Darlington: News of note, schedule

* Earnhardt Jr. Returns To Top 12 In Standings * Third Consecutive Sellout Affirms Darlington Event NNCS, Etc. * Jeff Gordon Active Wins Leader At Darlington * Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns To Top 12 * Post-Richmond Turnover In Top 12 * Jeff...

* Earnhardt Jr. Returns To Top 12 In Standings
* Third Consecutive Sellout Affirms Darlington Event

NNCS, Etc.

* Jeff Gordon Active Wins Leader At Darlington
* Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns To Top 12
* Post-Richmond Turnover In Top 12
* Jeff Burton Set For 450th Career Start This Week

While Greg Biffle is the latest driver to dominate one of the series' most challenging tracks, one of its former, multiple winners should be counted as another favorite for Saturday night's Dodge Avenger 500. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with six Darlington victories, good enough for third on the track's all-time wins list.

With eight top-five finishes and two wins in 10 events thus far, he's one of the series' hottest drivers. A dominating Darlington performance also would cement his position as the current standings leader (for the sixth consecutive week).

For the curious: David Pearson leads all drivers with 10 Darlington wins and 12 Bud Poles. Dale Earnhardt is second with nine wins. ...

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet) 13th-place finish at Richmond last Sunday appeared fairly nominal, but it helped boost him one spot in the standings to 12th -- and into Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup eligibility.

All season, Earnhardt Jr. has battled back from a rough start. He was 11th following the April 1 event at Martinsville Speedway, but frustrating results since have necessitated another rebound. He leads 13th-place Jamie McMurray (No. 26 Crown Royal Ford) by 19 points. ...

Eight drivers in the standings' top 12 experienced position shifts following the Richmond event. The most dramatic belonged to McMurray, who dropped six spots, from seventh to 13th, after finishing 41st. Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet) dropped three spots from second to fifth because of engine failure; he finished 43rd at Richmond.

Race winner Jimmie Johnson jumped two spots, replacing Burton in second place, behind leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon. Another Hendrick Motorsports driver, Kyle Busch (No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet), was the race runner-up; he jumped two spots to sixth place. ... Burton hopes to regain lost ground at Darlington, and if he does so, it will be while he's making some personal history.

Saturday night's event will mark his 450th career series start.

Burton is in his 15th NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season. He has 19 wins, the latest at Texas Motor Speedway in April, and finished seventh in the 2006 Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup -- a renaissance season; Burton had finished out of the top 10 for four consecutive seasons prior to the 2006 season.

Burton is a two-time Darlington winner (both 1999 events). He also has eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 24 career starts there.

Darlington: Car of Tomorrow Magnifies All Usual Strategic Mantras

Saturday night's sold-out Dodge Avenger 500 at Darlington Raceway will be the fifth event featuring NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, and the first at the historic, egg-shaped 1.366-mile track. All the factors usually necessary for a successful run become even more important as the Car of Tomorrow debuts there:

* Darlington's famously abrasive surface spotlights tire wear; how teams manage it will be key in any performance.

* With weight shifted to the right in the Car of Tomorrow, avoiding a "Darlington stripe" -- a black mark from scraping the outside wall -- may be a bit trickier.

* Pit strategy becomes paramount with increased tire wear; expect more short-pitting for track position.

* With the probability of more green-flag pit stops, smoothly negotiating Darlington's pit-road entrance -- very difficult under green conditions -- is a must for drivers.

* Fuel mileage may not be as big a factor since teams will pit more often for tires.

* As always, drivers must race the track first at Darlington, before they race each other.

Casey Mears Gains Top 35 Cushion; Bubble Spot Shifts To Ricky Rudd

Last Sunday's results at Richmond means some breathing room this week for Casey Mears/owner Mary Hendrick (No. 25 National Guard/GMAC Chevrolet). After lingering in 35th place in the car owner point standings, Mears jumped one spot to 34th after an 18th-place finish.

Heading to Darlington, Ricky Rudd/owner Robert Yates (No. 88 Snickers Ford) inherits the 35th spot.

Weekly in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, the top 35 teams in car owner points are guaranteed starting spots for that week's event, meaning teams outside the top 35 must qualify on speed.

One note: The No. 44 UPS Toyota, driven by former series champion Dale Jarrett and owned by Michael Waltrip entered Richmond 38th in the owner standings, with Jarrett having used all six allotted past-champion provisionals. The 1999 series champion, Jarrett didn't make the Richmond field, ending a streak of 424 consecutive series starts, the third longest current streak among active drivers. He's now 40th in the owner standings.

Another note: Dave Blaney/owner Bill Davis (No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota) jumped three spots to 37th after finishing 11th at Richmond.

In The Loop: Biffle The Clear Statistical Favorite At Darlington

Think back to 2005, when Greg Biffle finished second in the final NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series standings and looked as if a certain title might be in his future.

But the Roush Fenway Racing star ran into bad luck in 2006 and finished the season in 13th place.

Now, Biffle sits 15th heading to a track he's dominated the past two years -- Darlington Raceway.

With two consecutive victories at the historic South Carolina venue, Biffle will look to nudge into the top 12 with yet another strong finish and perhaps rekindle his dominance of two years ago.

If pre-race Loop Data has its usual say, count on another strong performance.

The driver of the No. 16 Ameriquest Ford has earned border-line ludicrous statistics at Darlington. It's almost hard to believe how good Biffle really is there.

For instance, his Average Running Position over the last two races at Darlington is a startling 2.519 -- meaning, he rarely dropped from the top five.

Biffle's average Driver Rating over his two wins is another stunning number -- 143.8. The maximum Driver Rating is 150.0. To earn a number like 143.8 in one race is impressive enough, but for Biffle to boast an average that robust is truly dominant.

A clear way to illustrate how strong Biffle is at Darlington is to compare him to the rest of the field. The second-best Driver Rating belongs to Jimmie Johnson, whose 120.3 rating is more than 20 points below Biffle's.

And in terms of Fastest Laps Run, Biffle is the class of the field. He ran the fastest lap 131 times over the last two Darlington races. Johnson, again, sits second with 78 Fastest Laps Run.

Johnson, who's coming off his fourth win of the season at Richmond, seems like the second-choice at Darlington. He has an Average Running Position of 5.502, the second-fastest Green Flag Speed (behind Biffle), the fourth-most Laps in the Top 15 (675) and the fastest Speed in Traffic (speed when there is another vehicle within one car length under green).

Ryan Newman (No. 12 Alltel Dodge) is another driver to watch. He's coming off a second consecutive top-10 finish and has excelled at Darlington, amassing some quality stats in the process.

Newman has spent every one of the 737 laps run at Darlington over the past two years in the Top 15 -- the only driver to accomplish that feat. He also has the second-best Average Running Position there (4.293) and the third-best Driver Rating (117.6).

Menard Top Rookie at Richmond; Chevrolet Builds Manufacturers Lead

Paul Menard (No. 15 Menard's Chevrolet) finished 16th at Richmond last Sunday to earn the Raybestos Rookie of the Race Award. Menard is third in the season standings, behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge) and David Ragan (No. 6 AAA Ford).

Chevrolet increased its lead in the Manufacturers Championship race, thanks to Jimmie Johnson's win at Richmond.

Off-Track ...

Prior to Tuesday's second day of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup testing at Lowe's Motor Speedway, eight NASCAR NEXTEL Cup and two NASCAR Busch Series teams announced their participation in the American Heroes Memorial Day Tribute set for the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, May 27 at Lowe's.

It's a joint effort with branches of the United States military to raise funds for four major military support organizations, U.S. soldiers and their families. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Ward Burton (No. 4 State Water Heaters Chevrolet), Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Chevrolet), Casey Mears, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Mark Martin all will run paint schemes saluting military entities in the Coca-Cola 600.

Gordon will represent the U.S. Department of Defense. Johnson will represent the USO. Earnhardt Jr. will represent American Heroes. NASCAR Busch Series drivers Shane Huffman and Jon Wood will represent the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, respectively. Ward Burton also will represent the Air Force. Biffle will represent the U.S. Coast Guard. Mears will represent the National Guard and Denny Hamlin will represent the U.S. Marines. ...

Prior to this weekend's events at Darlington, NASCAR NEXTEL Cup team transporters will participate in the third annual Darlington Raceway Car Hauler Parade on Thursday evening, May 10.

The event begins at 8:30 p.m., at the Florence (S.C.) Civic Center and is scheduled to end at 9:15 p.m., in Darlington Square.

Prior to the procession, activities and exhibits -- including show cars and the Budweiser Clydesdales -- will be available at the Parade Fest location at the Civic Center.

NASCAR Vice President of Corporate Communications Jim Hunter will serve as the parade's Grand Marshal.

The event is free and open to the public.

"The Track Too Tough To Tame"

Aside from hosting competitive events, Darlington Raceway -- circa 1950 -- provides a clear glimpse into NASCAR's past.

It's also a healthy part of NASCAR's future.

This weekend's Dodge Avenger 500 marks the third consecutive sellout at Darlington, which has hosted a singular, Saturday-night event on Mothers Day weekend since 2005.

Prior to NASCAR NEXTEL Cup schedule realignment several years ago, Darlington had hosted two annual events since 1960. The Saturday-night date has proven so successful that new traditions have taken hold, including the participation of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers' mothers in special, commemorative pre-race ceremonies.

Also, a recent series of capital improvements are spiffing up one of NASCAR's most venerable -- and revered -- facilities.

The latest involves repaving the 1.366-mile surface following this weekend's events. Last re-surfaced in 1995, "The Lady in Black" will wear new asphalt when the series returns in 2008.

Other improvements include paving the track's apron areas, adding pit stalls, plus installing a new tunnel large enough for team transporters and motor homes on the west side of the track.

Darlington christened the new Brasington Tower grandstand in Turn 1 last spring.

***

The Race: Dodge Avenger 500

The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Saturday, May 12

The Time: 7 p.m. (ET)
TV: FOX, 7 p.m. (ET)

The Track: .1.366 miles
The Distance: 501 miles; 367 laps

The Purse: $5,507,009

2006 Winner: Greg Biffle
2006 Pole: Kasey Kahne

Pre-Race On-Track Schedule (local/ET time): Friday -- Practice, 10:30 a.m. - Noon; Qualifying, 3:10 p.m. and Final Practice 6:50 -- 7:50 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Hendrick Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing