The ‘Lady in Green’ Takes On the ‘Lady in Black’
KANNAPOLIS, N.C. – Its reputation as the toughest and most challenging racetrack on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit is widely known.
Successfully maneuvering around Darlington (S.C.) Raceway – aptly nicknamed “The Track Too Tough To Tame” – is like a carefully choreographed dance thanks to its distinctive layout. The 1.366-mile oval is uniquely configured thanks to a pond that the owner refused to relocate when constructing the racetrack in the late 1940s. The track’s architect made one end of the track tight, narrow and high-banked while the other he made wide, sweeping and flat.
Racing at Darlington produces a host of challenges. Drivers and their teams are constantly adjusting to the tires, the bumps and the overall character of the racetrack. And the racing occurs predominantly just inches from the outside SAFER Barrier.
The odd shape also means that, to find the fast way around the track, drivers race against the outside wall in each turn, sometimes brushing up against the wall and thus earning what has affectionately become known as a “Darlington Stripe” on the right side of the car. And the black marks left on the walls by the tires rubbing up against them all race weekend have led to the track’s other nickname – “The Lady in Black.”
This weekend, “The Lady in Green” – Danica Patrick, driver of the green-colored No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing – will make her third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start and her fourth overall NASCAR start at “The Lady in Black” for Saturday night’s Southern 500.
Two years ago, Patrick made her first-ever start at Darlington in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. She started 15th and finished and impressive 12th. One night later, she made just her second Sprint Cup start ever, finishing 31st.
Her weekend impressed several NASCAR observers as Darlington is known as a track that is tough on first-timers. But “The Lady in Green” completed 513 of 519 laps in her first weekend at “The Lady in Black,” and did so without being in an accident – also a tough feat for a rookie, much less a seasoned veteran.
Last year, Patrick’s outing at Darlington – in her first full season on the Sprint Cup circuit – perhaps was a bit more challenging. She was forced to use her backup car after an accident in Friday practice caused heavy damage to her primary machine. Despite starting 40th in the backup car, Patrick still finished 28th.
This weekend, “The Lady in Green” returns with the same car she has raced in each of her previous starts at “The Lady in Black.” With two Sprint Cup races there already under her belt, Patrick hopes she has mastered some of the right steps in the intricate dance that is racing at Darlington.
DANICA PATRICK, Driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
You’ve had a total of three NASCAR starts at Darlington – two in the Sprint Cup Series and one on the Nationwide side. Talk about your experiences and what you have learned going into this weekend.
“Having those starts is definitely a help not just to me but also to the entire team. I think it makes me more comfortable behind the wheel, and it also gives the guys information about what I like or need in the car, which is huge. I know that last year we were far better off unloading and hitting the track because we had a baseline to go off of from my previous start. Unfortunately, I crashed in practice and that kind of put us behind. But, what we learned last year just gives us more to build on as we go there this weekend. Darlington is definitely a challenging track. And I think I’ve learned a lot in the few starts I’ve had. Each time we go back there, I’m more comfortable. The first time I raced there, I had never seen Darlington until that actual race weekend. So that’s always a bit interesting when you go somewhere you’ve never been. But I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish over the weekend. Things went well on the Nationwide side. On the Cup side, my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own. And the other goal was to finish, and both of those things happened. So, overall, it was a good night. Hopefully, my experience from that first weekend and last year will pay off for us this weekend.”
So many drivers get that Darlington Stripe. Is it just the nature of the beast or are drivers just that little bit over the edge?
“The reason for so many stripes – Darlington Stripes – on cars there is you are really just driving against the wall. You are carrying a lot of speed through (turn) one and you use the wall all the way out. You are riding it while you’re in and out of throttle up there. It’s not like it’s a straightaway. It’s a corner, so you are still turning. The same thing goes through (turns) three and four. You are also searching for grip so, sometimes, that line is a little bit higher getting in. Sometimes, it’s a little bit lower. You are using the grip all the way up to the wall, which means you are flirting with that wall.”
TONY GIBSON, Driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing:
Danica has two starts at Darlington. Does that help you at all going into “The Track Too Tough To Tame?” And what are your overall thoughts going into this weekend?
“It’s hard because it’s only one race a year at Darlington. We’ve really struggled there. Last year, we wrecked our primary car in practice. I wasn’t with her the first race she ran there – (Greg) Zipadelli was – so last year was my first year with her. We were better in the race, but we just really struggled to get going. It’s such a difficult racetrack. The corners are so different. You have to run right up against the wall, and she kind of struggled with that, which is normal for a lot of the drivers their first time at Darlington. Obviously, it helps that we have two races already going there but, when you only go there once a year, it’s not in your mind as much as these other racetracks. It does help having been there before because we have data and notes to go off of to help her and us. That part of it helps a lot. That place is just a place where it’s tough. Veterans with lots of experience around there, they know how to do it. They know how to make it work, but they also have trouble there, too. I feel like it is probably going to be a struggle again. There’s just no way to sugarcoat that. I think the key for her and for us is to just be open-minded and for her to be patient with herself. If you try to get aggressive and try to outsmart the racetrack, that’s when you get in trouble. It’s in our best interest to just go there and be calm and just make laps, get laps under her belt and re-familiarize herself with the racetrack. We don’t want to get caught up in speed and caught up in what others are doing because it will get you in trouble.”
This track isn’t just challenging for the driver, it can also be quite the challenge for the team to find the right setup. How difficult is the role of the crew chief at Darlington?
“It’s difficult. I love the place. I’ve had a lot of success there with drivers and have had really good runs there. For us, and with what we are hoping to accomplish, we really just have to go into Darlington with a positive attitude and remember that you are there to learn. We’re on a different program than everybody else. Stick within our little walls and don’t let the track freak you out because it can do it in a hurry and it can frustrate you. Darlington is mentally challenging. We have been there with so many different tires in the last two or three years with the repave, and now it is starting to get old again. It’s a chasing game, too. The track sits there. We only race on it once a year. The winters come along and the weather plays a big role in the asphalt aging. So, we’ve had the different tires and now our car is different. The cars are even different from what it was when we were there last year, so a lot has changed. You’ve got to go through that learning curve, too. So far this year, our qualifying has gotten better. I think our cars are better, and I think the new ride heights have helped that. So, I’m hoping that will be another step in the right direction for us to help us with the learning curve at Darlington.”
- Tom Jensen
NASCAR Editor at FOXSports.com & RACER Magazine