DARLINGTON -- Darlington Raceway hasn't been the same since a multimillion dollar repaving before the 2008 race.
Cup drivers have noticed -- and some want the old "Lady in Black" back.
"I'm no chemist," said Mark Martin, the 2009 Southern 500 winner. "I can tell you that this is different."
There was no doubt the track needed work to smooth over the cracks and ruts that developed at a facility built in 1949. So a mini workyard went up outside the track in 2007 for the paving project and construction of a more modern infield access tunnel.
The result? A surface where drivers testing in March 2008 hit 200 mph at the end of Darlington's backstretch.
The faster speeds have continued -- Southern 500 qualifying records were set each of the last two years -- and drivers have had less margin for error when racing near the wall.
"That edge is so close and it's such a fine line and it's such a lot easier to go over," said Jeff Gordon, who leads active drivers with seven Darlington victories.
Carl Edwards, for one, can't wait for the track to get a bit less slick and a lot more worn.
"If they could come out here and just rough it up, do whatever they can. Maybe it'll rain a little extra this year or something," Edwards said. "The quicker we can get back to that, I think the better."
Back at Darlington
Jack Hoenstine was a truck driver in Western Pennsylvania when a friend asked if he'd heard about a 500-mile stock car race running in South Carolina.
"So I called and got tickets for seven dollars," Hoenstine said.
That was in 1951 -- and Hoenstine's returned for every Southern 500 since. Saturday night was super fan Hoenstine's 60th visit to the track "Too Tough To Tame."
Hoenstine's tale is part of the book "The Weekend Starts on Wednesday" about NASCAR fans written by Andrew Giangola.
Hoenstine, a 78-year-old retiree who goes to about 10 races as season these days, also has a lengthy streaks at the "Monster Mile" in Dover and in Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600.
Hoenstine travels about 540 miles from his home near Altoona, Pa., each year to Darlington, taking a similar route and stopping at many of the same restaurants and shops he's gone to for years.
"People don't forget you," Hoenstine said.
Clint Bowyer, a cake shaped like his No. 33 Chevrolet and a large stag were on hand to celebrate The Hartford's 200th anniversary.
"Anybody want a Goodyear?" Bowyer cracked as he sliced up the cake. "It's good, too."
The insurance company is celebrating 200 years in business. The Hartford is sponsoring a contest where people submit their stories and videos, sharing how and why they drive the way they do.
"I want to hear all the stories," Bowyer said. "Good, crazy, bad. All of them."
Bowyer backed off when asked to make the first cut in the car cake.
"We're at Darlington where it's very easy to tear up cars and I'm kind of scared to cut this car up," he said. "Can we wait until after the race?"
Bowyer finally obliged with the initial cut.
Greg Biffle won this event in 2005 and 2006. The closest he's come to winning since then is last year's eighth-place finish. ... Mark Martin entered Saturday night's race with 26 top 10 finishes at Darlington. Jeff Gordon was next with 20. ... Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson has not won at Darlington since sweeping both events here in 2004, the last time the track has held two Sprint Cup weekends. ... Happy Mother's Day. Again, the drivers' moms gave the once-a-year call of "Sons and gentlemen, start your engines!"