DARLINGTON — S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s first trip to Darlington Raceway included touring the race hauler of last year’s winner Regan Smith, sitting in the driver’s meeting near NASCAR legend Cale Yarborough and meeting her new favorite driver, Danica Patrick.
“We love this race. The state has been waiting for this,” Haley told NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer outside his motorhome. “We appreciate you having us,” Bowyer replied.
Haley walked around the garage area before the Bojangles’ Southern 500 greeting race fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. “It’s a great day for the race,” she told well-wishers.
Asked by reporters if she wanted to try riding around in a race car, Haley joked using the track’s famous slogan: “I’m too tough to tame.”
Haley said she thinks many people don’t realize the economic impact of the race in drawing 60,000 fans -- many from out of state -- to the track and millions of fans who will watch on television.
“This South Carolina in primetime, the way we want it and she couldn’t look prettier than she does today,” she said.
Haley, who has attended the RBC Heritage golf tournament on Hilton Head Island and Family Circle Cup women’s tennis tournament in Charleston in recent months, said sports is critical for business development in the state.
“There is no better way for corporate networking, no better way to show the tourism of South Carolina than through sports,” she said.
Haley’s biggest surprise on her first visit to the track? “Danica Patrick is tiny.”
The most-talked about driver of the race, Patrick, built the experience she sought in her first appearance at Darlington and her second Cup race overall.
Qualifying 38th nearly 5 mph slower than pole sitter Greg Biffle, she was passed on lap 27.
She stayed out of trouble until about 75 laps to go when she couldn’t slow down fast enough entering the pits and hit the commitment cone for a pass through penalty.
Patrick, who finished 12th on the lead lap in the Nationwide race on Friday, eventually fell more than five laps back -- third-lowest among cars still running late in the race.
If Jeff Gordon didn’t have bad luck this year, he would have no luck at all, and the trend continued Saturday night with a cut tire forcing a mid-race pit stop that knocked him off the lead lap to 24th place on lap 195.
Five laps later, he returned to the pits with more tire problems -- the third time in 10 races that tire woes knocked him from contention.
Gordon, who has the best record among active drivers at Darlington, came into the race ranked 23rd in the standings, thanks to getting caught in two wrecks and suffering a pit-road penalty in addition to the tire difficulties. He has only two tops 10 finishes.
No seconds for Smith: Last year’s surprise winner could not find the magic after qualifying ninth. Smith struggled toward to rear for much of the night and then spun out trying to get into pit lane on lap 307.
He managed to remain as the last car on the lead lap through the final portion of the race and stick on the edge of the top-20.