Atlanta II: Erik Darnell race report

ERIK DARNELL HAS SOLID SHOWING IN CUP SERIES DEBUT Making your Sprint Cup Series debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway is to say the least a stressful fete, but especially for rookie Erik Darnell, driver of the No. 96 Academy Sports + Outdoors Ford ...

ERIK DARNELL HAS SOLID SHOWING IN CUP SERIES DEBUT

Making your Sprint Cup Series debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway is to say the least a stressful fete, but especially for rookie Erik Darnell, driver of the No. 96 Academy Sports + Outdoors Ford Fusion who, prior to his performance in Sunday night's Pep Boys 500 had only been behind the wheel of Cup car one time. Though Darnell's racing resume includes three full seasons of Truck Series competition and a partial Nationwide Series schedule, the intensity level and competition he had previously experienced wouldn't compare to what he would encounter on Labor Day weekend in Georgia.

With a brand new team, Darnell set out with one main goal: bring the car home in one piece. "Realistically, for this weekend I don't think I could put a finishing position or a number on it," Darnell said. "For us, it's gonna be to go out, be solid in practice, make changes to the car to make it faster, qualify well and run all the laps -- and bring the car home in one piece. That's the big goal for this weekend. If you're sitting on jack stands, you're not learning anything, so, for me, it's gonna be going out there and just running all the laps and trying to get a good finish out of this and proving myself."

Though Darnell's weekend got off to a slow start - posting 45th and 44th during practice sessions and qualifying a disappointing 42nd - the young driver was determined to make the most of his first opportunity in a Cup car. Throughout the 325 lap race Darnell held his own against some of NASCAR's best and achieved his number one goal -- he kept the No. 96 in one piece. Despite his 30th-place finish, the rookie driver performed like a veteran and made very few mistakes. A better finish could have been possible, but Darnell was lapped early due to a long a green flag run (just 19 cars finished on the lead lap) and then proceeded to battle a tight handling race car for the remainder of the race.

Following the race, crew chief Ben Leslie sang Darnell's praises, saying, "He did great.

This is a really daunting place and it was a daunting place with the old car not to mention the COT car with the less downforce and the splitter and everything that came with that. Erik did a spectacular job. He stuck with it. He didn't put himself in a position to get himself wrecked. He didn't overdrive the car to where he would have put himself in a position to wreck. His feedback was very concise and to the point. When we made gains on the things that he was complaining about he ran faster. I couldn't be happier. It sounds funny to say that you're really happy with a 30th-place finish, but given all the circumstances and looking at this as his very first COT race and he's out there racing against Jamie McMurray and David Ragan -- at one point he passed Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman -- that's pretty spectacular. We'll build on it from here."

Kasey Kahne won the Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick was second and Juan Pablo Montoya was third. David Reutimann and Mark Martin completed the top five.

-credit: yr

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Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya