Nothing can really prepare an unsuspecting driver for the “Darlington stripe.”
Kurt Busch certainly didn’t know what he was in for when he drove in the spring race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in 2001, his first full season on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit.
“My first race and first stripe,” said Busch, who finished 30th in that race. “That place chewed me up and spit me out. I think I wrecked 20 times, kept bouncing off walls. I wore out the tires but kept going. It really was an eye opener on how tough NASCAR was going to be.”
What’s a Darlington stripe?
It’s unique to Darlington and its 1.37-mile, egg-shaped track, where the Southern 500 is scheduled for Sunday. Let’s allow Busch to explain.
“The Darlington stripe is when you run up right by the wall and you are trying to get the best speed you can out of the car,” he said. “Just that quick, the wall just sucks you right on it and you’ve got the right side of your car pancaked.”
Darlington can be similarly rough on drivers who come to NASCAR from other forms of racing, such as open-wheel IndyCar, where brushing the wall isn’t an option.
“I would say that, because my background is in IndyCar … I’m not used to driving by a wall,” said Danica Patrick, who hasn’t finished higher than 22nd place in three previous starts at Darlington. “I didn’t grow up racing on dirt and running up on the cushion. The high line is something to me that I have to have a lot of confidence in the car to be able to go there with the kind of speed that needs to be taken.
“I’ve definitely earned the Darlington stripe and sometimes there’s just not much you can do about it. I’ve even gotten it going down the straightaway where the right-rear (tire) catches the wall and pulls the front in. It’s earned through pushing those boundaries of how high you can take the car and how much speed you can take doing it.”
Kyle Busch, who has four victories this season, won at Darlington in 2008. “A Darlington stripe is pretty easy to receive,” he said. “Running at Darlington is so tough, and we are carrying so much speed there nowadays that you have to run right up there against the wall in order to get your car pointed correctly for the next corner. At any moment you might slip a little bit and tag that wall. It can be very easy to do.”
Kurt Busch said teams prepare for hitting the Darlington wall by reinforcing the car’s right side.
“It’s extra weight, but it helps protect you from running into the wall too hard,” said Busch, who has three poles but has never won at Darlington. “It helps where you can keep your day going and not actually ruin your day when you run into the wall. You think, hitting the wall, usually your day is done.
“At Darlington, that is a tattoo. It’s a stamp that says now you are racing.”