It's not Las Vegas -- far from it.

But if NASCAR is serious about returning to its roots, those roots aren't hard to find. They grow deep at Darlington.

For 51 weeks a year, Darlington and nearby Florence, are little more than places to change highways on the way to Myrtle Beach.

Even during race week, which currently ends with the Southern 500 on the eve of Mothers Day, there's not a lot to do in Darlington. Fans who make the annual pilgrimage to the asymmetrical, egg-shaped track, however, are there for a singular purpose -- to watch some of the best racing NASCAR has to offer.

Darlington is a place that gets under a driver's skin. A frustrated Kyle Petty once suggested filling the track with water and stocking it with bass.

"Well, it's not one of my top five (favourites) -- I can promise you that," Clint Bowyer said diplomatically the day before the race.

Today's Darlington, mind you, isn't the same track that bullied and befuddled drivers 30 or 40 years ago. Repaved in time for last year's race, the surface is far kinder to tyres than it used to be, as was evidenced by the frequency of two-tyre and fuel-only calls in the pits on Saturday night.

Ultimately, Mark Martin won the race by staying out on old tyres -- an impossibility in the old days, when the abrasive asphalt would chew the 'good' off the tyres in fewer than ten laps.

The frontstretch is now the backstretch, and pit road is now on the side of the racetrack farthest from Highway 151. Much has changed over the years at the Lady in Black, but the soul of the place is still there.

There's a saying in professional golf that the difficulty of a US Open set-up identifies the best players in the world. Similarly, the crucible of Darlington identifies the best drivers. Scan the list of winners at 'The Track Too Tough To Tame', and you'll find the absolute cream of the sport.

And if you don't think racing at Darlington is as intense as ever, just ask Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

"This is so tough," Johnson said Saturday after trailing Martin to the finish line. "The speeds are so high. Track position's everything. Lapped cars, even if they want to get out of the way, they can't, there's no room to. They get frustrated and probably warned by NASCAR for going too slow. They quit laying over.

"Every position that you go for out there, you've just got to gouge and bang and run people over and fight with each other and run into each other under caution. It was absolutely out of control out there."

For those who measure the quality of racing by green-flag passes for the lead or by drag races to the finish line, Darlington was a disappointment this year, but to look at the Southern 500 only in those terms is short-sighted.

There was plenty of hard racing and plenty of passing for position. Martin had to work his way back toward the front after a mistake on pit road. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who finished third and fifth, respectively, fought hard for those final positions after late two-tire pit stops.

Greg Biffle, who dominated the middle stages of the race and at one point opened a lead of more than eight seconds, needed a banzai run in the closing laps--after a spin off turn four on lap 296 -- to rescue an eighth-place result.

Strategically, a succession of complex decisions wove an intricate tapestry, as calls on pit road--along with stellar or sloppy work by the crews, as the case may have been--repeatedly scrambled the running order and maintained an air of suspense as to the outcome. Not until Martin repelled Johnson's all-out attempt to take the lead after a restart with 21 laps left was there a real sense of who might win the race.

As it invariably does, Darlington also served as a yardstick for young drivers. After running a solid, sensible race in the Nationwide Series race the night before, Joey Logano was positively racy in the 500. He led 19 laps and finished ninth, suggesting that the hoopla surrounding his arrival in the Cup series as an 18-year-old wasn't just empty hype.

Brad Keselowski, also driving a Cup car at Darlington for the first time, finished seventh, suggesting that, unlike seven drivers who preceded him as surprise winners at Talladega, he won't be shut out of victory lane for the rest of his career.

Sure, Darlington is different now. So is the Southern 500, which used to be run on a hot, sticky Sunday before Labour Day, instead of on a warm Saturday night in May. But one glance at the red-and-white throwback walls in turns three and four -- with the solid black stripe from contact with the right sidewalls of the Cup cars' tyres running from the entry to the exit -- provided a clear reminder that the essence of the place is flourishing -- and that there's still much to treasure there.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News