Darlington: News of note

Darlington gets tougher -- and SAFER Dale Earnhardt Jr. stalking points leader Matt Kenseth NEWS & NOTES * SAFER system comes to Darlington ... For years, people have said that Darlington Raceway couldn't get any tougher. But it ...

Darlington gets tougher -- and SAFER
Dale Earnhardt Jr. stalking points leader Matt Kenseth

NEWS & NOTES

* SAFER system comes to Darlington ... For years, people have said that Darlington Raceway couldn't get any tougher.

But it has.

However, it's also safer, via installation of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction] barrier system, commonly called "soft walls."

As for the famed "Darlington stripe" cars receive as they navigate through Turn 2, well, you can probably say the stripe has gotten "softer." But it also may be more noticeable, as the new barrier has reduced the racing groove by approximately 30 inches.

"The only thing that I can guarantee is that more drivers will hit or brush the wall this weekend," said Joe Nemechek (No. 01 U.S. Army/USG Chevrolet). "I think that's pretty much of a given."

Added Nemechek's crew chief, veteran Ryan Pemberton: "Let's face it, in the past most drivers ran close to the wall and made contact with it. But when you're dealing with 2-3 feet of less space, the frequency of hitting or brushing the wall is going to be much greater. I think everyone will have a number of Darlington stripes after this weekend."

Ricky Craven's bottom line: One thing is certain, the racing will be different.

"There is no question [about that]," Craven said. "It will be frustrating to some of us and it may satisfy others. The only issue is that it is different. ... I applaud everyone [around the country] who spent the money [to install the SAFER system] because it is a total expense and it is going to affect their bottom line and they should be commended. ... The fact is, what we do is dangerous and if we can narrow the percentages [for injuries], even slightly, then that is a step in the right direction."

Darlington is the fifth track on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series to install the SAFER system, following Indianapolis Motor Speedway, New Hampshire International Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Next on the installation schedule: California Speedway, Daytona International Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

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* Charting the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10: Kenseth still leads, but Earnhardt lurking again ... Reigning series champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford) leads the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 for the second consecutive week, after a solid sixth-place finish last Sunday at Atlanta. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), the leader the first two weeks, climbed to third via his Atlanta victory, 90 points behind Kenseth. ... In between those two is 2002 champion Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet), 82 points back of Kenseth and only eight ahead of Earnhardt. ... There are three new arrivals this week to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10: seventh-place Jeremy Mayfield (No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), ninth-place Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), 10th-place Bobby Labonte (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet). ... The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Top 10 takes on added importance this season. After 26 races of the 36-race season, the top 10 drivers in points -- plus anyone within 400 points of the points leader -- qualify for the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup" that will determine the series champion.

* Labonte touts new quarter-midget facility ... Bobby Labonte, members of the North Carolina Quarter-Midget Association and officials from Rowan County, N.C. participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the state-of-the-art North Carolina Quarter-Midget Association Speedway on Monday in Rowan County, N.C. (Approximately 40 miles northeast of Charlotte and approximately 50 miles southwest of Greensboro.) The track will be the first quarter-midget track in North Carolina and is set to be completed in May 2004. The paved track, being built by GL Wilson Construction, will be 1/20th of a mile in length, and the 20-acre facility is designed strictly for quarter-midget racing. "It's great that we're finally able to break ground on the North Carolina Quarter-Midget Association Speedway," said Labonte, the 2000 champion of NASCAR's premier series. "There's a lot of racing in the area of North Carolina, but there isn't specifically any quarter-midget racing. The closest quarter-midget tracks are either located near Atlanta or all the way up in the Pennsylvania or New Jersey areas. Even though there is a lot of racing going on, there is nothing like this within North Carolina or South Carolina." Labonte, who started his career in quarter-midgets, fields cars for his son, Tyler, age 9, and his daughter, Madison, age 6.

* Sadler, "Race for Hope" battles autism ... Elliott Sadler (No, 38 M&M's Ford) and 12 fellow drivers are teaming up to fight autism with the second annual "Race for Hope" competition. Proceeds from the second annual "Consumers vs. Drivers" event, to be held at the North Carolina NASCAR SpeedPark in Concord, N.C., on May 25, will benefit the Autism Society of America and the Victory Junction Gang Camp. Scheduled for 5-9 p.m., the Race for Hope will allow race fans the opportunity to race go-karts against NASCAR drivers, obtain autographs and eat a private dinner with a NASCAR driver. Sadler hopes to surpass the $45,000 M&M'S Hoops for Hope raised last year and add to the Victory Junction Gang Camp list of benefactors. There will also be a silent auction on site to include items such as driver uniforms, helmets and sheet metal from NASCAR's top teams. Drivers scheduled to join Sadler are his brother Hermie Sadler, Dale Jarrett, Michael and Darrell Waltrip, Tony Stewart, Kyle Petty, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears, Sterling Marlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. ... Race for Hope packages are limited and will be sold on a first-come-first-serve basis. For information call the NASCAR SpeedPark ticket office toll free at (877) 626-8725. ... Members of the media are invited to cover the event. Please contact Amy Walsh at Elevation Motorsports (704) 595-0118 or AWalsh@elevationgrp.com prior to May 15, 2004, regarding access. ... Also, anyone wishing to make a donation may do so via the Elliott and Hermie Sadler Foundation -- P.O. Box 32, Emporia, VA 23847.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) leads active drivers in career Darlington victories with six; David Pearson holds the record, with 10. ... Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) leads full-time active drivers in Darlington top-five finishes with 14. ... Ricky Rudd (No. 21 Motorcraft Ford) has 25 top-10 finishes at Darlington, best among full-time active drivers. Ryan Newman (No. 12 ALLTEL Dodge) has only four starts at Darlington, but his 4.5 average starting position is the best among active drivers.

QUOTABLE

* "Darlington is nothing if not tradition. Everything about the place says tradition and heritage." -- Kyle Petty (No. 45 Georgia-Pacific/Brawny Dodge).

* "My personal opinion of Darlington is it is a pillar of our sport. It is a historically significant part of our sport. It's a Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. That's my analogy." -- Ricky Craven.

* "The idea is to work the throttle as if there is an egg underneath it." -- Rookie Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), on the challenge of driving at Darlington.

FROM THE ARCHIVES

Darlington Raceway's spring event first took place in 1957 -- as a NASCAR Convertible Division race. NASCAR had the division from 1956-1959 with stars such as Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Marvin Panch taking part. The division had proven itself as a viable and action-packed series, so NASCAR felt it was time to see what the "ragtops" could do on a superspeedway.

May 12, 1957 saw the birth of the "Rebel 300". It was the 14th event on the 1957 Convertible schedule. Former motorcycle champ Paul Goldsmith won the pole with a speed of 115.324 mph. He led the field of 27 cars to the green flag as third-place starter Turner jumped to the outside and took the lead going into the first turn. Five different drivers swapped the lead over the 219-lap event with Roberts coming home the victor by a margin of two laps over Tim Flock. It was Roberts' first superspeedway win as he averaged 107.941 mph.

There is an interesting sidebar to this race. It was originally scheduled for Saturday, May 11, 1957, however, the event was postponed to, as the ticket stub stated, "the next clear day." South Carolina, in those days, was subject to what was called "blue laws", which prohibited sporting events and certain other activities from being held on a Sunday. The "next clear day" was a Sunday.

What to do?

Raceway President Bob Colvin sought special dispensation from the local government officials. He paid a $50 fine and the race went on with no problem.

Fast Facts

What: Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 (Race No. 5 of the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series season.)
Where: Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
When: Sunday, March 21, 1 p.m. (ET).

TV: FOX, 1 p.m. (ET).
Radio: MRN/XM Satellite.

Race length: 400 miles/293 laps.
Track layout: 1.366-mile oval.

-nascar-

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About this article
Series Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Darrell Waltrip , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Jeremy Mayfield , Tony Stewart , Kyle Petty , Joe Nemechek , Sterling Marlin , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Jimmie Johnson , Ricky Craven , Hermie Sadler , Kasey Kahne , Martin Truex Jr. , Marvin Panch , Elliott Sadler , Tim Flock , Mark Martin , David Pearson