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NASCAR At Darlington Raceway: Bill Elliott's Finest Moment, Terry Labonte's First And Last Wins, And Other Notes

This weekend's Showtime Southern 500 (Saturday, 7 p.m. on FOX) marks the 108th race at the legendary Darlington Raceway and the tenth race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. As with every Sprint Cup event, SB Nation Atlanta presents some (potential) notes of interest on the 500-mile rumble at The Track Too Tough To Tame.

  • Darlington hosted it's first race on September 4, 1950. The track hosted one race a year - the Labor Day Classic "Southern 500" - from 1950-59 with the exception of 1952 in which there were two races. In 1960, a second race at Darlington was added to the schedule. Originally held on Confederate Memorial Day and run under the moniker "Rebel 400," That name was dropped in 1983, by which point the race had expanded to 500 miles. From 1986-2003, Darlington hosted the fifth race of each season and the Labor Day Weekend race. In 2004, the Southern 500 was transferred to November in favor of a second race at the Auto Club Speedway in one of NASCAR's most maligned schedule adjustments in the last two decades. Trumping that, however, was the loss of a race at Darlington so that Texas Motor Speedway could host one as a result of the Francis Ferko lawsuit. Since 2005, Darlington has only hosted the one race, traditionally on Mother's Day Weekend though that is not the case in 2011.
  • David Pearson, slated for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame later this month, is the all-time winningest driver at the South Carolina race track. A native of Spartanburgh, SC., Pearson recorded ten victories at Darlington, including his 105th and final career win in 1980.
  • As with more than a handful of circuits on the Sprint Cup schedule, Jeff Gordon is the victories leader among active drivers at Darlington. Gordon has seven victories in his 30 Darlington races, including five in his 12 Southern 500 starts from September 1993 to November 2004. He has one win since the track's schedule was cut back to just a single race, winning on Mother's Day 2007.
  • Also as with more than a handful of circuits on the Sprint Cup schedule, 51-year-old Mark Martin is the active leader in starts, at least among regular drivers. He has 44 races at Darlington, including victories in the 1993 and 2009 Southern 500s. Part-time racers Terry Labonte (54) and Bill Elliott (52) are each ahead of Martin, but neither are entered in Saturday's race.
  • Denny Hamlin is the defending champion of the Showtime Southern 500, winning last year's race after bad luck befell both Gordon and Jeff Burton - who swept at Darlington in 1999 - during their final pit stops. Gordon had just pitted when Joey Logano spun, trapping Gordon a lap down, while Burton had a penalty on his stop that effectively cleared the way for Hamlin's third of eight 2010 victories.
  • Dawsonville's Bill Elliott is a five-time Darlington race winner, but perhaps the defining moment of his career came in September 1985 when he won the "Winston Million" in the program's first year of existence. The brainchild of the late T. Wayne Robertson, the Million was a bounty put up by then-Cup Series sponsor RJ Reynolds for any driver who could win three of the four "Crown Jewel" races. Elliott opened that season with his first of two Daytona 500 triumphs, then raced from two laps down under green to win the Winston 500 in Talladega that April. Amidst a mob of media sent to cover Elliott's exploits, he won the Southern 500 for his 10th of a record 11 superspeedway victories that season and bagged the Million. With the bonus, his payday was $1,053,725 - a King's ransom by NASCAR standards in 1985. Only one other driver would win the Winston Million: Jeff Gordon took the prize in 1997, the final year it was offered.
  • Two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte won 21 times in his career, including twice at the Darlington Raceway. Interestingly enough, those two wins bookended his trips to victory lane. In September 1980, he beat David Pearson to a caution flag by a nose after Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and Benny Parsons all slid in oil and hit the turn one wall with two laps remaining. At the time of Terry's first win, on September 1, 1980, 12 current Sprint Cup regulars weren't even born. After winning at his home track in Texas in 1999, Labonte went 156 races without another trip to victory lane. Then, in the final Labor Day running of the Southern 500, Labonte beat Kevin Harvick by just over a second in 2003.
  • In March 2003, Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch by .002 seconds in the closest finish since NASCAR implemented electronic scoring in 1993 - a mark tied by Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer last month in  Talladega. In a scene straight out of Days of Thunder, the two banged doors off the final turn all the way to the checkered flag with Craven's Pontiac barely edging out Busch's Ford. It was Craven's second and final Cup victory and the last win for the Pontiac nameplate, which left NASCAR after the season to focus on sports car racing.
  • Five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has two wins at Darlington, both coming in the track's last year with two races, 2004. The only other Cup champion since 2001 to ever win at Darlington is Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch have all been shut out at the track, with Busch's second-place effort leading the way. Stewart and Kenseth each have a third-place finish to their credit. Darlington is one of only two tracks Stewart, with 39 career victories, has yet to win at in a Sprint Cup car.
  • With a victory Saturday, Kurt Busch would join younger brother Kyle (May 2008) as winners at Darlington and become only the third pair of brothers to win at the track. Jeff and Ward Burton each have two wins, while Bobby Labonte added to older brother Terry's Darlington double with a win of his own in the 2000 Southern 500.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. would join Dale Earnhardt as only the second father-son duo to win at Darlington Raceway. Buck Baker recorded three wins at Darlington while son Buddy scored back-to-back wins in September 1970 and May 1971.
  • Since dropping back to a one-race schedule, here are the winners and runner-up finishers at Darlington Raceway: 2005 - Greg Biffle over Jeff Gordon; 2006 - Greg Biffle over Jeff Gordon; 2007 - Jeff Gordon over Denny Hamlin; 2008 - Kyle Busch over Carl Edwards; 2009 - Mark Martin over Jimmie Johnson; 2010 - Denny Hamlin over Jamie McMurray

As always, for more news and notes on all things NASCAR, check out SB Nation's NASCAR hub and NASCAR Ranting and Raving.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.