Under chill and doubt, Lady in Black shines

Darlington Raceway, NASCAR's first superspeedway, matters again this weekend. That, of course, is exactly how it should be, even if there's no reason imaginable why the sport's stars are racing there in November's chill instead of Labor Day weekend's blazing sun.

Only someone who hasn't been paying attention comes to the venerable track known as the "Lady in Black" without a sense of foreboding this weekend. The Southern 500 is a race the sport was built upon. Long before the Daytona 500 existed, there was the Southern 500.

If not for the Southern 500, Bill France Sr. might never have built Daytona International Speedway in the first place. First contested in 1950, the Southern 500 is a staple of the sport. Well, it will be through early Sunday evening, when the first non-Labor Day weekend running of the event concludes under lights as temperatures dip into the 40s.

And then? Poof! The sport's grandest tradition will be gone. Swept away by International Speedway Corporation, which is taking one of the track's two dates to Phoenix next spring. But instead of leaving the Southern 500 alone, the track's lone race will be held the Saturday night of Mother's Day weekend -- when the Cup circuit is traditionally off as the sport's leaders long ago learned fans would rather honor thy mother than attend a race.

On top of that, the race will be only 400 miles and will have a different name attached. A large part of the sport's history will be on display one final time this weekend, even though there's a sneaking suspicion NASCAR's executives hope no one notices.

That won't happen, though, as too many of the drivers appreciate the grueling 1.366-mile facility for the true test that it presents. Far from cookie-cutter tracks like Charlotte, Texas, Michigan or Fontana, this track designed with asymmetrical turns to avoid a small fish pond on the property (think of it as the Fenway Park of racetracks) will give a full 500-mile test to 43 drivers one last time.

That the race may go a long way in determining the winner of the Chase for the Nextel Cup is simply a bonus, one NASCAR played up when it allowed sister company ISC to shift the date. Of course, NASCAR simply turned its head when the shift to May for 2005 was announced; not even suggesting that the schedule be shuffled to ensure the sport was back in South Carolina where many feel it belongs on Labor Day weekend.

The only thing Jeff Burton knows is that he attended races at Darlington as a child along with his brother, Ward, and both have won at the track. To say this is a special weekend in his book is putting it mildly.

"Every race that we get ready to go to Darlington, I get pumped up," Jeff Burton said. "I think Darlington is one of the special places in our sport. I've said before it's not the prettiest place in the world, it's not the coolest racetrack in the world as far as grandstands and suites, all that stuff, but when you look at history and the heritage of our sport, the things that have gone on in our sport, Darlington fits really, really tightly in there.

"I take a tremendous amount of pride in how we run at Darlington. I think it's the toughest racetrack we go to. When you can perform well there, I think it's a good sign of the strength of your race team.

"Having said all that, because I do feel that way, this race in particular means a great deal. It's possible that this could be the last Southern 500. I don't know that for sure, but it's possible. If that's the case, I want to be the one that won it. It means a lot to me. The Southern 500 is a huge race. I don't care what it pays. I don't care anything about that. But getting a Southern 500 trophy is big on anybody's resume. I certainly want to put another one on mine."

Unfortunately, Burton's uncertainty is for naught as this is the last Southern 500 the sport is likely to see. And if the track isn't able to attract a sellout crowd next May, there's a feeling among many that 2005 may be the last year the track plays host to an event, period.

Maybe not, though, maybe tradition will count for something -- but fans of Rockingham have already learned the hard way that tradition doesn't mean all that much in today's economic climate.

Maybe night racing will be enough to sustain Darlington in the eyes of ISC's decision makers. If so, the first test will come this weekend when the last Southern 500 finishes under the lights. Still, a sellout is doubtful with highs only in the low-to-mid 50s expected.

Temperatures will be cool, but emotions will be at a fever pitch for drivers such as Ryan Newman. While considered a "Young Gun" and "new wave" with his engineering degree, a purist's heart beats inside the driver of Penske Racing South's Alltel Dodge.

"I'd really like to win at Darlington, not only because it's the first race under the lights but because it's Darlington. It's my favorite racetrack," Newman said. "I've always said it's not my favorite racetrack to race, but it's my favorite racetrack to drive. Driving is what you've got to do to win there.

"You're competing against the racetrack more than the competitors. I look forward to going there for the last Southern 500. It's going to be an important mark I guess in the history of NASCAR and it'd be really nice if we could come away with a win."

If given the chance to build a track, Newman said patterning it after Darlington would provide the perfect starting point.

Of course, those who design tracks for a living never seem to see it that way, patterning the tracks off of the various 1.5- or 2-mile facilities already out there because that leaves more room for suites. And tracks of that nature, at least in theory, are best suited for stock car and open-wheel races.

Newman, though, looks at it from the perspective of a stock car driver and knows what he'd like to see -- a test that's a challenge from the outset.

"It's a place where you have to be mentally on top of your game and for that reason physically you have to be on top of it," Newman said. "You have to adjust your driving style to the racetrack as the tires fall off, and that's what makes it so difficult. I think that it's great it's got oddly shaped corners; meaning one is shaped different from the other.

"In general, I don't think you could make a racetrack much better. I think Rockingham would be the second closest racetrack to it, that's racy and has all the similar characteristics. Nobody ever complained about Rockingham being a bad racetrack, they just complained about it not being in the right location. Maybe a combination between Rockingham and Darlington would be the perfect racetrack."

Rockingham, though, is but a memory and many fear Darlington's heading toward the same fate. A track considered "Too Tough to Tame" by drivers might soon be tamed by financial motives.

This weekend, though, Darlington will be all about the racing. Which is exactly how it should be, whether in the heat of September, the chill of November or under the lights next May.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.