Race Weekend Central

Going By the Numbers: A Rookie Winning at Darlington? You’re Funny

You’ve already heard plenty of people run down the extensive list of nicknames Darlington Raceway has made for itself over the years, so I’ll spare you.

I will not, however, hold off on talking about how goddamn tough of a track this place can be.

When one points at the hardest speedways to traverse in NASCAR, Darlington’s always near the top — if not running point. Its layout is strange. Its racing grooves are few. By the end of the day, someone is either angry at someone else or just at their own self. It’s a veteran’s track, and even those guys have their tough days here and there.

But in terms of being a veteran’s track, the stats don’t lie. Take a look at the list of past winners at Darlington. I’ll wait.

Kenseth. Johnson. Smith. Hamlin. We’re talking drivers with multiple years of experience in the Sprint Cup Series prior to their wins, save maybe for Regan Smith, but he’d competed in two-and-a-half full seasons prior to his 2011 victory so he wasn’t wet behind the ears by any means. Keep on down the list — Martin, Gordon, Busch and Biffle. Old. OLD.

Will Matt Kenseth prove that veterans rule Darlington by winning his second straight Southern 500?
Will Matt Kenseth prove that veterans rule Darlington by winning his second straight Southern 500?

OK, maybe not everyone in that list is especially old — here’s your daily reminder that Kyle Busch has been around for what seems like forever but isn’t even 30 yet — but they weren’t exactly the flavor of the week when they won, either. Kenseth, Martin and Gordon especially were crafty, hard-nosed veterans who’d seen a thing or two in their day and knew how to get the job done, either because they’d won championships in the past or had straight-up won there multiple times anyway.

So is it unfair to expect very little out of Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and the rest of the bunch this weekend? Not really. Will they win? Doubtful.

That’s really not to say that it’s impossible for an inexperienced young gun to take the cake, but has it happened anytime recently? Check your list again.

We’re basically looking at a buffer of about two full seasons in the Sprint Cup Series before a driver has much of a shot at winning Darlington. In the past, that used to mean he or she had about four races at the track under their belt in the series. Now, with just one visit per year, it means two.

Greg Biffle won in 2005; his rookie season was 2003. Jimmie Johnson swept both races in 2004 after entering the series full time in 2002. Jeff Gordon, 1995, after a 1993 rookie campaign.

Really, in NASCAR’s modern era (post-1972), the soonest a driver won at Darlington since his first full-time season was Terry Labonte, who won his first career race at the track in 1980 in his sophomore campaign in the Cup Series.

I’ve never been big on nicknames for tracks — or for drivers, for that matter; he has a name, you don’t have to call him Smoke every time — but with Darlington, I guess it really is warranted: it’s the Track Too Tough to Tame.

Damn, went against what I said in the intro. Some rookie — any rookie — please prove these numbers wrong so I can forget this ever happened.

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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