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Cup Series Wednesday night racing factoids

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we live in strange times.

It’s forced NASCAR to make seemingly unprecedented scheduling decisions that see the sport attempting to hold four Cup Series races in 11 days, with the second scheduled to take place tonight at Darlington. A third is set for Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway followed by another Charlotte race on May 27.

While this all seems new, such a compact schedule is simply a throwback to NASCAR’s past, which is appropriate for Darlington.

The last time the Cup Series had four races in 11 days was in 1971, the year before NASCAR’s Modern Era began. That season the Cup Series held 48 races.

From July 14-28, the series competed at Albany-Saratoga (N.Y) Speedway, Islip (N.Y) Speedway, Trenton (N.J.) Speedway and Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. Richard Petty won all four races. Only Albany-Saratoga, a dirt track, and Fairgrounds Speedway still exist.

Should tonight’s Darlington race not be rained out, it would be the 34th Cup race held on a Wednesday, but the first since 1984.

That race was the July 4 event held at Daytona that Richard Petty won for his 200th career victory. The last Wednesday race held somewhere other than Daytona was the 1971 race at Albany-Saratoga.

Other Wednesday/Darlington racing factoids:

– Nineteen drivers have earned victories in races held on Wednesdays. Ten of them are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

– The drivers with the most Wednesday victories are Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett with five each.

– This would be the first time that Darlington, Charlotte (May 27) and Martinsville (June 10) would host a Cup Series race on a Wednesday.

– The starting lineup of tonight’s race features an inversion of the top-20 finishers from Sunday’s race. Since 2000, the only driver to start a Darlington race from 15th-20th and win was Erik Jones in last year’s Southern 500 (he started 15th).

– Jones has yet to finish outside the top 10 in four Cup starts at Darlington

– Only three drivers in the Modern Era (since 1972) have earned their first Cup win at Darlington: Terry Labonte (1980), Lake Speed (1988) and Regan Smith (2011). Speed’s and Smith’s wins were their only Cup victories.

– In the Modern Era, Darlington has seen only three last-lap passes for the win. The last came in 2003 (Ricky Craven).

NASCAR’s top five moments from Darlington Raceway

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NASCAR returns to racing today with the Cup Series at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

Before the engines fie, it’s time to look back at the top five most memorable NASCAR moments from the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

Our look at memorable Darlington moments follows our look back at moments for MiamiTexasBristol, former NASCAR tracks, Richmond, Talladega, Dover and Martinsville.

As we look at the Darlington moments, it was hard to pick the top one, so we’ll go with 1 and 1A.

Let’s get started.

1. .002 seconds (2003)

Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven combined to lead only 24 laps in the March 16, 2003 race at Darlington but those were the final 24 laps.

And it was the last lap that would give the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 a prominent place in NASCAR history and a display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Busch, driving his No. 97 Ford, had about a half-second lead over Craven’s No. 32 Pontiac with five laps to go. But Busch’s power steering had failed earlier in the race, adding to the challenge of fending Craven off.

Craven caught Busch with three laps to go as they neared Turn 1 and attempted a pass, but Busch kept him at bay.

Craven tried again out of Turn 4 and they were nearly even at the start-finish line. They made contact in Turn 1, causing Busch to slap the wall and allowing Craven to take the lead. Busch bumped the back of Craven’s car and executed a crossover maneuver to retake the lead exiting Turn 2.

Craven charged back out of Turn 4 and was on Busch’s bumper as they took the white flag. A lap later, Craven pulled to Busch’s inside out of Turn 4. They locked doors as they drag raced to the finish line. Craven won by 002 seconds.

It was Craven’s second and final Cup win and the moment that has come to define Darlington Raceway in the 21st Century.

1a) Million Dollar Bill (1985)

While the 1979 Daytona 500 helped put NASCAR on the map, the 1985 Southern 500 and the season leading up to the race helped it surge further.

That year was the start of the Winston Million promotion. If a Cup Series driver could win three of four races – the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, the Coca-Cola World 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 – they would claim a $1 million prize from Winston.

Bill Elliott rose to the occasion. He won at Daytona and Talladega and arrived in Darlington with his chance at $1 million still intact. Elliott, who had won at Darlington in the spring, started from the pole and led 100 of 367 laps in a race that saw 21 of 40 cars fail to finish.

He assumed the lead for the final time with 44 laps to go and endured four restarts before winning over Cale Yarborough by .6 seconds to claim the $1 million prize. The achievement landed Elliott on the cover of Sports Illustrated, something not often seen for NASCAR.

It would take 12 years for anyone else to claim the Winston Million.

3) Darrell Waltrip tops Richard Petty (1979)

The 1979 Rebel 400 at Darlington was, quite simply, a barnburner. The contestants for the win in the final laps were Darrell Waltrip and six-time champion Richard Petty, who would earn title No. 7 at the end of the season.

Waltrip (242 laps) and Petty (89) led 331 of the race’s 367 laps. But it came down to a five-lap shootout that saw each driver lead twice on the final lap.

Petty led at the white flag before Waltrip passed him on the inside in Turn 1.

Petty pulled up to Waltrip’s left-side door for the length of the backstretch before briefly pulling ahead entering Turn 3. That’s when Waltrip pulled a crossover maneuver, darting to the inside to take the lead and sail to the win.

4) Million Dollar Jeff (1997)

While Bill Elliott was one of the dominating drivers at Darlington in the 80s, Jeff Gordon took over that role in the 1990s as he and his No. 24 “Rainbow Warriors” thrashed the competition on the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

From 1995-98, Gordon won five of eight races at Darlington, including four straight Southern 500s. The biggest of those wins came on Aug. 31, 1997. That season was the final one for the Winston Million promotion.

Gordon had won the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 to set up his chance at the prize.

One of the drivers standing in his way was, of all drivers, Bill Elliott. Elliott, who hadn’t won a Cup race since the 1994 Southern 500, led 181 laps before losing it for good on Lap 258 to Dale Jarrett, the driver who came close to claiming the Winston Million the year before.

But Gordon took the lead from Jarrett with 72 laps to go. The race came down to a battle between Gordon and Jeff Burton. As they came to the white flag Burton attempted to pass Gordon on the inside, resulting in contact. Gordon held on and pulled away for the win.

5) Jeff Burton: Rain Main (1999)

NASCAR is no stranger to races being won by damaged cars. Terry Labonte in 1995 at Bristol and Erik Jones in this year’s Busch Clash are two examples.

But they’ve got nothing on Jeff Burton.

In the spring 1999 race at Darlington, Burton led on Lap 162 when rain fell on the “Lady in Back.”

A wreck unfolded on the frontstretch in front of Burton. He was collected, resulting in significant damage to his right front fender.

But Burton still held the lead. After a few laps around the track under yellow, the race was stopped. The race was officially called, making Burton the winner. Later that year, Burton won the Southern 500 after it was also shortened by rain.

April 28 in NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson earns first Cup win

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It did not take long for Jimmie Johnson to leave his mark on the NASCAR Cup Series.

Only 13 starts into his career, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team were winners.

The victory occurred on April 28, 2002 at Johnson’s home track of Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Johnson started fourth and would lead 62 of the race’s 250 laps. He took the lead for the final time on a restart with 14 laps to go when he passed Bill Elliott. That was after a pit stop where crew chief Chad Knaus elected to take fuel only as other teams changed two tires.

Johnson would hold off Kurt Busch over the final three laps to take the checkered flag.

“This is unbelievable,” Johnson told Fox in Victory Lane. “This is awesome to do in California in front of my hometown. … It’s going to sink in as the days come, right now it’s just cool.”

Johnson was quickly joined in the celebration by teammate and co-owner of the No. 48 team, Jeff Gordon.

“Guess we hired the right guy!” Gordon declared.

Johnson’s victory was the fifth by a rookie driver since 1999, following Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman would join that list later that year.

Johnson went on to win two more times in 2002. He has accumulated 83 wins and seven championships during his career. In late 2019, he announced 2020 would be his final full-time Cup season.

Also on this date:

1957: Art Watts started from the pole and led all 100 laps on his way to winning a Grand National race at Portland (Oregon) Speedway. The win was his only victory in 19 career starts. Watts made five starts in 1957 and started from the pole in each race.

1974: Cale Yarborough led 421 of 450 laps to win at Martinsville (the race was shortened by 50 laps due to an energy crisis). Richard Petty finished second despite having to pit 13 times during the race, including once under green for a flat tire, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.” Bobby Allison finished third four laps behind Yarborough and Petty.

1990: Chuck Bown led all 200 laps from the pole to win a Xfinity Series race at Lanier Speedway in Gainesville, Georgia.

1996: Sterling Marlin won at Talladega in a Cup race that saw Bill Elliott break a leg in a wreck where his No. 94 Ford went airborne on the backstretch. Later, Ricky Craven’s No. 41 Chevrolet tumbled into the Turn 1 catchfence in a large multi-car wreck. Elliott would sit out until July Daytona race. Craven qualified third the following week at Sonoma, but was relieved by Ron Hornaday Jr.

2007: With a last-lap pass of former teammate Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte won the Xfinity Series race at Talladega to score his final NASCAR national series win.

Kyle Larson to race Ricky Craven’s Kodiak scheme in Southern 500

Chip Ganassi Racing
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Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson will pilot Ricky Craven’s 1995-96 Kodiak paint scheme this weekend in the Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

Craven drove the No. 41 Kodiak Chevrolet for owner Larry Hedrick in those two seasons, with Craven winning Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1995.

Larson’s scheme is one of the last major throwback schemes to be revealed for Sunday’s race.

More: All the throwback paint schemes for Darlington Raceway

Larson has led 408 laps combined in the last two visits to Darlington, but has finished 14th (2017) and third (2018).

Ricky Craven competes at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1995 (Getty Images)

Bump & Run: Our dream scenario for four-man race to Daytona checkers

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If you could bend time … regardless of eras, what four drivers would you like to see race for the win at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr. David Pearson and Richard Petty. When I think of winners in magical moments at Daytona, those are the four names that initially come to mind. The next question would be: Does the race happen with or without restrictor plates?

Dustin Long: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Mario Andretti. All Daytona 500 winners and among the greats in racing.

Daniel McFadin: Dale Earnhardt Jr. from 2004, Dale Earnhardt Sr. from 1991, Bill Elliott from 1988 and Brad Keselowski from today. Give them some IROC cars from 1999 and let them loose for 25 laps.

Dan Beaver: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Sr. I’m not sure who would win, but it would certainly be spectacular.

What driver currently outside a playoff spot is one you think has the best chance to win Saturday’s race at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC)?

Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. The two-time winner at Daytona always is a solid driver in plate races if he can avoid the wrecks and getting antsy in the draft.

Dustin Long: Ryan Newman. He’s won at Daytona before and his teammate, Austin Dillon, won the Daytona 500 in February. Richard Childress Racing could make it two in a row there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Paul Menard could be a sleeper. He’s finished in the top six in his last three Daytona starts. He and AJ Allmendinger are the only drivers who have finished in the top 10 in the last three Daytona races.

Dan Beaver: The defending winner of this race, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has a knack for plate racing and could get into the playoffs this week.

What’s the wildest finish you’ve witnessed?

Nate Ryan: The Oct. 7, 2012 race at Talladega Superspeedway. Tony Stewart attempted to throw a block off Turn 4 on the last lap, and 25 cars wrecked a few hundred yards from the finish line in a massive storm of dirt, sheet metal and smoke

Dustin Long: The finish to the 2007 Daytona 500. It has Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin side-by-side to the checkered flag, cars crashing behind them, Clint Bowyer crossing the finish line on his roof and fire coming from the engine.

Daniel McFadin: In person: Last fall’s Martinsville race. Sure, the Chase Elliott/Denny Hamlin incident was all anyone remembers. But don’t forget the massive pile-up on the frontstretch coming to the checkered flag. Even though it’s a short track, that was out of character for Martinsville. From home: I already used the 2012 Watkins Glen race for an answer a few weeks ago, so I’m going with the Xfinity Series here. The bizarre finish at Iowa in 2011 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost his engine hundreds of feet from the checkered flag and was rammed from behind by teammate Carl Edwards, which pushed him across the finish line for the win.

Dan Beaver: I have to go with one of the greatest finishes from earlier in the week. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch crashing as they crossed the finish line – and providing a photo finish in the process – has to be one of the best finishes ever.