She may have had a bit of a facelift after a resurfacing a couple of years ago but, make no mistake, the Lady in Black remains a nasty piece of work.
Opened in 1950, the Darlington Raceway is capricious: demanding the utmost respect and offering no forgiveness in return, something that has earned it the reputation as one of the most difficult tracks on the NASCAR schedule. Legend has it that the track is called the Lady in Black due to all the rubber marks left on its white walls after a race.
And that’s mostly why Brian Vickers loves every second he races on the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped track, which he lists as his favorite track without a moment’s hesitation.
“It used to be old and worn out, and now it’s just old,” he says of the track that hosts Saturday night’s Showtime Southern 500. “It’s a unique racetrack and it was built in a time period when the cars were much slower than they are today, so it was not really built for our cars and our speeds.
“You have to run right against the wall and it’s an extremely challenging racetrack – it will jump up and bite you in a heartbeat – and I think it makes for great racing.”
Unfortunately for Vickers, the high-banked South Carolina track has refused to return the love in his last few visits. Since he moved into the Sprint Cup field in 2004, Vickers has only one top-20 result in Darlington, and that was five years ago. The previous year, Vickers won the Nationwide Series race there on his way to the 2003 championship.
"I really do like that track, but it hasn’t been kind to me lately." –Brian Vickers
But his “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” Darlington file is a bit slim. In his last four starts at his much-loved track, he’s wrecked twice and averaged a mediocre 35th-place finish.
“I really do like that track and I’ve won a race there in the past. It would be nice to get another one, but it hasn’t been kind to me lately,” Vickers explains. “Last year we had a really fast car but we cut a tire and went two laps down. We made both laps back up and then got wrecked by the No. 26, so it was a shame because we had a really good car.”
With 31 laps to go in the 2009 Southern 500, Vickers' day ended when Jayme McMurray got underneath the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota in Turn 3 and rode him up onto the marbles and into the wall.
After a few years of frustration, Vickers might want to bring flowers for his Lady in Black this year. He could use a smile or two from her after a series of tough races pushed him from a Chase for the Cup berth down to 24th overall, 194 points out of the top-12.
Teammate Scott Speed discovered Darlington’s particular kind of charm in his first visit as a rookie last season when he crashed in practice, earning his “Darlington Stripe,” and then failed to qualify in his back-up car.
Speed ended up racing the No. 87, usually driven by Joe Nemechek, after the Red Bull team pulled some strings to get him in the car. He went on to learn why the track’s tagline is “Too Tough to Tame.” He tangled with Max Papis four laps into the Southern 500 and damaged the front end. Then he fought the car the rest of the way and ended the day four laps down in 26th place.
“Darlington was by far the hardest track to learn because it’s so bumpy and it’s so different,” Speed says. “For the most part, all the ovals are the same and they are honestly not that hard to learn. What’s hard to learn is how they react in the draft and racing around 42 other guys.”
Speed will be looking to get back in a groove after placing 35th in the last race in Richmond. He is 25th in points, 12 points behind his teammate.