Darlington County Freeze Out

By Jo Koster

We gathered up the newbies (my friend Tim from Nebraska, his brother Brian from Tampa, my sister Mary from Chicago) and got on the road very early. As we got on I-20 at Columbia, S.C., it was amazing--suddenly we went from no traffic on I-77 to almost every car having 5 and 6 people in it, all wearing race stuff. You could tell that a lot of people made an effort for the last Southern 500 to save Darlington. Temperature when we arrived at the track at 9:00 AM was 36 degrees, sunny, a nice breeze. Darlington is one of the easiest tracks I know to get in and out of--we parked (for free) in a field about a three-minute walk from the main gate. Professional tailgaters all around us, including the guys in the "Got Stumps?" truck next to us, who offered to share their AM Bloody Marys with us. We declined but did pass along homemade chocolate chip cookies, which they thought made a good healthy breakfast addition.

We walked up to the display/merchandising area, which was much smaller than usual and all had lots of sales on. I'm not a diecast collector but wish I had known to take orders for those of you who are-- there were apparently great bargains at most of the trucks. About this time a flock of helicopters arrived at the track, including Jeff's, DJ's, Rusty Wallace's, and Richard Childress', so I guess some of the drivers spent the night at home in Charlotte. We were talking about what would happen if a driver missed the race because of fog or mechanical issues. I've never heard of that happening, though I have heard of a few missed driver meetings. There were very few driver motorcoaches in the coach lot and someone told us a lot of them left on Saturday; he said "You can tell whose wife will be here to watch the race today because those are the only coaches left."

We wandered by the Busch merchandise truck and bought an Ashton Lewis #46 cap for $5. The guy said, "We sold a lot of his stuff this weekend." He also said that one impact of all the Buschwhackers has been that a lot of the Busch regulars have sold a lot less merchandise this year, and that hurt a lot of teams trying to get/keep sponsors. I said "Tell me about it!" thinking of what the Lewises and others have been through. I don't think NASCAR thinks about those issues very much. We then cut over to the freebie area to watch the NASCAR Live! updates with Steve Byrnes. Michael Waltrip was signing autographs for Operation Marathon so she bought a shirt ($25) and paid ($10) for him to sign it. He was in a very snide mood--you can tell he's had a bad year. He looked not only tired but sick--this became a theme for the day. After the update, Steve Byrnes and some of the guys were tossing a football around behind the Speed stage; Byrnes can catch! Somebody deflected the ball and it ended up around me, so I picked it up and handed to him and told him the Panthers needed him covering kicks. He laughed and said that after next week, he just wanted to stay home and yell at the TV like everybody else. He said his son is getting to the age that he hates when Daddy leaves for the weekend. He was really funny (and looks MUCH older up close--makeup helps him a lot!).

We started wandering back to the merchandise area for the signings and caught the Mountain Dew extreme athletes warming up on a huge half-pipe. I took a few pictures. I don't know who the guys all were but they will all be on the Gravity Games. One guy from London wiped out trying some trick and yelled "Bloody f-ing hell, that hurt!" and everybody laughed and somebody yelled "25 points!" which made the crowd crack up--the extreme kids had no idea what it meant. We stopped by Tony Stewart's Home Depot freebie display where they were letting kids put birdhouses together and saw some of his unis from this year. We teased the lady about the Watkins Glen uniform and she said "You know, that one just didn't make the cut for the tour!" and laughed a bunch.

We headed back for Kurt Busch's trailer where he was supposed to sign for 100 people. There were 100 people in line but we only saw three or four in Sharpie merchandise--the rest, I guess, were getting stuff autographed to sell on eBay. He was supposed to be there at 10, but at 10:20 he still hadn't showed. So we wandered down the row to Greg Biffle's coach, where he was signing for anybody who showed up. I'm not a big Biffle fan but I got a National Guard sign and got in line for him to sign for my neighbor, who's headed for Iraq. When I got up there he was coughing; he apologized and said he'd been sick for two weeks and couldn't wait for a week Monday "and I am going to bed until I get better." Couldn't believe that I actually felt sorry for him! I said that the autograph was for a friend going to Iraq and he took the sign back and added "Thank you for all you do!" on it above his signature.

Around the corner there were only a few people in line for Brendan's autograph so I grabbed a Wizard of Oz hat (really nicely embroidered, too!) and got in line. The two people ahead of me went up and the guy asked Brendan if he remembered him--and you could see Brendan's face light up. The guy was from some racing series out West and Brendan went from looking really down in the dumps to being really, really happy. We were eavesdropping shamelessly; Brendan said in response to something from his friend, "Man, there is some really crazy stuff going on. You wouldn't believe what they've done to my guys." And he invited the guy and his wife to come see him in Las Vegas at the race shop over the winter; he said (if I heard him right) "I'll be there for sure. At least there my back is safe." We heard on the way home that they had announced he was out of the 77 car so I guess that's some insight.

When our turn came, my sister took her Wizard of Oz shirt up and said "Now don't tell the people at Loyola that I'm getting a Georgetown autograph" and he gave a big smile and they chatted about going to Jesuit schools. He signed her shirt "To Mary from the wrong school ". My turn and I told him how much I' liked his weekly column in Scene and that I hoped he would write it again next year. He said, "Well, I'm working on that" and I said that if he was wearing a Chevy hat to write it that would be fine with me. He laughed and winked about that. He also looked really tired. Later in the race when he got racing so hard for about 50 laps with Rusty I was thinking, boy, Penske made a big mistake with him. He also wins the "worst hair of the week" award by a long shot (wearing a visor but looked like he had combed it with a pair of salad tongs).

We cruised around for a while longer; I stood behind two diecast collectors at Terry Labonte's trailer. They were from Quebec and it was interesting to listen to them discuss price with each other in French. For those of you still in school taking French, le diecast is apparently a masculine noun. Then we went back to eat and get our stuff to go into the race. It was a little warmer by now but windier. Most of the fans were hardcore--I saw a lot of hunting gear being worn. Not too many casual fans, only three Confederate flags (which was a real decrease from previous years), and a surprisingly high percentage of Jeff-wear in the parking lot. We hunted out all our stuff and went in--took a couple of blankets from the car, which turned out to be the move of the race. We were in the Tyler Terrace just across from Jeff's pit so we had an excellent view, but the angle of that grandstand is so high you couldn't see the cars running on the frontstretch.

Not much of a pre-race show-- they had the extreme athletes down in turn 4 so we couldn't see them. They did bring out a lot of great Darlington drivers and crew chiefs and drove them around in some classic cars from the Weatherly museum-- seeing those classic cars up on the banking looked cool. Driver intros were interesting--Robby Gordon got heavily booed and just laughed at people. Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch got booed; Newman looked sleepy and Busch looked really offended. Jeff got more cheers than boos this time. Dale Jr was treated like a rock star. There was a couple with two small (under five) boys sitting behind us. The older boy had obviously absorbed a lot of racing from his Dad. When Biffle went by he said "Look, Daddy, there goes Bugs Dummy!" and we all just cracked up. The hugest crowds on pit road were around Jeff's and Jr's car--and it was interesting to see Busch standing by his car, obviously waiting for the throngs to come to him, and they didn't. Some a-capella group murdered the national anthem and then they were off. There were maybe a thousand empty seats low down in turn two--what would have been the obstructed view seats when the roof was on. I bet if people knew the roof was gone, they would have gone for those.

Jeff got to the front quickly and you could tell that the pit crew was pumped--they were standing on the wall and waving to him. He was running a really high line in turns 3 and 4 and other drivers were trying to follow him--it was astonishing to see how close he was getting to the safer barriers. He wasn't saying much on the scanner. He slipped back to about twelfth but you could see that a lot of other cars were having the same problems he was. The sun was behind turn 4 and the backstretch was in sun--he was clearly better coming out of turn 2 down the backstretch and struggling out of 4 down the frontstretch in the shade.

The race strung out single-file really quickly and it seemed like there were very few cautions, especially compared to the Busch race. Harvick and Casey Mears were both on and off pit road so much you would have thought it was a test session. Ryan Newman cut a tire early--he was pitted back in turn 4. His car just kind of disappeared from the lead lap, then suddenly he was pulling down pit road. It was a good way to gauge pit road speed for the rest of the day. The five back-markers disappeared pretty early and Dale Jarrett, who was really fighting his car, spun out and ended up in the garage pretty quickly. It was funny to listen to the MRN guys on the radio during the commercial pauses--they were gossiping about the drivers and commenting that they had never seen so many pit guys ducking back to the heaters as they had today. I noticed that some of the pit crews had jackets, hats, and gloves. Jeff's crew had toboggans on but no extra warm clothes--they started pounding on each other's backs to get their hands warm.

After Jeff's second pit stop you could see his car get a lot better--we were measuring the car on the backstretch and timing how long it took to get through visual segments and his car was clearly a lot better, though stuck in traffic. Every time he passed somebody there would be a cheer (and when he and Jr got to dicing for position there was a lot of yelling on both sides). After another pit stop he was up to 7th, then 6th, then 5th, and you could just hear people go "Look at the 24!" No trackpass, but it was clear whose car was working best as it got colder. The sun was going down and the lights were starting to come up, and more people started having trouble in turn 3, so we guessed there were glare problems.

Jeff, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, and Mark Martin were clearly the four best cars out there--they could pass when and where they wanted and were all particularly good going into turn 3. For a while, Newman and Kasey Kahne were dicing back and forth on new tires, but eventually Jeff cruised past them too. It was a long, cold race--those stands are not designed to fit people who are wrrapped in quilts and heavy jackets. I was wearing multiple layers and was really cold by mid-race and it seemed like the race was taking forever. Tim has web access on his cell phone and kept checking a weather site; when he reported that the wind chill was down in the 30s we made him stop checking. The wind was blowing from the East and it was bone-chilling. Of course, the last bastion of unfiltered cigarette smokers in America were seated just below us, so we got fumigated very well from the wind and smoke. If there had been sand fleas, we'd have had them smoked out. But this was November; no bugs in the teeth today. People were bundled up and it made the crowd seem subdued--not the usual rowdy Southern 500 atmosphere at all. In a lot of ways, I've never been to a quieter race. It was too cold to jump up a lot!

You could see certain cars on the track very well--like Mike Wallace, the moving chicane, who needs his head examined. He raced very agressively when he was laps down and ignored the passing flag over and over again. It was very hard to pick out Kurt's Smirnoff paint scheme on the track and we kept going "OK, Jr is 14th," then counting back trying to find Kurt. Dale Jr scared the crowd by hitting the wall in turn 4 and almost falling off the lead lap, and Kurt, who was handling really badly, got into poor Brendan and they had to take baseball bats to his right front on a pit stop. He never got a lap down, mostly because he had the end pit and could just accelerate out past Brett Bodine, then charge around and come back in. Rusty and Brendan were running each other hard and Brendan kept trying to pass Rusty--maybe one final comment to his "teammate."

Robby Gordon ran well for a while; the little kid behind me said "Daddy, he always wrecks. When is he gonna wreck?" which had me doubled up with laughter. When he cut the tire (or whatever he did), the little boy said "See? I TOLD you, Daddy!" and I about disgraced myself. On the long runs when Jeff was leading, he was just stretching his lead out at will--I think he was saving the car because he was going very easily around the cars he was lapping. A few guys tried to harass him as he passed them, but every time he passed Ken Schrader or Elliott Sadler, you'd see them wave him by. Very classy.

It was clear what drivers could DRIVE on the track and what drivers just couldn't adapt to cold conditions and worn tires. That is one of the things I love most about Darlington--it is one of the few tracks left that rewards driver skill as well as set-up and crew work. You could see which drivers were able to adjust their lines and communicate with their crews (got to give Mike Bliss credit for the zero car's performance, and also Carl Edwards, who sure didn't run like a rookie) and which ones who couldn't (Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte looked terrible all day; what has happened to JGR?). If we lose Darlington this will be the real tragedy: the new cookie-cutter tracks don't reward good driving. That's one of the things that makes NASCAR special. We have to convince the suits of this.

The lights came up full with about 100 laps to go and the lighting was incredible; a night race next May will be really cool. You could start to see sparks and Matt Kenseth's number, in particular, started to flash like they had luminescent paint beads in the paint. Jeff's car looked like those flames were real as he went by--the car looked so strong. JJ was working his way up, but both Mark and Jamie quite clearly had nothing for Jeff. They only closed on him in lap traffic. I kept watching his pit crew huddling for warmth--some of the others (notably the Tide and UPS crews) were ducking back to a heater by the fence, but Jeff's stayed in the pit the whole time. They turned out some incredible stops all day.

Then came the bad pit stop. The guy behind the wall tried to snake the hose back but only got it part of the way; I think the hose slipped in his cold hands. The car came down on the hose and the rear changer had to double back to unhook it; the rear carrier was hopping on one foot trying not to trip. A couple of cars, notably Jamie and Mark, seemed to speed coming up pit road and they got past Jeff. Kurt had an incredible stop and somehow was ahead of Jeff--and everybody in the stands around me was going "Where the hell did he come from?" and "How can somebody have that much luck?" Even the Jr fans were angry and were audibly cheering for Jeff and JJ to pass Kurt. (Gotta say that the Jr fans accepted early that their guy was struggling. Once it was clear he was top 15 at best, most of them around me were cheering for Jeff. Hadn't expected that.) When Newman broke, he left early and wouldn't talk to MRN--and boy, in the commercial break, were the reporters dissing HIM on the radio. Apparently he hasn't been real nice to the media lately.

A lot of people left early--including the girl in front of me who was wearing a short-sleeve, belly-exposing shirt and too-tight jeans and a little sweater for most of the race. I have no idea how she didn't freeze to death. The couple behind us stayed in there with the kids, who were swaddled in enough blankets to look like mummies. The mother made noises about leaving and both little boys went "Mom, the race ain't over! We can't leave yet!" So nice to see traditional Southern values being passed on.

Jimmie pushed his way to the front very easily--it was almost inevitable. He got a huge ovation when he went out in front. When the last caution came out, the MRN announcers said that it was Jimmy Howell's last race as flagman, and people jumped up and gave him a standing ovation--and you could see he was just stunned by the reaction. He had the most incredulous smile on his face and his assistant in the flag stand was thumping him on the back.

On that last pit stop, Jeff's crew was lightning fast--they got back four of the places they lost last time and you could see they were all so determined to help him. Jeff was driving like a madman. He made up about half a track-length on the leaders. When he was in 4th behind McMurray, McMurray tried to block him coming down the frontstretch and you could see Jeff just gently but firmly put a bumper to Jamie's left rear and just nudge him out of the way. Jeff could easily have wrecked him and closed the field up for another single-file restart (and I think he could have gotten both Mark and JJ if that had happened), but he was still so in control and just taught the kid a lesson without causing a wreck. He got a HUGE cheer from the fans when he did that. We were timing lap segments and he was FLYING in turns 1 and 2--if that race had been 10 laps longer he would have won. He just couldn't overcome the pit problem in time. Jimmie won cleanly, did a small burnout, then did a nice victory lap with a lot of cheers. Jeff rode up on him on the backstretch and we could see him make some kind of hand-gesture to Jimmie--some kind of waggling motion and you could see Jimmie laugh on the Tron, so it must have been some in-joke.

By this time we were all shivering uncontrollably--my nail beds were blue and I was wearing lined gloves--so we didn't hang around for them to drag out the tractor-trailer to do victory lane. We heard Jeff's post-race interview on MRN and he sounded really mad. Brian, who used to be a football coach, said "Man, I would NOT want to be in his way next week!" He said that was the kind of voice that a really motivated athlete uses. I hope he's right.

We found our way back to the car, warmed our hands at "Got Stumps?" fire barrel, and got back on the road. Even with all the traffic, it took less than 40 minutes to get from the parking lot to I-20. This is the best track I know to get in and out of. I have never been so cold and it's hard to hold the wheel when you can't feel your hands. I felt really mixed emotions--I almost saw Jeff win his sixth Southern 500, I saw a simple mistake close up, and I saw a great team rally back. At the same time I saw a team that Will Not Die Unless We Get a Stake and Silver Bullets, and a team that seems to have destiny on its side. I don't know if I left thinking that the Drive for Five will work out this year or not. But I knew that I'd seen a great race at a great track. No sand fleas, no fire works, and definitely no heat--but a lot of Fire and Flames. Save Darlington!

Post-script from Monday

Took my sister to HMS and DEI before we went to the airport. Part of the HMS museum was roped off because they were having their qualifying for the Clevite builders' competition. The banner said "The Randy Dorton Engine Building Competition," which made me tear up. There were flowers under the "Always in our Hearts" sign from the Ricky Rudd forum and from a children's school in Virginia. There was a wreath of flowers on Ricky H's truck from a church. There were also a group of visually-impaired fans being led around and the HMS museum staff was moving the ropes and encouraging them to touch and feel the cars and were explaining to people exactly what they were feeling. A very positive feeling!

At Jeff and JJ's shop, we saw a lot of activity in the back and one of the employees told us that Chad Knaus had decided on the way back last night to take the Darlington car to Homestead. He also said to somebody on the two way radio, "Pit Stop practice at 12:30; the boss will be there" so I wonder if Jeff was coming in to practice with them! Lots of music pumping in the shop and you could tell people were really focused, really working hard (Brian Vickers' guys were sitting around drinking coffee, by contrast.) So it seemed like both teams are on their game this morning. Unfortunately, we had to head for the airport and couldn't stick around. Now if we can just get Kyle to put the itching powder in Kurt's driving shoes next Saturday night... no, really. I still believe that the first Nextel Cup trophy is coming home to the 24/48 shop. I don't know which one will win it, but I felt more positive on Monday than I did driving home on Sunday night. But maybe that's just because my fingers weren't blue any more.

Jo Koster is one of the Jeff Gordon Fan Forum's greatest natural resources. When not educating young minds, she can be found southeast of disorder, hangin' out at the Polar Bar, and sailing on the Sloop John B.

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