After getting his start as a sports writer at the Times-News, the Kingsport resident embarked on a long and winding road through the sport of auto racing.
Darnell worked in public relations for R.J. Reynolds during the company’s long tenure as the title sponsor of NASCAR’s Cup series. He also served as the general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway and the director of communications for the NHRA before wrapping up his career in NASCAR handling public relations duties for Dodge’s racing teams.
But when it comes to Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500 in particular, Darnell still maintains the same sense of awe he felt when he first laid his eyes upon the superspeedway as a fan. In much the same way as all roads in the Roman Empire were said to lead back to Rome, Darnell said the roads that have taken him into various corners of the racing world have inevitably led back to the birthplace of NASCAR racing.
“The first time I went to Daytona, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this place is awesome,’ ” Darnell said. “And then you realize this is the cornerstone of NASCAR. Everything else is built around it.”
Very few people have looked at the 2½ mile track in Daytona Beach through as many lenses as Darnell has, but no matter where he happened to be working, the track never lost its relevance to what he was doing. Whether he was serving as the general manager at BMS or handling PR duties for the NHRA, Darnell said there was always something he could learn from DIS.
“When I went there in the ’80s as a GM at Bristol, I looked at it entirely different,” Darnell said. “You looked at it and said, ‘What can we do at Bristol that they do at Daytona, or what can we do even better?’
“Then when I went to NHRA, I looked at it from another sanctioning body to see if we stacked up.”
Darnell’s connection to Daytona became even more intimate once he started providing PR services for Dodge’s race teams. As he worked with a roster of drivers that included Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski, he saw firsthand how much the Daytona 500 meant to the drivers.
As the drivers arrive at the track for today’s Daytona 500, Darnell expects all of them will be wrestling the same mix of nerves and adrenaline that has weighed on every driver from Fireball Roberts to Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt.
“When we get to the drivers, and they drive through that tunnel and see the track, there is only one thing on their minds: This is a race I have to win,” Darnell said. “I have to have this on my resume before it’s complete. As they go through the tunnel on Sunday morning, they aren’t thinking about Phoenix (next week) and they aren’t thinking about 35 other races.
“They’re thinking ‘Win today.’ ”
Aside from the pressure of winning the biggest NASCAR race of the year, Darnell said there are several other factors that come together to make the Daytona 500 such a dynamic event. First of all, restrictor plates designed to limit the speed of the cars are placed inside each vehicle, closing the gap between the elite teams and the underdogs.
When the teams arrive in Phoenix next week and the restrictor plates come off, the mega-teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing will likely dominate the speed charts. But today in Daytona, a majority of the drivers in the field will show up at the track with high hopes.
“At Phoenix, there’s probably 15 drivers that have a legitimate chance to win,” Darnell said. “But at Daytona, the number is probably 30 because of the restrictor plate and the close racing.”
The close racing produces a constant sense of danger that never lets up as the colorful race cars rumble around the high banks of DIS in a tight pack at speeds nearing 200 miles per hour. The claustrophobic brand of racing only becomes more intense once the final laps roll around and drivers start to make the daring moves they all hope will land them in Victory Lane, cementing a place in NASCAR history.
Near the end of Darnell’s tenure with Dodge, he hit a run of good fortune, and it started in 2008 at the 50th running of the Daytona 500. Bob Nardelli, who was the interim CEO of Chrysler at the time, decided to sweeten the pot for the car owners, crews and drivers of the 11 Dodges competing in the 500 that year by offering $1 million to any Dodge team that won the race.
After Tony Stewart led the next to last lap of the race, that incentive paid dividends as Kurt Busch selflessly pushed teammate Ryan Newman past Stewart for the win.
“Kurt probably could have won the Daytona 500, but on that particular day, he was willing to be a teammate and not take a chance on messing it up,” Darnell said. “Dodge finished 1-2 and had six of the top eight finishers. So for the Dodge PR team and everyone associated with Dodge in 2008, it was the ultimate win.”
The ultimate win was just the beginning for Darnell, who worked with Keselowski in 2010 as he won the Nationwide Series championship and in 2012 when Keselowski captured the Sprint Cup title. Once Darnell eased into retirement, he did so with Sprint Cup and Nationwide championship rings to go along with his Daytona 500 ring.
After all the roads Darnell has traveled, he’s finally come full circle. When the green flag falls on the Daytona 500 today, Darnell will be a fan among millions of others hoping to see something that will leave them in awe.
“To the driver, it’s all about victory,” Darnell said. “To the fans that go down there, it’s all about the racing.”