The sky didn’t fall last year when Regan Smith scored an upset victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
But it certainly was an unexpected moment. Before the 370-lap chase over 1.366 miles of the toughest ground in NASCAR, few would have bet on the Colorado driver conquering Darlington.
The upset happens occasionally at the track some call Too Tough To Tame. And a victory there by any driver tends to add a notable notch to that driver’s worksheet.
“Winning at Darlington does make a difference – [but] how everyone looked at him (Regan Smith), I don't think so,” said Denny Hamlin. “I think that everyone thought he was very capable in the right situation of winning many weeks. I know that particular race, he didn't just come out of nowhere and steal it because he didn't pit. He was running in the top five or six all day that day.
“We knew that he had a really good shot at winning once that last stop happened. I don't think I view him any differently now than I did before, but obviously having that win is something great for his resume. You look at the pictures and the names on the trophy that you get there. You're in some seriously elite company that have won at Darlington."
That company includes Hamlin, who won the Southern 500 the previous season.
This year’s race is scheduled Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. Practice and qualifying are scheduled Friday (all on SPEED as part of its Fast Friday programming).
Hamlin said he liked Darlington almost immediately.
“I think myself, in particular, I just thrive on harder race tracks to try to figure out – the Poconos, the Martinsvilles, tracks that just some people love and hate,” he said. “It just seems like we have adapted to it and found a way to get around the track. I was there (at Darlington) not too long ago, a couple of weeks ago, and it's amazing to see how much the surface has aged just since last year. The surface was white as snow, and basically that's the rock starting to come up through the asphalt again, which I think is great for that race track.
“You'll see a little bit more tire wear than what we had in the past. Whatever they paved that race track with seems to be pretty good stuff. I think you'll see great racing there again. For myself, I don't know, I just have a way of getting around the place. I really can't explain it."
Among the leading drivers still 0-for-forever in Cup racing at Darlington is defending series champion Tony Stewart, who has won at every Cup track except Darlington and Kentucky Speedway, which joined the circuit only last year.
Stewart, however, did win a Nationwide race at Darlington in 2008.
“With the rich heritage and history at Darlington – to win there and be the first guy to win after they resurfaced it, it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe,” Stewart said. “It’s just cool to win at Darlington. You think back to guys like David Pearson who were so good there. This series is just so deep in history, and this is one of those tracks where the history goes as deep as NASCAR does. To finally get a win at Darlington was a huge honor for me.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.