 and 2003 events at the famed speedway located in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

A month off the landmark Daytona 500 won by Richard Petty, the 1979 spring race at Darlington managed to continue the momentum that would eventually turn NASCAR into a national sport.

The grandstands were packed at the crusty ol’ speedway that afternoon with fans eager to see if there would be any additional repercussions from the famous fight in Daytona between brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough.

While there were no fisticuffs on this Sunday, the race did produce multiple memorable moments.

The race was dominated by Donnie Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Petty.

The three trio staged a furious finish, including three passes on the final lap, that overshadowed a breakup of one of the most successful driver/owner combinations in NASCAR history.

Leonard Wood and David Pearson had their moments at Darlington.

During the 1970s, there was no one more notorious to hover in the Top 10 then pounce into the lead during the close laps than the “Silver Fox” David Pearson.

The Spartanburg, S.C. native’s pairing with the legendary Wood Brothers of Stuart, Va. and their No. 21 Purolator Mercury was pure magic each weekend.
But their lengthy marriage came unraveled on this overcast afternoon in Darlington when Pearson exited his pit box at the midway point of the event.
That’s when two tires came off his Ford, sending his Mercury out of control at the end of pit road.
A visibly upset Pearson about the pit road miscue stormed away from the scene.
Two days later, it was announced Pearson and the Wood Brothers were going their separate ways.
Neil Bonnett would eventually inherit the seat and go on to enjoy the best years of his career driving the No. 21 Ford for Glen and Leonard Wood.
The finish of that day’s CRC Chemicals 500 saw Waltrip take the white flag in his No. 88 Chevrolet with Petty’s famous STP Chevy and Allison’s Hawaiian Tropic Chevrolet nipping at his heels.
Waltrip and Petty swapped the repeatedly on the final lap, with Allison trying to figure out how to make it three wide.
Waltrip’s slide job on King Richard coming out of Turn 4 proved to be the winning margin.
The Owensboro, Ky. native, who had a penchant for naming his cars, celebrated in victory lane alongside the Monte Carlo he dubbed “Wicked Wanda.”
Just over two decades later, journeyman driver Ricky Craven shocked the racing world by capturing the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 in spectacular fashion at Darlington.

Ricky Craven has inside position and a couple of inches on Kurt Busch as they hit the finish line at Darlington in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Darlington Raceway)

The final 20 laps of the event produced some of the greatest racing in the history of NASCAR between Craven, driving for relatively unknown car owner Cal Wells, and the powerful No. 97 Roush Racing Ford driven by up-and-coming star Kurt Busch.

Darlington’s abrasive pavement, which wore tires quickly and caused laps times to plunge, was evident as the two drivers were constantly on the brink of spinning out, repeatedly bouncing off one another and riding against the outside wall in an effort to get their car to turn left.
There was smoke flying and sparks lighting up the sky, along with sheet metal being bent in the process.
The end result was a side-by-side finish for the ages that saw the No. 32 Pontiac and No. 97 Ford seemingly glued together in a thrilling photo finish.
Craven, who barely edged Busch for what would turn out to be the only win of his Cup Series career, wound up slamming the Turn 1 wall on his cool down lap.
When the engines fire for Sunday’s Goodyear 400, we can only hope another race at Darlington filled with additional unforgettable moments will be on the brink of unfolding.
| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 10 2023
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