Too tough to tame? Not for Lake Speed

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- At no track in NASCAR will you find a more impressive list of winners than at the egg-shaped facility Harold Brasington constructed on a peanut farm in the South Carolina Sandhills.

The top 12 at Darlington Raceway represent seven of the top 10 all-time winners -- 903 wins overall -- and 34 of the 60 championships in NASCAR's top series.

It's a who's who list of stock car racing, a Hall of Fame cheat sheet. Just look at the top names: David Pearson with 10 Darlington wins won three titles; Dale Earnhardt with nine wins won seven titles; Jeff Gordon with seven wins won four titles; Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip with five wins each won three titles.

Richard Petty, NASCAR's all-time winner with 200 victories and seven titles, won three times at Darlington even though he wasn't crazy about the place.

Only one of the top 12, Harry Gant, failed to win a Sprint Cup title or at least 32 races. Only three failed to win multiple titles.

It's such an impressive list that outside of the Daytona 500 most drivers would say NASCAR's oldest superspeedway is the track they most want on their résumé because of its history and reputation that is captured in its nickname, "Too Tough To Tame."

"People underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track, and how hard it is to win races there," says two-time champion Tony Stewart, hoping to get his Darlington Cup win Saturday night. "That's why a Sprint Cup win at Darlington is something that's really important to me."

Two-time Darlington winner Jeff Burton says his 1999 victory at the "Lady in Black" in the famed Labor Day race "means more to me than any other win."

Mark Martin says if he were restricted to only one win in his career, "Darlington might be kind of up on top of the list."

No-names don't win here anymore than they do in the golf world at Augusta National.

Well, there was that 1988 race.

Journeyman Lake Speed did that year what 1989 Cup champion Rusty Wallace couldn't do in 43 tries, what three-time champion Lee Petty couldn't do in 13 tries, what Stewart hasn't been able to do in 17 tries.

He not only won at Darlington; he dominated, lapping everyone but second-place Alan Kulwicki. And the 1992 Cup champion, who by the way never won at the 1.366-mile track, was half a lap down.

But that's not what makes Speed's feat so remarkable. That he never won before that weekend or after does.

Yes, in 402 starts Speed's only win came at NASCAR's toughest venue.

Go figure.

"The Lord blessed me," says the 62-year-old Speed, today running a private business in North Carolina. "If you're going to be a frustrated race car driver for 20 years, he let me win at the one track that probably has the most credibility. I'll take that to the grave."

So how did Speed conquer a track that seemingly only legends do? Without diminishing his accomplishment, he did have what many considered a distinct advantage:

Hoosier tires.

The infamous tire war between Goodyear and Hoosier was at its peak in 1988.The softer Hoosier tire was considered a big edge, particularly at a track such as Darlington where grip means speed.

Most of the field shied away from the Hoosiers for the first Darlington race, concerned the abrasive surface would cause blisters and the tire wouldn't hold up. Speed had the advantage of testing the tires that nobody else did.

"Winning a race at Darlington still takes a considerable amount of ability," says Buddy Baker, who finished 10th that day. "But if you've got a softer tire that's like having a rubber shoe and running against guys with a brick on their feet. Naturally, the rubber shoe helps you turn the corner.

"You don't run 400 races and just win on the toughest track around. More power to him. He was smart enough to take the gamble."

Speed didn't consider it a gamble. He also reminds us there were other Darlington races where he was a blown engine or wreck away from dominating without Hoosier Tires.

"It seems people want to take away from the fact I won the race," Speed says. "[The tires] played a part in it. Another thing was I got to test before I went there. That was a bigger advantage.

"Every time a team goes to the track they hope to have an advantage. It's no different than when Hendrick had that trick manifold. A whole bunch of guys won a bunch of races with illegal manifolds for a long time. Almost any team that gets on a streak, it's because they've got something nobody else has got."

Speed led a race-high 178 laps that day. He led only 61 more in 28 other Darlington races and only 454 in 401 other races overall, so you be the judge whether tires were an advantage.

Regardless, it was a great accomplishment and one that left Speed with many great memories.

"Before that race in the driver's meeting, Earnhardt said, 'OK, Speed, how long will it take you to lap me in this one?'" Speed recalls. "Sure enough I waved as I went by him."

The Lord blessed me. If you're going to be a frustrated race car driver for 20 years, he let me win at the one track that probably has the most credibility. I'll take that to the grave.

-- Lake Speed

The 11 drivers who finished behind Speed epitomize the level of talent it takes to win at a place where you drive so close to the wall that few escape without the famed "Darlington Stripe" on the right side of the car. How about this All-Star lineup: Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, Martin, Geoffrey Bodine, Phil Parsons, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett.

Six won at least one championship, and most of the others came close.

"There have been quite a few one-time winners at tracks like Talladega," says Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for media relations and the former track president at Darlington. "You expect that because of the closeness of competition.

"You definitely do not expect that at Darlington. It would take unusual circumstances for that to happen."

Maybe it was the tire in the spring of '88. Maybe it was Speed's relationship with, as he mentioned earlier, the Lord. He was -- and still is -- a very religious man.

"He must have gotten down on both knees that morning," Baker says with a laugh. "I bet he had prayers that if everybody else was afraid [of the Hoosiers] that he didn't ruin the tires. That took a considerable amount of courage, sitting there knowing you don't know whether you're going to make the corner or not.

"Anyway, he won the race. That's all that matters."

Stewart certainly would take a Darlington win no matter how he got it. Former Cup champions Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch would love to add this crown jewel to their list of accomplishments.

"If you can say you won at Darlington, that's a feather in your cap," Stewart says. "That's something to be proud of that you're in a group of drivers with names like Pearson and Petty."

Martin says Speed's landmark victory at Darlington was no fluke.

"I raced with Lake," says Martin, who finished sixth that day. "I know Lake didn't luck out and win Darlington. He ran good a lot of places. The stars were lined up for him to win here and not other places."

Say what you will about a career that included only 16 top-5s; Speed can always say he won on NASCAR's toughest venue.

"I may not have won a ton of races or been a star," Speed says. "But for several given days they knew I was there."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.