DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The only thing older than the Darlington Raceway at today's Mall.com 400 is driver Dick Trickle.
At 59, the new driver for A.J. Foyt predates the fabled 1.366-mile, egg-shaped raceway by only seven years. A driving career that's spanned more than 40 years has taught the short-track legend one thing about the oldest superspeedway on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series schedule -- respect.
"At some tracks, the car is 90 percent and the driver is 10," Trickle said. "Here the driver is 70 percent of it and the car is 30. I think my expertise and experience can play a bigger role here. I always like tracks where the driver becomes effective. Not that I'm great or anything, but I've been around.
"For a lot of people, this would be a lot of pressure. But I've been around where I've built a little character, I guess."
Darlington was built for maximum speeds of about 70 mph, although qualifying speeds on Friday were more than 100 mph faster. When it was constructed, engineers did most of the surveying by sight. Therefore, the turns are not symmetrical, and each end of the raceway presents its own set of challenges.
The first and second turns are wider than three and four. The banking in turns one and two are 25 degrees; turns three are 23 degrees. At the exit of the second turn, the outside retaining well extends three feet into the racing groove. By the time today's 400-mile race (12:30 p.m., ESPN) is over, most of the white paint on the concrete wall will be replaced with black tire marks.
Darrell Waltrip, who will make his 54th career start at Darlington from the 43rd starting spot this afternoon, once said "You know Darlington's going to get you. You just hope it's not today."
For the first 40 years the raceway was known as "The Lady in Black" because of its history of turning easy-looking success into disaster. Track owners have since adopted the more politically correct slogan of "Too Tough to Tame." Either way, Darlington has been, and always will be, a handful.
"The majority of times, you come here and it's like going out and trying to wrestle a gorilla," John Andretti said. "Most of the time, you're just trying to stay alive instead of winning.
"It's a difficult track to set up for because you really have to go for feel and not off the stopwatch. You don't want to bite on the steering wheel every lap to make it happen because eventually Darlington will bite you."
Pole sitter Jeff Gordon is probably too young to know what kind of calamity awaits unsuspecting drivers. Then again, with the kind of success he's enjoyed at Darlington, there's no reason to fear the raceway. Gordon, 29, already has five career wins at Darlington. He also is on the pole today for the first time in his eight-year career.
His qualifying lap Friday was 172.662 mph.
"This is a hard place to pace yourself," Gordon said. "When you're leading that thing at the start of the race, you can really eat up your tires. I put it on the edge here a couple times. It seems to keep the momentum, and that's what counts here at Darlington."
"You got to show this lady some respect," nine-time Darlington winner Dale Earnhardt said. "If you don't respect Darlington, she'll reach out and bite you."
Four of the top eight starters -- Gordon, Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott -- have combined to win 20 races at Darlington. The rest of the field has combined for only 12 victories.
Defending NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Dale Jarrett is 17th at 170.165, and Jeff Burton, who won both rain-shortened races at Darlington last year, is 27th at 169.689.
"You've got to be fast and you've got to be able to stay fast for a long period of time," Burton said of his success. "Then if you catch a caution late in the race, you have to be able to adjust your car depending on how many laps are left. It's about track position, and then it's about having adjustability and understanding the race track."
Which includes a healthy dose of respect.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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