Darlington still one tough old Lady for drivers to manage

You better treat her like a Lady ...

Jimmie Johnson (R), driver of the #48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, and team owner Rick Hendrick
Rick Hendrick (left) and Jimmie Johnson celebrate the organization's 200th win.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Over the years, there have been some great songs about women. From the Temptations to the Commodores to Kenny Rogers, they all sing about the right way to treat a lady. When you boil them all down, the message is the same across the board – “if you are nice to her, then she’ll be nice to you.”

I always think about that every year when we go to Darlington Raceway. Every year after the practices and the race there, they have to repaint the walls. See that’s how the track became known as the Lady in Black – it was from all the black stripes that covered the walls after those stock cars laid into them lap after lap.

You have to remember that back in the day, there was a real “one-ups-manship” between the Indianapolis crowd and the good-ol’ boys from the Southeast. Guys like Bill France Sr., the founder of our sport, and Harold Brasington, who built Darlington and the Rockingham tracks, were visionary guys who could see the possibility of where NASCAR could go and they wanted to one-up Indy if they could.

That’s were tracks like Daytona, Talladega and Darlington came from. Those men  wanted to build bigger, faster tracks to compete with the Indianapolis 500. They both could envision huge crowds coming to see stock cars race on these superspeedways. Obviously they both were right.

Kenny Rogers' hit song “Lady” has a line in there about being your knight in shining armor. That really is appropriate for Darlington last Saturday night. You go into that joint and you want to be nice to the track. You know that if you are nice to her, then the Lady in Black might just show favor to you during that race.

Rookies learn very clearly that at Darlington, more than at any other track we go to, the Lady in Black is very sensitive. If you go pounding on her walls all race long and talking bad about her, well the odds of you having a good day there aren’t all that likely. Again, if you treat her nice, she just might reciprocate and you’ll find yourself in Victory Lane.

I will be the first to tell you that still to this day I miss the Southern 500 over Labor Day weekend. That’s one of those iconic races that I wish we would have kept on the schedule. A hot sticky day for 500 long miles on a treacherous racetrack was just something historical in our sport and I, for one, miss it. I will say I am thrilled they brought back the Southern 500 name and added it back to this race, though. That name is a piece of tradition that never needs to go away.

Doesn’t it just make sense that we celebrate Mother's Day being at the Lady in Black the day before? I love how the fans have rallied around the speedway and come out to support it in droves for its one event a year on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.

Saturday night was doubly special for Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie finally got the monkey off his back with a visit to Victory Lane. At the same time, he secured Hendrick Motorsports 200th NASCAR Sprint cup victory. That is truly an amazing accomplishment. It’s not lost on me either, the significance of Hendrick Motorsports making history at a track that is so historical like Darlington Raceway.

For car owner Rick Hendrick, who has devoted almost every fiber of his soul to the sport of NASCAR and, to reach that milestone is phenomenal. I also think it was classic Rick Hendrick, when in Victory Lane hugging Jimmie for finally getting No. 200, he says to him, “Now let’s go get 250.” That’s the kind of passion and drive that Rick has and tries to instill in all his employees from his all-star drivers right down to the guy who sweeps the floor at the shop.

That message is clear as a bell – Rick is saying “We aren’t done. There’s more to accomplish. We can be better.” That’s what I love about Rick. He’s the ultimate gentleman who still strives for perfection. He does so much for folks that you never hear about. He does so much for folks you do hear about.

From the personal side he has overcome a lot. He has overcome leukemia and then established the Hendrick Marrow Program to try and give hope to others. In fact, this Monday I will be playing in the annual Hendrick Celebrity Golf Classic that will benefit the Marrow Program, the Levine’s Children’s Hospital plus the Drive to End Hunger.

I also found it extremely touching Saturday night in the midst of probably his greatest accomplishment, Rick took the time to honor and remember his family members and friends lost in that tragic plane crash in Martinsville all those years ago. He was letting them know that they were just as much a part of this historical moment as anyone.

I am honored and proud to call Rick Hendrick my friend. Rick is one of those guys I call a “3 a.m.’er.” You know the kind I am talking about. If I was in trouble at 3 a.m., I know I could call Rick and he’d be right there for me. He’s a class act, as they say.

I had told both Rick and Jimmie Johnson before the race that I felt they were going to have a good night at Darlington. If you watch, whenever that No. 48 qualifies up front, they race really well and are right there at the end vying for the win. Conversely, when you see them qualify back in midpack, they just don’t seem to run all that well.

So Jimmie was on the front row and he had told me he really liked his odds Saturday night because he felt like he had a really good car. Jimmie, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart were a few that had really good cars. Johnson sat there in the top two or three all night long and then when it came time for the right pit call, leave it to crew chief Chad Knaus to handle that.

He got Johnson track position by keeping him out. He constantly reminded Jimmie to save fuel. Jimmie did and milked the thing home right into Victory Lane again, delivering Hendrick its 200th win.

What a great time to get your 200th win and come home to Charlotte for two weeks of racing at your home track. Rick has told me there will be a big party for the employees and former Hendrick drivers next week. Seeing that he would be only at 191 victories without my nine wins for Hendrick Motorsports, Rick was quick to make sure I was coming to the event. I also believe they are planning a big celebration and Fan Day next Friday at Hendrick Motorsports.

Also at Darlington we had some controversy happen after the event. Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman had a run-in. Unfortunately for Kurt, the frustrations of the last two weeks of racing finally boiled over. Two weeks ago Kurt was running great at Talladega. He easily had a top-10 finishing car and had been up front all day long.

Sadly, late in the race he got taken out by his former teammate, Brad Keselowski in Kurt’s old No. 2 car. There probably couldn’t have been a worse scenario for him. So that was extremely frustrating. We then go to Darlington, Kurt starts in the back of the pack and immediately made his way forward to the front.

Like Talladega, Kurt was again a top-10 car all night long at Darlington. Unfortunately, with about 20 laps to go, Kurt got into the wall and the downward spiral began. At the same time he spun off Turn 2 from probably a cut tire, right behind him was Ryan Newman who also spun out.

They both hit the wall and had damage to their cars. Ironically their pits were side by side Saturday night on pit road. So Kurt unfortunately then had a flashback and went into road rage. He morphed from mild-mannered Bruce Banner and turned into the Incredible Hulk.

Kurt’s pit crew had struggled all night long. Earlier in the race he reassured them over the radio that he “had their back.” However, after a second week in a row of letting a top-10 finish slip through his fingers, compiled with the frustrations on pit road, it all boiled over.

Of course there is a long history of what happens when Kurt gets like that. The radio lit up and everyone started talking that the old Kurt was back. That’s never a good thing. It’s just unfortunate for Kurt. I really can empathize with Kurt. I literally can say I have been there and done that.

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Fortunately I was able to control my emotions better at times than he has. Maybe the team should go back to what they did at Talladega, when they ran the old "Talladega Nights" paint scheme and actually gave Kurt scripted lines from the movie to have fun with during the race. After Saturday night maybe they need to have scripted lines in the car to help keep Kurt from going on these rants.

I don’t like it, trust me. No one does. I do understand it and like I mentioned, I can empathize with him. Drivers are highly emotional. Things go wrong and in the heat of the battle you lash out to vent your frustrations. You say and do things you regret the next day. It really is unfortunate because the guy is a talented race car driver, but the reality is he does have issues that have to be addressed. Things haven’t improved much this week, when Kurt was fined $50,000 and put on probation until July 25 by NASCAR for what happened at Darlington.

The really nice thing about racing on Saturday night is you can be home for Mother’s Day on Sunday. The girls and I took Stevie to lunch. We showered her with flowers and some gifts. We just hung out together and had a great day.

Tuesday was a lot of fun when Stevie, myself, Sarah and her friend Leigh flew to Charlotte for a press conference with Tony Stewart. June 6 is the date for Tony’s Annual Prelude to the Dream at the historic Eldora Speedway Dirt Track in Ohio.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.

This year the money raised from this HBO Pay-Per-View special is being earmarked for Feed the Children. Now I have worked with these folks for a couple years and Tony couldn’t have picked a better organization. They do some amazing things here in the United States giving needy families a helping hand. After the press conference, we all helped distribute supplies to 400 families in Cabarrus County that really needed it.

We left there and went up to spend time with my mom. I wasn’t able to be with her on Mother’s Day or Monday, which was her 85th birthday. So we had a celebration with her all evening. It was such a wonderful opportunity to celebrate her amazing life plus spend time with the other members of my family who live over in the Charlotte, N.C., area.

We all know that family time in racing is in short supply. We’re always rushing around coming and going back and forth. Right now our sport is in the midst of a 14-consecutive-week run. So I really savor the moments with the Waltrip clan like we enjoyed Tuesday night.

This always is my favorite time of year. It starts with the Sprint All-Star Race Saturday night, which will probably be wild and crazy as always. Then next week will be the Hendrick 200th win celebration, plus on Wednesday the Class of 2013 for the NASCAR Hall of Fame will be announced. The weekend brings us the Formula 1 race at Monaco, the running of the Indianapolis 500 and, of course, the longest race on our schedule, the Coca-Cola 600. It is definitely a racers' holiday wrapped into a time when we all need to stop and honor our military.

So ol’ DW is in hog heaven right now with everything that is going on these next two weeks in Charlotte. I am so thankful to still be a part of this great sport that has been so good to me and my family.
 

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart

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