Darlington: Round 11 preview

RCR Trio Dominates Top Five in Standings *Kyle Busch Takes Over Points Lead *Darlington Raceway Features Major Facility Improvements *South Carolinians Play Key Role In Sprint Cup Garage RCR Heads Into Darlington With All Three Drivers In The...

RCR Trio Dominates Top Five in Standings
*Kyle Busch Takes Over Points Lead
*Darlington Raceway Features Major Facility Improvements
*South Carolinians Play Key Role In Sprint Cup Garage

RCR Heads Into Darlington With All Three Drivers In The Top Five

Richard Childress Racing's trio of drivers dominate this week's top five in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings. And, with RCR claiming eight wins at Darlington Raceway over the years, the outlook for that organization is looking up as the series travels to the track deemed "Too Tough to Tame" for the Dodge 500 this Saturday night (FOX, 7 p.m. ET).

Clint Bowyer's (No. 07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet) win at Richmond International Raceway last week moved him up from seventh to fourth in the standings. Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet), the points leader for the previous four weeks, moved down a spot to second, while Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) climbed a spot to fifth.

Bowyer and Burton (Bristol) have each posted wins this year. The three have combined to tally 18 top-10 and eight top-five finishes. Team owner Richard Childress likes the chemistry the three teams are displaying.

"I think it shows the consistency and teamwork we're working with at RCR right now," said Childress. "Everyone is trying to be the most competitive they can be and hopefully, have a run at The Chase and the championship. All three teams and all three drivers still have areas to improve on. We're not resting on what we've accomplished at all but it is good knowing we have things headed in the right direction at this point in the season."

Kyle Busch New Points Leader; Boasts Series-Best Driver Rating

For the second time this season, Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's/Indiana Jones Toyota) sits atop the championship point standings. Busch's second-place showing last Saturday at Richmond marked his sixth top-five finish of the season. Busch's 109.4 Driver Rating is best among all series drivers, as is his Average Running Position of 9.0. The Driver Rating, a formula combining a number of Loop Data statistics, gives a clear description of how a driver's season, or race, has played out. The 23-year-old has been described by many as a "throwback" driver, as his propensity to drive the wheels off of anything he can plus his competitive demeanor on the race track has propelled him to center stage at this point of the NASCAR racing season. He heads into this week end's action with seven victories spread across all three of NASCAR's major series -- two in NASCAR Sprint Cup, three in NASCAR Nationwide Series, and two in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

Following his on-track tangle with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) in the closing laps of Saturday's race at Richmond, Busch matter-of-factly said "it was just, good hard racing."

"I mean, if I went out there on that final restart and just gave way to the No. 88 (Earnhardt Jr.), then that wouldn't be a true race car driver," Busch said. "So, you know, I had to do what I had to do to win for my team, to win for (my sponsors). You know, unfortunately circumstances happened."

Kyle Busch/Dale Earnhardt Jr. Rank 1-2 In Driver Rating

Call it the "tap heard 'round the world."

When Kyle Busch nudged the drivers' side door of Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond Saturday night, a rivalry was born -- and statistics say it's between the two strongest drivers in the series. Busch and Earnhardt rank first and second in the season-to-date Driver Rating. Busch leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in Driver Rating with a 109.4; Earnhardt is close behind with a 108.7 (a perfect Driver Rating is 150.0). The Driver Rating, a formula combing a number of Loop Data statistics, gives a clear description of how a driver's season, or race, has played out. During last Friday's at-track news conferences, Jeff Burton talked about the usefulness of Driver Rating. "We've run well this year," said Burton.

"We haven't run great this year, but we've run really well. If you look at the key components that we look at ... the Driver Rating is a pretty smart statistic to look at. If you look at the number of laps that we've run in the top 10, the number of quality passes that we've had, all of those kind of things, obviously we're a top-five, top-six, top-seven car. We've had less trouble than other people have had and therefore we're leading the points."

For this weekend's race at Darlington, the Driver Rating, and many other Loop Data statistics, suggest a heated battle between another two drivers -- Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge). To the victor goes a top-12 spot. Gordon, in 13th place in the standings, is just six points behind 12th-place Kahne. They are neck- and-neck in a number of statistical categories over the past three Darlington races, with Gordon often holding the edge:

Driver Rating: Gordon leads Kahne 114.7 to 97.8
Average Running Position: Gordon leads Kahne 6.4 to 10.6
Fastest Laps Run: Kahne leads Gordon 55 to 50
Laps in the Top 15: Gordon leads Kahne 1,091 to 802

If those stats continue, Gordon, who has a win and two runner-up finishes over the last three Darlington races, could join the top 12 at race's end.

Darlington Raceway Features Repave And Other Improvements

Darlington Raceway, a.k.a. the track "Too Tough to Tame," has undergone a $10 million facelift, the largest one-time investment in the storied 50-year history of the 1.366-mile raceway. Among the enhancements include: a new racing surface; addition of SAFER barrier walls to the interior frontstretch and backstretch concrete walls and extending the length of each pit box by one foot. The addition of a new infield access tunnel in Turn 3 also provided emergency and safety vehicles easy access in and out of the infield area of the race track.

Three veteran NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) and Ryan Newman (No. 12 Alltel Dodge) -- participated in a pair of Goodyear tire tests in March at Darlington. Gordon is a seven-time winner at Darlington and Biffle has won twice there. All three drivers came away impressed with the new racing surface.

"The basic transitions, the banking and walls haven't changed," said Gordon. "The bumps are gone, the grip level is high and it's awesome; they did a great job."

Biffle, who won back to back races at Darlington from 2005-06, says "I'm happy with the new surface; there aren't any bumps or dips that we noticed; I was pretty impressed with how smooth it was."

Newman, this year's Daytona 500 winner, says Darlington "is the most challenging track that we have and that's why I enjoy it the most. You always are having to adjust there."

David Ragan, Casey Mears Double Up On Weekly Teleconference

On The Line: David Ragan (No. 6 AAA Insurance Ford) and Casey Mears (No. 5 Kellogg's/ CARQUEST Chevrolet) fielded media questions during Monday's weekly session, taking a break from NASCAR Sprint Cup testing at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

David Ragan On The Upcoming Race At Darlington: "There certainly is a lot of anticipation from our side. My teammate, Greg Biffle, tested there a few weeks ago and said the track is really, really smooth, has a lot of speed in it, and only time will tell how the asphalt and weather is and how the tires react."

On His Season So Far: "I've got to keep working on not making mistakes inside the race car. We've got a great pit crew that we can depend on and (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig has been making a lot of the right calls. We very easily could be eighth in points right now, or we very easily could also be 25th in points."

Casey Mears On The New Car: "It's a great car; it's a safe product. We've put on some good races with it, but there is room for improvement. Hopefully, we can come up with a few things that make it a little bit better going into next season."

On The Upcoming Events at Lowe's: "As far as the (NASCAR Sprint) All-Star Race and (Coca-Cola) 600, we always look forward to that. It's a big pride thing to win the All-Star race, and hopefully we can come back and hold our title for the 600."

South Carolina Natives In The NASCAR Sprint Cup Garage

South Carolina natives abound in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage.

While no current drivers hail from the Palmetto State, there are more than a dozen crew members who call South Carolina home.

Steve Addington (Spartanburg) crew chiefs the No. 18 M&M's Toyota driven by this week's points leader Kyle Busch. Addington spent 15 seasons as a crew chief in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, including 11 with Jason Keller, the series' career leader in starts and likewise a Palmetto State native (Greenville). Addington has served as crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 car for the past four seasons. Reed Sorenson's No. 41 Target Dodge team has four team members from South Carolina, including crew chief Donnie Wingo (Spartanburg), engineer Tim Smith (Cope), rear tire carrier Adam Mosher (Ft. Mill), and engine tuner Rudy Wade (Greer).

The No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet team with driver Casey Mears features mechanic Gene Cornwell (Rock Hill) and gas man Brad Pickens (Greer).

Two members of driver J.J. Yeley's No. 96 DLP HDTV Toyota team are from South Carolina, including transporter driver Bryant Noggle (Myrtle Beach) and gas man Jason Rogers (Florence).

Rodney Ashley (Indiansville) serves as a mechanic for the No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet driven by Clint Bowyer, last week's winner at Richmond. Mike Lingerfelt (Greenville) is the front tire changer for two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), while Kevin McDowell (Myrtle Beach) is the spotter for Elliott Sadler's No. 19 McDonald's Dodge.

Two of NASCAR's all-time greatest drivers are from South Carolina. David Pearson (Spartanburg) won series titles in 1966, '68-69 and also collected 105 career victories, second only to Richard Petty's 200. Cale Yarborough (Sardis) is the only driver to win three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships in a row (1976-78) and totaled 83 career wins -- fifth all-time.

Chevrolet Maintains Slight Lead In Manufacturers' Standings

With the victory by Clint Bowyer last Saturday night at Richmond, Chevrolet was able to increase its lead -- ever so slightly -- in the Manufacturers' Championship race.

Chevrolet holds a four-point lead -- 64-60 -- over second-place Toyota. Ford is third with 55 points, with Dodge fourth at 41.

Each of the top three manufacturers now has three victories on the season. Chevrolet's are spread among three drivers -- Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Bowyer -- with one win apiece. Toyota is led by Kyle Busch with two and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota) with one. Ford's three victories have all come from Carl Edwards (No. 99 Claritin Ford).

Dodge's one win was certainly significant -- as Ryan Newman won the season-opening Daytona 500.

It's all a reflection of this year 's mix of winners and close competition.

Chevrolet drivers have won 37 times at Darlington Raceway, including last year's victory by Jeff Gordon. Ford drivers have visited Victory Lane 28 times at Darlington, including consecutive wins by Greg Biffle (2005-06), while Dodge has captured five wins there.

Rick Hendrick's Chevrolet teams have won 12 times at Darlington, the most of any car owner. Richard Childress Racing, likewise a Chevrolet team, is second among active owners, with eight victories at Darlington.

NASCAR's 60th Anniversary: Darlington Series' Second-Oldest Track

This season marks NASCAR's 60th anniversary and suffice to say, Darlington Raceway has had a big-time history-making role through the years.

Darlington is the second-oldest track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule (behind only Martinsville Speedway). The track's first race was in 1950; the second year of NASCAR's premier series, then called Grand National.

Darlington was unique in those days -- 1.25 miles and paved. Also unique: the field for the track's first race was 75 cars and qualifying extended over two weeks. Immediately, the track's "toughness" legend emerged as teams struggled with tire problems on the extremely abrasive surface. Johnny Mantz won the first event in 1950, driving a Plymouth.

South Carolina native David Pearson leads all drivers with 10 wins at Darlington, followed by Dale Earnhardt with nine. Jeff Gordon is third with seven victories. Pearson is the all-time pole winner with 12.

The Top 35: The No. 22 Toyota Jumps Up Three Spots And Inches Towards Top 35

The No. 22 Caterpillar Toyota, driven by Dave Blaney and owned by Bill Davis, was the biggest mover and shaker last week in the battle for the top 25.

Each week, the top 35 teams are guaranteed starting spots, with those outside the top 35 required to qualify on time.

Thanks to an 18th-place finish at Richmond, the No. 22 Toyota climbed three spots to 36th in the owners' point standings and is 71 points behind the 35th place car -- the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge -- owned by Roger Penske and driven by Sam Hornish Jr.

The No. 41 Target Dodge, owned by Chip Ganassi and driven by Reed Sorenson, moved up two spots from 32nd to 30th in the standings, as a result of a 12th place finish at Richmond.

The No. 40 Dodge Challenger Dodge, with owner Felix Sabates, fell three spots from 36th to 39th. Regular driver Dario Franchitti has been sidelined with a fractured left ankle since Talladega. Veteran Sterling Marlin will attempt to qualify the car this weekend at Darlington.

Just 48 points separate the 30th and 35th spots in the owner points standings. There is a six-point difference between 30th and 31st (No. 00 Toyota owned by Rob Kaufmann and driven by Michael McDowell) and a seven-point difference between 32nd (No. 44 UPS Toyota driven by David Reutimann and owned by Michael Waltrip) and 33rd (No. 55 NAPA Toyota driven and owned by Michael Waltrip). Just one point separates Waltrip's No. 55 Toyota from the 34th place car -- the No. 01 Principal Financial Group/DEI Chevrolet, owned by Teresa Earnhardt and driven by Regan Smith.

One Final Look

NASCAR Day: NASCAR Day (May 16) is just over one week away and fans can make their donations by calling 1-888-MAY16TH (1-888-629-1684) or using their Sprint wireless phone and pledging their support to the Telethon by texting their email addresses to 81714.

This weekend, The NASCAR Foundation will donate 50% of the funds raised from donations collected at Darlington Raceway to McLeod Health Foundation in Florence, S.C. Fans can also support the NASCAR Day initiative by making their $5 donation on www.nascar.com/nascarday and bid on several larger than life items as part of the NASCAR Day online auction. On Friday, May 16, The NASCAR Foundation will hold the second annual NASCAR Day Telethon at the Sam Bass Gallery in Concord. A number of NASCAR Sprint Cup and NASCAR Nationwide drivers are scheduled to participate.

Mother's Day Weekend At Darlington: For the fourth straight year, NASCAR races at Darlington on Mother's Day Weekend. As a special tribute, many of the drivers invite their mothers to the race, walk across stage with them during pre-race introductions and have their mothers say in unison, the most famous words in motorsports -- "Sons, start your engines."

NASCAR Sprint Cup Teams Test At Lowe's: Forty-eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams participated in a two-day test at the 1.5-mile Lowe's Motor Speedway on Monday and Tuesday. Not originally on the list of NASCAR-sanctioned tests for 2008, this week's session helped teams prepare for back-to-back events at Lowe's later this month, plus the 15 remaining events at 1.5-mile layouts. Teams are running their first full season with NASCAR's new car, and this week's test was a data-gathering and research boon. The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is May 17, followed by the 49th annual Coca-Cola 600 on May 25.

"The first thing that comes to mind is watching the track widen already," said two-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson. "I think it's a good sign for us when we come back. We will see a lot of side-by-side racing. There is a middle lane right now that a lot of cars are running."

Up Next: The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race

Next on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, Saturday, May 17 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. The non-championship points event gets underway with the Sprint Showdown (two 20 lap segments) at 7:30 p.m. The top-two finishers in the Sprint Showdown will also qualify for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race which gets underway at 9 p.m. The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is divided into four, 25-lap segments. A minimum $1 million will be awarded to the race winner.

Kevin Harvick is the defending All-Star race winner. Martin Truex Jr. (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) won last year's Sprint Showdown.

Dale Jarrett (No. 44 UPS Toyota) will be making his final career start. Jarrett officially retired from the series this past March following the race at Bristol.

The fourth annual NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge Presented by Craftsman kicks off All-Star week in Charlotte. That competition is scheduled for Thursday, May 15 at 7 p.m. at the Time Warner Cable Arena.

***

The Race: Dodge Challenger 500

The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Saturday, May 10

The Time: 7:20 p.m. (ET)
TV: FOX, 7 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS Satellite Radio

The Track: 1.366-mile oval
The Distance: 501 miles/367 laps

2007 Winner: Jeff Gordon
2007 Polesitter: Clint Bowyer

Pre-Race Schedule: Thursday -- Practice, 4:30-5:30 p.m.; 7-8 p.m.; Friday -- Practice, 12-1:30 p.m.; Final Practice, 2-3 p.m.; Qualifying, 5:15 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Dale Jarrett , Michael Waltrip , Jason Keller , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Sterling Marlin , Ryan Newman , Casey Mears , Dario Franchitti , Jimmie Johnson , Richard Petty , Michael McDowell , Kasey Kahne , J.J. Yeley , Martin Truex Jr. , Carl Edwards , Regan Smith , Chip Ganassi , Clint Bowyer , Mike Ling , David Ragan , Reed Sorenson , Dave Blaney , Roger Penske , Felix Sabates , Cale Yarborough , Sam Hornish Jr. , Kyle Busch , David Pearson
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Joe Gibbs Racing