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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After a few years off from from the top of Seekonk Speedway's Pro Stock division, David Darling returned to his prime form in 2017 at the Massachusetts' track. In 16 races as part of the NASCAR Whelen All American Series Division I class, Darling went to Victory Lane eight times and only finished outside the top five twice. He captured the checkered flag in the final four points races, completing a dream season in style.
"There was a lot of work in the winter to get there, we brought on someone to help us, Jeff Belyea, he really helped us figure these new-style (Super Late Model) setups out. We bought a brand new car and we put that together over the winter and we went to the track with a gameplan of making sure we had the best of everything we could," Darling said of his season. "We put the money in the places we thought was best and we went to the track ready to compete every week, planning to be the fastest car. If you can do that, you can make your job easier as a driver and as a team. You still can't control the outcome of the races and the luck and you never know how fast you actually will be. We obviously had some luck fall in our way in certain situations in order for us to have a good year."
Darling season included a finish inside the top 10 each week and most of the time, he was battling at the front when the race came to a close. Although his season was filled with glory, it wasn't as easy as it would look from the outside. Seekonk's Super Late Model contingent is one of the best in New England, as Darling acknowledges. Ryan Vanasse and Tom Scully Jr., who finished second and third in points, both visited Victory Lane and gave Darling everything he could handle.
"It's extremely difficult to pass, they are pretty fast there too," Darling said. "You have to be so much faster than someone else to be able to get by them and there were some weeks we weren't able to get by them. Vanasse and Scully Jr. both had championship years in all measures and they really forced my hand and I forced their hand into being as consistent as I possibly could be. Whoever was going to win this title knew they were going to have to finish just about top five every week. Every year we look to finish every week as the initial goal, then the second goal is finishing top 10 and the third goal is running top five. Once I get there, I just see what happens.
His fifth track title is also his first under the NASCAR Whelen All American Series banner. In Seekonk's history, Darling joins names like Ron Bouchard, Rick Hanatow Jr., Rick Martin, Vinnie Annarummo and others to have at least five championships. He never thought the day would come.
"That was the goal, we wanted to get a title under the NASCAR sanction and I'm excited to be going down to the North Carolina. When I first started running Seekonk, you would try to rush to the front and you would end up in a wreck. When the race starts, I just try to finish and take what I can get. About three or four weeks into the year we realized we were fast and so were the others and I thought it would come down to who would make a mistake first and really, no one did," Darling said. "The competition level was high and everyone respected each other -- I was the only one that really made a mistake the night I spun myself out racing for the lead. To be able to race door-to-door with them and have their respect, it made it a great year. We had respect back and fourth. We ran a tight championship battle. I know people will say that I dominated, but when you look at their performances, the only difference was really the wins, if I didn't get those, who knows who would have won the championship. It really forced me to go after more wins than I normally would."
Darling credits the success this season to his team. He has been working with Ronnie Pond, his longtime crew chief, for all five of his championship runs. The decision to bring on Jeff Belyea was also a huge help to the team.
"Jeff and I have been friends for over 10 years and he has always helped various other people. He helped Angelo Belsito when he won his title. It got to the point where these cars are just super complicated, much different than it was years ago. Ronnie Pond has been doing it for 40 years and the way he did it before is a little bit different now, but he still brings a ton to my team," Darling said. "Between him and Jeff, they come up with some great thought processes to make the car go well. With Jeff running the PASS Tour as much as he has, he has a great handle on what he is doing. He gives you a great starting point to be really close, or spot on right when you unload the car from the trailer."
Although Darling's four titles before this came with the same car, this one was different. The decision to go out and buy a new car wasn't easy for him -- and it wasn't a cheap endeavor either. He needed the support of longtime car owner Gary Johnson if it was going to happen.
"It means a lot, I never thought I would really end up racing at Seekonk very long. It came to a point a couple of years ago when the equipment was getting older and we decided we needed new shop equipment and new cars because the stuff we were running for a decade was just worn out. Gary Johnson has been with me the whole time and he always has given us what we need. I came into it and put some of my money in and with sponsors we went out and purcahsed some current equipment and it makes a huge difference," Darling said.
"They need to be a certain type of car. The technology is so different -- it was a big cost factor -- but it was something I needed to do in order to get back to being competitive -- it was either that or we had to decide to fold up shop and stop doing it. It's like a little bit different with Gary and I being part-owner. For years, Gary gave us what we needed for those four titles. The cars we had still worked because the technology we had really hadn't changed. Once the Super Late Model technology trickled down to Seekonk, we realized what we were doing wasn't going to be good enough. Four of the championships were with the same car, but the first two were completely different setups than the second two and this one was a completely different car and different setup. To see the way everything changes over the years, we were able to change with it and still keep the same core of guys. The week in and week out gets tough, but it's almost second-nature now."
Darling is lucky enough to have the support of his family to do what he loves to do. In fact, his children have become attached to the track and watching their dad be successful.
"My kids love going and my wife likes going, the kids really love to cheer me on. This is one of the first titles that my kids will remember, they don't really remember the older championships. The kids really do love it. If they weren't as interested, it would probably make it easier for me to walk away -- if they weren't there I would feel bad I wasn't spending enough time with them," Darling said. "I asked them about four or five years ago if they wanted me to stop racing so we could go do sports -- they asked me what I was thinking, of course they wanted me to race. Sometimes things happen on the track and they pay a lot of attention to it, so I have to explain things. This really kinda cements a certain driving style for me. In the heat of the moment, I remember that they are watching or listening."
Is it too early to look ahead towards the 2018? Maybe a little bit. But Darling knows the work isn't done for him if he wants to complete another title run in 2018. His four previous titles came in 2006-07, then 2012-13. He will be looking to continue that streak of winning two at a time.
"Now it's just kinda like how are we going to get quicker, because we know everyone else is going too. There are some weeks I felt like we could have been better and there were other weeks I felt like it was going to be tough to improve on that. Sometimes you get a car that's like this," Darling said. "We are building a new car but who knows if we will even race it. Having a car like that gives you great confidence, but everyone else is going to do that homework for them to get faster."
Without support from sponsors, his family and his team, as well as the fans, he wouldn't be able to accomplish his goals.
"I have to thank Gary and Johnson Landscaping, Bristol Toyota, my dad, Columbus Oil Energies, Ronnie Pond, Jeff Belyea, my wife, my kids and there are a lot of other people that show up every week as fans," Darling said. "Also all the guys on the crew. Todd Annarummo helped us a lot this year. There are just so many people that go into this. I have to thank everyone that supports us every week and all the fans that come out to watch the races."
Darling will be honored as part of the NASCAR Home Tracks Awards ceremony on Dec. 8 at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.
David Darling's road to a fifth track title included winning the final four points races of the season. Seekonk Speedway