Every driver earns his stripe at Darlington Raceway

Darlington, SC - By Jared Turner

DARLINGTON, SC – According to Webster's Dictionary, a stripe is a stroke or blow with a rod or whip.

The word, which derives from 15th century Middle English grammar, originally referred to a welt or long scar from a "stripe" band on a piece of clothing.

Stripe has carried a different connotation in NASCAR circles, however. That's because in the context of racing, it's always preceded by another noun: Darlington.

To hear some folks tell it, the two words, "Darlington stripe," mostly invoke fear in drivers whose cars have been bruised or discolored from a brush with the wall at the tricky South Carolina track. Others consider the Darlington stripe more like a badge of honor.

It's not that drivers want to hit the wall and drive around with a big doughnut or black mark on the side of their car; it's just that until they've gotten a "Darlington stripe," any observer knows they haven't logged many laps around the historic, egg-shaped facility.

"The Darlington stripe was something that sooner or later you were going to get one because you got too damn high and you hit the wall," said 1989 Cup series champion Rusty Wallace, who now serves as a NASCAR analyst for ESPN. "People would say, 'Did you get the stripe? Did you get the Darlington stripe?' And that meant that you finally screwed up and hit the wall. The problem was not very often could you get the Darlington stripe and continue on with the car being at 100 percent like it was before you hit the wall. In the later years when you hit the wall, you usually bent the rear-end housing or bent the quarter panel all too hell where the car wouldn't handle anymore."

Just how synonymous is the "Darlington stripe" with the rugged 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval? Synonymous enough for anyone you ask to say it's a fitting moniker for the black mark or dented sheet metal that ensues from an encounter with the outside wall at NASCAR's toughest track.

And no driver, including four-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion and two-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson, is immune from the Darlington stripe.

"I smile because we all will have one - it's just part of the race there," Johnson said. "The track is so narrow and there's so much slipping and sliding that sometimes you just run out of room and go up and kiss the wall and lean against it to get you pointed in the right direction and keep going on."

It doesn't always work out quite that way, however. Drivers often hit the Darlington wall a lot harder - hard enough to inflict major damage to their machines. Sometimes, the damage will stem from a confluence of Darlington stripes around the same spot. And even if the initial hit isn't enough to cause major problems, all the hits – and accompanying stripes – tend to eventually add up.

And they can turn a good day into a bad one at Darlington, a track where speeds approach 200 mph at the end of the straight-aways.

Wallace knows first-hand just how detrimental a slew of Darlington stripes in the same race can be. He was shut out of victory lane in 43 career starts at Darlington before his retirement from racing in 2005.

"I just had this unbelievable not good luck there," Wallace said. "Now there's some guys that take to that place like water. … But that was the one that just drove me personally completely crazy.

"I just never had the comfort to fly down that back straightaway into what is now Turn 3, which used to be Turn 1, and just drive that baby 190 mph right up against the wall because every time I'd do that I'd get 20 laps right and the 21st I'd screw up and hit the wall."

The combination of the track's unique egg-shaped configuration and its preferred, yet narrow groove that runs up against the wall all but guarantees contact with the concrete. Darlington stripes just come with the territory.

"The idea that a driver could run a 500-mile race here just inches off the wall every single lap and not get into the wall is pretty unrealistic, so they being the drivers and the crews realize they're going to get into the wall at some point or some points during the race if they want to be fast and be up front," said Darlington Raceway President Chris Browning.

"Thus, the Darlington stripe is when they get into the wall and rub the wall and rub that right side of the car against the wall. After the race you'll see it's pretty prominent – the stripe on the car as well as the black stripes along the wall."

Former Darlington winner Ricky Craven certainly endured his share of Darlington stripes over his 14 appearances at the tricky, high-speed track. Despite finally conquering the track "Too Tough To Tame" with a thrilling, narrow victory over Kurt Busch in spring 2003, Craven never felt protected from Darlington stripes.

"It's just so prevalent, it happens so often and it's not selective," he said. "It happens to rookies but it happens to the champion and I think that a young driver or a rookie driver may be affected by that because they say, 'Boy, if a driver whose succeeded here is still at risk then I need to actually approach this very, very carefully.' And I don't care what discipline of racing it is, if you approach it carefully, you're destined to finish 32nd, 33rd, 34th because you still have to be aggressive.

"There's a big difference though in being aggressive toward the track and being aggressive toward the competitor, and where Darlington punishes you is when you shift your attention from her or from the track – and we always refer to it as her – to the competitor. That needs to be a very brief shift and if it's not and you spend too much time running side by side for instance, it typically ends pretty ugly."