Thursday, August 14, 2008
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Southern 500 back at Darlington Raceway for 2009

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[August 14, 2008]  COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- The Southern 500 is back at Darlington Raceway. Track president Chris Browning said Wednesday the historic name will return to Darlington for next May's Sprint Cup race, restoring at least part of more than a half-century of tradition to the old country track.

Restaurant"The timing really is good with us celebrating our 60th year of racing next year," Browning said. "It just seemed to make sense."

The Southern 500 was a shaky startup venture when it was first run on Sept. 4, 1950. But over the next five-plus decades, it became a Labor Day staple for NASCAR drivers, fans and their families to spend the final summer holiday in South Carolina's steamy Pee Dee region.

After 2003, that date was given to California Speedway with its larger layout and population center.

"Although it's not on Labor Day, it is a 500-mile race at Darlington," Browning said. "And that's another way of our continuing to tie back into our history and our tradition."


Another Southern 500 was run in 2004, but in November. Darlington has held just one Sprint Cup weekend since 2005, each sponsored by the Carolina Dodge Dealers Association.

When the sponsorship agreement ran out this spring -- and with the track's once hobbled future on the rise -- Browning thought it was time to bring back the old name.

Browning said he's in talks with potential title sponsors for next year's race, and one told him the return of the former race name was an important selling point.

Next season, Darlington will celebrate its 60th year since Harold Brasington carved the misshapen superspeedway out of farmland.


Browning came to Darlington in 2004 after the track he previously led, nearby North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham, had its race dates taken away. It is no longer part of the NASCAR schedule.

Darlington seemed like the next old, crumbling Southern domino to fall in the race to open sparkling new superspeedways with seating capacities far bigger than the track "Too Tough To Tame."

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However, Darlington modernized and expanded, adding lights and nearly 4,000 seats. It most recently completed $10 million in improvements that included the first repaving in 13 years and a massive new infield entrance tunnel.

The track also struck gold with its Mother's Day weekend date, which has sold out all four times.

"When I think of Darlington and the history of the track, the Southern 500 is what comes to mind," said driver Jeff Gordon, who has won five Southern 500s and seven times total at Darlington. "I look forward to the opportunity of possibly winning a sixth."

Terry Labonte won the final Labor Day weekend Southern 500 in 2003.


Former racer and current TV analyst Darrell Waltrip, whose last NASCAR victory was the 1992 Southern 500, said Darlington's appeal comes in taming the oddly shaped layout and matching accomplishments with some of the sport's greatest names.

"It's anything but routine racing," he said.

[Associated Press; By PETE IACOBELLI]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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