05/13/10 — Opinion: Darlington trip worth the wait

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Opinion: Darlington trip worth the wait

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on May 13, 2010 1:46 PM

Midway through my college career I developed an infatuation with an older woman who lives in South Carolina.

I had seen her on television and read about her legendary status. Maybe it was her mystique or her intimidating, yet intriguing nickname -- The Lady in Black -- that left me longing to pay her a visit.

Time went by.

I graduated from college and began my humble career as a sports writer.

While earning a living and life in "the real world" began to occupy my time, I never forgot my dream of a trip to the Palmetto State and the chance to meet this mysterious yet alluring lady.

The fantasy became reality last weekend when my dad, Tom, and I met my older sister Mandy and her husband Kent at the fabled Darlington Raceway.

My father and I arrived at our campground site around 5:30 on Friday evening. After a tour of my sister and brother-in-law's camper, we hopped into Kent's truck for some sightseeing of the countless RV's, campers and tents set up around the track deemed "too tough to tame" by NASCAR drivers.

We returned to the campground to down some hamburgers off the grill and spent the remainder of Friday night in a not-so-high stakes game of spades that I'm sure will air on ESPN Classic in the very near future.

Saturday was filled with breakfast at a local church, a nap, a movie in the camper and plenty of anticipation for that night's Showtime Southern 500.

We made our way to the track shortly after 5 p.m. and settled into our seats in the Pearson Grandstand between turns 3 and 4. Before we knew it, the driver introductions had concluded, the national anthem had been sung and the gentlemen started their engines.

The temperature dropped as the sun set, but the action on the track remained intense.

The fans at Darlington were sent into a frenzy on lap 180 when four-time defending Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson's night was brought to an end in a wreck with A.J. Allmendinger.

As my favorite driver Denny Hamlin took the lead on lap 345, all I could think about was the last lap -- No. 367.

I had covered several races from the comfort of the press box during my time as a sports writer in Martinsville, Va., but I had never experienced the emotions of a race from the stands.

The laps began to tick away and I found myself in a full-on, back-and-forth nervous rock that would have made former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone proud.

Hamlin hung on to become the first driver to win both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races in the same weekend at Darlington since Mark Martin in 1993.

I walked out of Darlington Raceway with a numb right hand thanks to seemingly endless high-fives and a smile on my face wider than any NASCAR straightaway.

As I collapsed into bed in the early hours of Sunday morning, my dad asked from across the camper what I thought of my evening with the "The Lady in Black."

I rolled over and mustered a half grin.

"Dad, she was everything I thought she'd be," I said.