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WITH 'LADY IN BLACK,'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Under the big, old shade tree near his home in Spartansburg, S.C., the teenage David Pearson listened to the adults talk about Darlington Raceway as they worked on their dirt-track stock cars.

"They'd talk about her all the time," said Pearson, now 69, who would go on to become the second-winningest driver in NASCAR history. "About how you had to drive your car right up against her sides and scrape your car all up. They'd talk about how difficult she was and how beat up you'd get.

"I thought they were crazy, just crazy. But come to find out, rubbing up against her [the wall] was the quickest way around the track."

Darlington Raceway is almost always referred to as "her" or "she." Retired legendary driver Junior Johnson, 68, though, used another term. "I never did think of it as a woman," he said. "I always thought of it as the devil. It was one of the most aggressive and daring racetracks you ever competed on."

There is no getting around Darlington's history. She is known as "the Lady in Black, the Track Too Tough to Tame."

Today, NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series will stage its next-to-last race of the season at the 1.366-mile speedway. And the 10 men in The Chase for the Nextel Cup will set off to win the Mountain Dew Southern 500 and an advantage going into the last race in Homestead, Fla., next weekend.

"I love her," said Jeff Gordon.

"I love her," said Ryan Newman.

"I love her," said Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin.

But Darlington is anything but lovable.

Her surface is as rough as sandpaper and many teams don't even like to roll their tires to the car, fearing the loss of even a little tread. And she is not inclined to forgive, damaging cars for the slightest indiscretions. She is often referred to as the 44th competitor.

"You don't think about any of the other cars," said Newman. "You just think about the racetrack. You're competing against her all day. She's mature, mentally tough and physically challenging, and you have to adapt to her.

"It's like a marriage. You have to understand what it likes and what it wants to get along together."

The best drivers love to pursue her. Pearson, for instance, who was known as "the Silver Fox" for his sly ways on the track and was a dashing figure off it, as well, handled her better than anyone, counting a record 10 Cup victories there among his total of 105 before he retired in 1986. But even he said, "She's hardheaded, just like a woman."

Of the 10 Chase drivers, Gordon, who is 41 points behind Busch in the standings, is the man to beat. He is the winningest active driver this season, with six victories. His last Southern 500 win came in 2002.

But Johnson and Martin, among the top five, also have the patience to excel, while Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart will have to work hard to control their aggressive natures.

There will be no fall race at Darlington next year, which lost out in NASCAR scheduling to a western track as part of the sport's push to move to larger and far-flung locations. And the spring race will be shifted from March to May. But at least Darlington kept a date, unlike the track in Rockingham, N.C. The Lady in Black has only 60,000 seats in her grandstand.

"Darlington is a special place in our sport," said driver Jeff Burton, a two-time winner. "She's not the prettiest or the easiest. Her history is of hurting - your body and your feelings. She's the toughest track we go to.

"She's the Lady in Black. I don't know why they call her that, but I can tell you right now I'm politically savvy enough to know whatever I say will get me in trouble. I will say that she has done me wrong a time or two and, in that way, she is very much like a woman. But if I stop and think about it, it was probably me doing it to myself."

There have been good drivers who have hated her.

Kyle Petty once said the entire place should be turned into a fishing hole and, decades before him, 1970 champion Bobby Isaac said the track should be bulldozed and turned into a peanut field.

A peanut field was exactly what Darlington was before a traditional Saturday night poker game at the local jail resulted in an agreement to build the track.

Legend tells of the card game in which, between hands, developer Harold Brasington suggested building the track on the property of landowner Sherman Ramsey, who reportedly said, "Sure. Now deal." After the game, Ramsey left town on a business trip. When he returned, he found Brasington's bulldozers at work, scraping off his peanut crop and about to fill in his minnow pond.

Brasington was persuaded to spare the pond, and that's how Darlington wound up with four unique corners and an asymmetrical design.

Brasington, who had seen the paved Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wanted to build an impressive, paved track in the South, where there were no such things in 1949. Races in those days were run on dirt or sand. But Brasington envisioned asphalt - rich, black asphalt.

Though many believe the mysterious-sounding nickname, Lady in Black, refers to past tragedies at the track, the name was actually born when the first layer of black goo was laid. People supposedly looked at it in awe.

"She's the Lady in Black," they said. It probably didn't hurt that the word "Darling" was in her name.

Retired three-time Cup champion and current Fox broadcaster Darrell Waltrip, 57, can remember the first time he saw her.

"The sun was shining and I thought it had just rained," said Waltrip, by phone. "It looked like it was wet. It was slick as glass. When we used to go there, no one even wanted to go out to practice.

"Darlington is so old and ... she's gone through a lot."

Her guardrails - including the one Cale Yarborough once flew over in his car before walking back up the hill to wave at the fans - are long gone, replaced by concrete. Her corners - the corners Buddy Baker said had the same dimensions as your one-car garage when approached at 160 mph - have been reversed: Turns 1 and 2 are now 3 and 4, and vice versa.

And her surface has been widened, given that cars have better aerodynamics and better tires that allow side-by-side racing.

"She's a tough old girl," said Waltrip. "You spend four hours there just trying to keep from kissing the wall. Yeah, you don't hit the walls at Darlington, you kiss 'em.

"You drive down in those corners and you say, 'Oh, my gosh - or something like that - and if I was a crew chief this Sunday, I'd be on the radio saying, 'Stay off the wall. Stay off the wall.' I'd say that every lap. And if someone wanted to make a pass, I'd say, 'Let'em go. Don't hit the wall.' "

Darlington is no Darling. But Busch, the current points leader, doesn't begrudge her idiosyncrasies.

"Darlington has earned her respect over time," said Busch. "Darlington was the first superspeedway built and she was built for cars going 110 mph or less. Now, we run 185 or 190 down the backstretch and, if you step out one little bit, she will bite you. But just to do such a thing, run those speeds - unbelievable."

NASCAR

Nestel Cup

Mountain Dew Southern 500 lineup

At Darlington, S.C. Lap length: 1.366 miles (Car number in parentheses)

1. (97) Kurt Busch, Ford, owner points. 2. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, owner points. 3. (8) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, owner points. 4. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, owner points. 5. (6) Mark Martin, Ford, owner points.

6. (20) Tony Stewart, Chevy, owner points. 7. (12) Ryan Newman, Dodge, owner points. 8. (38) Elliott Sadler, Ford, owner points. 9. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford, owner points. 10. (19) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, owner points.

11. (42) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, owner points. 12. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, owner points. 13. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, owner points. 14. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevy, owner points. 15. (18) Bobby Labonte, Chevy, owner points.

16. (2) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, owner points. 17. (15) Michael Waltrip, Chevy, owner points. 18. (01) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, owner points. 19. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, owner points. 20. (40) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, owner points.

21. (30) Jeff Burton, Chevy, owner points. 22. (41) Casey Mears, Dodge, owner points. 23. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevy, owner points. 24. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, owner points. 25. (5) Terry Labonte, Chevy, owner points.

26. (21) Ricky Rudd, Ford, owner points. 27. (25) Brian Vickers, Chevy, owner points. 28. (22) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, owner points. 29. (77) Brendan Gaughan, Dodge, owner points. 30. (0) Mike Bliss, Chevy, owner points.

31. (10) Scott Riggs, Chevy, owner points. 32. (43) Jeff Green, Dodge, owner points. 33. (49) Ken Schrader, Dodge, owner points. 34. (45) Kyle Petty, Dodge, owner points. 35. (32) Bobby Hamilton Jr., Chevy, owner points.

36. (72) Kirk Shelmerdine, Ford, attempt. 37. (4) Mike Wallace, Chevy, attempt. 38. (50) Todd Bodine, Dodge, attempt. 39. (98) Randy LaJoie, Ford, attempt. 40. (89) Morgan Shepherd, Dodge, attempt. 4 41. (02) Hermie Sadler, Chevy, attempt. 42. (09) Johnny Sauter, Dodge, attempt. 43. (80) Mario Gosselin, Ford, attempt.

Failed to qualify 44. (37) Kevin Lepage, Dodge. 45. (94) Derrike Cope, Ford. 46. (00) Carl Long, Dodge. 47. (14) John Andretti, Ford. 48. (06) Travis Kvapil, Dodge.

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