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Sportlight: Burton, Keller, look back at a soggy day at Darlington

May 17, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Jeff Green called it "the 24 hours of Darlington." The race barely made it to halfway. But nine years after the 2002 Gatorade 200 finally splashed to a halt in near-darkness, the winning driver and those who finished directly behind him still have vivid memories of that soggy day at Darlington Raceway.

Jeff Burton won the race, his third consecutive Darlington victory in what is now the Nationwide Series, but the story of the day was how a simple 147-lap event morphed into an eight-hour marathon of waiting out the weather.

The official reports differ on the specific lengths of each delay, and the memories of each driver are hazy as to exactly what transpired nine years ago, but everyone is in agreement that it was a day filled with too much rain and too little racing.

"I remember that one because they made us sit in the cars for about an hour and a half, and it was hot," Burton said. "They wouldn't let us out and I remember being mad because they wouldn't let us out. I almost got in trouble because I was yelling at them."

"I remember it raining so hard when it finally started raining, and it was just pouring down rain," second-place finisher Jason Keller said. "I didn't even know if we were going to be able to stop on the front straightaway there in Turn 4, the way it was raining so hard. It seemed like we waited forever."

Burton had won the pole and led all 147 laps in the spring race, so when the series returned in late August, everyone expected much of the same.

"We just had something going on at that track because we were really, really fast every time we went there," Burton said. "Leading all the laps is really cool and we were just really fast there for that period of time.

"There was a time there where we were kind of untouchable. We were really fast and just had it going on. That's my favorite track. I love racing there. It's just a lot of fun and just a huge challenge, especially then, when the track was old and slick. It was a really big challenge but it was fun to be a part of that, I can tell you that."

Keller, who finished fourth in the spring, can still recall what it was like to race against Burton at Darlington in those days.

"Jeff Burton was just so dominant there, in those few years," Keller said. "I can visualize in my head him driving the No. 9 car and being so fast, and just being so smooth. That place has always been notorious -- especially before they repaved it -- that the times would fall off really, really quickly. And his didn't fall off nearly as much. You'll have to ask him how he did that. He was really good around that place."

In a weekend war of wills between NASCAR and Mother Nature, wet wound up winning. It rained all day Friday, wiping out qualifying and forcing officials to set the field by owners points, which put Burton 33rd on the grid.

And it just kept raining. After the Cup cars got in two practices, the skies opened again, soaking the track and pushing the start of the race back. Finally, the track was dried, drivers were called to their cars, the command was given to crank their engines and the race began under caution.

However, it didn't stay that way for long, as four laps into the event, it began to rain once more. And this time, it took nearly two and a half hours to get another break in the weather. Finally, the race started in earnest, and while Keller raced for the lead, Burton quickly motored his way through the pack.

"If I remember right, Burton was not running all the races," Keller said. "I remember he started in the back and I can't remember who I raced in the early part of that race ... it may have been Greg Biffle. Some of us were racing really hard up there and Jeff Burton was nowhere in sight. Then all of the sudden [there he was]."

At the time, Keller was battling Green at the front of the field, but Burton passed both of them to take the lead on Lap 44.

"I remember the spotter saying, 'Burton's coming' and kind of keeping me abreast of what was going on," Keller said. "I was locked into a really tight points race with Biffle at that point. But we were keeping a real close eye on Burton because we knew he was coming. I'm pretty confident that he drove up there and drove by us on the race track."

Keller, a native of Greenville, S.C., gamely tried to keep Burton's No. 9 Ford in sight as the skies began to darken again and hoped for some divine intervention.

"He was dominant in the fall race as well," Keller said. "It just took him a lot longer to get to the front. He was as dominant in the fall race as he was in the spring.

"I was just hoping we'd get to a point where the race would get rained out before he could get there so I could get my win in my home state, but he beat me to it."

Jamie McMurray crashed to bring out a caution on Lap 68 and almost immediately, it began to rain. As the field rolled slowly around the track behind the pace car in what Keller described as a downpour for five laps, NASCAR officials had a tough decision: whether to put out the red flag and hope for a green-flag finish or let Burton cross the start/finish line and call the race.

And out came the red flag, with Burton and the rest parked no more than 300 feet shy of an official race, close enough to where he could see the white stripe on the asphalt, close enough to where he could have walked to the starter's stand and taken the checkered flag in his own hands. But there they sat. And it got darker. And the rain wouldn't let up.

"I remember stopping," Burton said. "I didn't remember it being that few laps to go but I remember them stopping us before the start/finish line and making us stay in the cars, for forever. I remember being mad because they wouldn't let us out of the car."

At some point, NASCAR officials relented and the drivers took shelter where they could.

"I just remember waiting and waiting and waiting," Keller said. "I remember going back to the motorhome and hanging out pretty much the whole time. At that time, my kids weren't very old, so I remember my kids being there with me. "

"That was a family affair for me back then, the way we could go and hang out and have my family with me before they got older and couldn't travel with me as much."

Some eight hours after the race's original scheduled start time, NASCAR ordered the drivers back inside their soggy mounts and the cars crossed the line in a slow-motion parade in conditions so dark that TV cameras could barely capture the scene.

"Afterward, I was talking to one of the NASCAR officials, and because it was an odd number of laps, I was talking to him after it rained, and said, 'Let's just leave the cars parked there and we'll finish tomorrow,' " Keller said. "And he said, 'No, it's actually official because when you went halfway down the back straightaway, the race was official.' I was trying to find a technicality on how the race really wasn't over and they were like, 'The race was over, but we had to cross the start/finish line to complete that lap.' "

During his post-race comments that day, Burton explained what was going through his mind.

"I like racing and I applaud NASCAR for doing everything they could to try to finish it," Burton said. "But I thought, 'Gosh, if we have to bring all this people back Monday for 300 feet!' There are very few times you get to laugh in your race car, but i couldn't help but laugh when they finished it like that."

For Keller, second place at his home track was bittersweet.

"I always put a lot of effort in all the races and all the tracks, but some of them bring other things out in you, and for me, Darlington was always special, and 2002 was the closest I ever came to winning there," he said. "I never won a Nationwide race in my home state, but Darlington was very unique.

"I used to watch about 50 perecent of the races later back then, but I don't remember watching that replay. It was such a heartbreaker."