Darlington: Series round 11 preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes Darlington Tough To Tame, Tougher To Win "The Lady In Black" -- aka, Darlington Raceway -- may have added a few flourishes to her gown in recent years (new infield tunnel, pavement, grandstands, etc.) --...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes

Darlington Tough To Tame, Tougher To Win

"The Lady In Black" -- aka, Darlington Raceway -- may have added a few flourishes to her gown in recent years (new infield tunnel, pavement, grandstands, etc.) -- but rest assured she's the same ornery matron that NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers alternately love and loathe.

The egg-shaped track in South Carolina's sand hills is one of NASCAR's oldest-sanctioned facilities (Johnny Mantz won its first NASCAR Sprint Cup race in 1950). It's also the sport's first superspeedway, and despite her age, Darlington remains a challenge. Drivers who triumph there view those victories as career highlights; whoever captures Saturday night's SHOWTIME Southern 500 will do the same, whether as a firsttimer or a repeat winner.

"Only the best of the best in our sport go on to win there," said Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/National Guard Chevrolet), who leads all active drivers with seven Darlington victories.

Saturday night's event -- a more recent tradition under the lights, on Mother's Day weekend -- marks the third consecutive race at one of NASCAR's classic tracks. Talladega Superspeedway (the biggest track on the series schedule, at 2.66 miles) was the first three weeks ago, producing series and track records for lead changes and lap leaders along with an eye-blink victory by Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) over Jamie McMurray (No. 1 McDonald's Chevrolet).

Last Saturday night, it was .75-mile Richmond International Raceway, another unique venue. Winner Kyle Busch (No. 18 Doublemint Toyota) bested Gordon, the second-place finisher there, after a pair of late-race restarts.

This Saturday, it's the SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington, of which Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, explains the allure.

"When I came along, the history of the track and how it fit into NASCAR's history was very well documented," he said. "The names, (Richard) Petty and (David) Pearson and (Cale) Yarborough and (Dale) Earnhardt, those were things that stuck out to me as, 'Wow, if you can win here then you're really doing something.' ''

Step out of line, drivers say, and The Lady will slap you with a "Darlington stripe" -- a nasty black streak on the car's right side, testament to a run-in with a wall. Turns 3 & 4, tight and narrow -- the top of the "egg" -- are notorious for it. Turns 1 & 2 can deliver no less of a rebuke, though they're more expansive -- the "bottom of the egg."

"Three and four have less grip," said Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet), a two-time Darlington winner. "One and two are banked more."

That leads to constant conversation and compromise between driver and crew chief. Set up your car for one pair of turns, and be prepared to sacrifice performance at the track's other end.

"There's just no room for error," Burton. "At Darlington, the groove is narrow and the track is narrow."

A fresh coat of asphalt prior to the 2008 race weekend substituted one challenge for another. Before the repaving project, Darlington's rough, sandy surface chewed tires, making tire management -- and the ability to set up the car around tire wear -- a crucial strategy. Darlington's asphalt now is smooth, and very speedy.

Think 170 mph on a two-lane road. Or, as Burton says, "It's harder in a different way."

"Track position is extremely important," Gordon said. "You have to compromise as a driver, as a team with the set up because both ends of the race track are totally different so you're never going to have a perfect car or perfect set up. As a driver, you have to work around that and try to find the fastest way. That place is fast now and it's hard to pass."

Harvick On Point For RCR Comeback Season

Kevin Harvick once again resides atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings as the series prepares for Saturday's SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington. And, as has been the case throughout 2010, teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer (No. 33 The Hartford Chevrolet) aren't far behind.

Harvick, who followed up his victory at Talladega two weeks ago with a third-place finish last week at Richmond, leads the standings for the second time this season. He hasn't fallen below fifth through 10 races.

Harvick grabbed the standings lead following the season's second event, at Auto Club Speedway and held it for four consecutive weeks before brake trouble at Martinsville dropped him to fourth. He remained there for three weeks, before the Talladega win boosted him to second.

Heading to Darlington, Burton -- a two-time winner there -- is ninth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. Bowyer is 12th.

"You look at that and you say, 'We can lead the points after 10 races,' " Harvick said of his team. "But in order to get better, we got to get a little better on pit road, be more consistent. When we make mistakes, we make big mistakes."

Richard Childress Racing's return to prominence has progressed from noteworthy to fact. At least one RCR driver has finished in the top 10 of each of the 10 events thus far.

Both Burton and Bowyer were in the top 12 after 10 events a year ago, with Harvick mired in 23rd. But none earned Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berths, prompting crew chef switches during the 2009 season and the ascension of Burton's former crew chief, Scott Miller, into a competition director's role.

"Richard has given Scott a lot of latitude to do things that have really impacted our company in a positive way," said Burton. "I think Scott's done a phenomenal job. He hasn't had many rookie mistakes."

Harvick's Talladega victory marked not only an RCR milestone of sorts, but perhaps also a harbinger. His last-second win was the first there for the organization since Dale Earnhardt's October 2000 victory. RCR's Darlington drought is even more extensive -- all the way back to the spring of 1994, also an Earnhardt victory.

"All three of us have been in contention at one point or another to win a race this year," Bowyer said. "One of us has gotten the job done. I think we keep knocking on the door, keep improving on the little things that make a big difference and we will all be getting wins. Hopefully multiple wins this year."

Gordon's Frustration Evident -- And Understandable, Given Near-Misses

Forgive Jeff Gordon if he's ready to chew nails out of frustration. The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion might have multiple wins by now if circumstances had favored him a bit more in 2010, but instead of railing, he's counting blessings. Pit-road calls, on-track entanglements, a pair of sheet-metal disagreements with another four-time champion, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) and plain bad luck all have foiled potential Gordon victories at Las Vegas, Martinsville, Texas and Talladega. Last Saturday at Richmond, Gordon led late, only to have Kyle Busch motor past him over the final two laps after the last restart. Saturday's SHOWTIME Southern 500 might produce a sea change. Gordon leads all active drivers with seven Darlington Raceway wins, and perhaps no one better understands "The Track Too Tough To Tame." "There's just a small margin of error there because you're running so fast close to the wall," he said of Darlington. "If you focus too much on trying to outrun the competition then you'll make a mistake. A lot of times, you just run a nice race and keep yourself out of trouble. You will usually end up towards the top." Focusing inward appears to be Gordon's and crew chief Steve Letarte's focus this season. Gordon enters the Darlington race weekend sixth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings, 162 points behind leader Kevin Harvick after 10 events. He led the standings after 10 events last year, which included one win, but he prefers what he sees now. "Last year we came out, we were consistent, we were running okay, we won a race at Texas," Gordon said. "I didn't think we were near dominant enough, leading enough laps, or diverse enough to run good at a lot of different types of tracks to compete for the championship. I feel like that's the difference for us this year. "Other than the win column, I feel like we're dominating races at times, we're leading laps pretty much everywhere we go. We're running up front. We're putting ourselves in a position to win late in races. Our pit crew is strong. Everything is going good, other than getting the win. I'm extremely happy with the way things are going. I think we're a better team than we were this time last year."

Biffle Has Occasionally Tamed Darlington Raceway

Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Ford) began the 2010 season with the vengeance of a man with something to prove.

Though he made the 2009 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, he ended the season winless, seventh in the final standings.

His absence from Victory Lane was the most surprising part. He had previously won at least one race in six consecutive seasons.

But last season, nothing. His best finish was third, three times (Texas-1, Dover-1 and Kansas).

He matched that mark immediately in 2010, finishing third in the Daytona 500 (his career-best finish in the 500). Biffle then reeled off five more top-10 runs, becoming the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2005 to start a season with six consecutive top 10s.

But then the hiccup came. Since the string of top 10s to start 2010, Biffle has finished outside the top 10 in three of four races. The "slump" has caused Biffle to drop a bit in the series standings, from second after Martinsville to his current fifth-place position.

But a welcome challenge, egg-shaped and quick, arrives this weekend. Biffle excels at Darlington Raceway like no other track. His overall Driver Rating there -- 123.1 -- makes Darlington his best track in terms of Loop Data statistics. Biffle has two wins at Darlington, in 2005 and '06, and scored some of the top statistics produced there since the inception of Loop Data in '05.

Since 2005 at Darlington, Biffle has an Average Running Position of 7.6 (third-best), a serieshigh 251 Fastest Laps Run (251), a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 89% (second) and 157 Quality Passes (passes of cars in the top 15 under green), which is fourth-most. His Driver Rating of 123.1 is a series-best.

But it hasn't all been joyous at Darlington for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. In 2008, Biffle finished 43rd, a rarity in his successful eight-plus year career.

Biffle has finished last only four times: New Hampshire in 2003, Charlotte in 2007, and Darlington and Daytona in 2008.

FANTASY FIX: The statistics suggest Darlington might be a tough one to predict. The last two races there were won by drivers who ranked outside the top 10 in pre-race Driver Rating. Last season, Mark Martin ranked 12th; in 2008, Kyle Busch ranked 13th. The 12th- and 13th-ranked drivers this year in prerace Driver Rating: Kasey Kahne (91.6) and Matt Kenseth (91.2).

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

Milestones: Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford) will make his 375th series start in Saturday's SHOWTIME Southern 500. Second-year driver Joey Logano (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet) will make his 50th series start and his 100th NASCAR national-series start.

Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) is pursuing his 75th top-five finish. Mark Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet) is after his 50th pole. Other drivers on the cusps of milestones: Bobby Labonte (No. 71 TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet) for his 200th top 10 and Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) for his 50th top 10.

Celebrating NASCAR Hall Of Fame Inductees: Several NASCAR Sprint Cup teams are running special marks on their cars to honor the individuals who will be enshrined during the NASCAR Hall of Fame Inaugural Induction Ceremony on Sunday, May 23.

This week, Hendrick Motorsports' No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet -- driven by reigning and fourtime champion Jimmie Johnson -- will sport a logo recognizing the induction of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. Also, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 1 McDonald's Chevrolet -- driven by reigning Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray -- will sport a logo honoring former NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr.

Darlington Car Hauler Parade: Fans attending this weekend's NASCAR events at Darlington Raceway can enjoy a growing tradition surrounding the SHOWTIME Southern 500.

NASCAR haulers -- the larger transporters that carry teams' equipment and cars to the race track each week -- will put on a show Thursday evening as they journey to "The Lady In Black."

The sixth annual Darlington Car Hauler Parade begins at 7 p.m., at the Florence Civic Center. It ends 12 miles later at Darlington Square; trucks then will proceed the short distance to Darlington Raceway.

Fans are encouraged to gather along the parade route and at the Florence Civic Center before the parade, where festivities begin at 4 p.m. Among them: A silent auction to benefit Habitat for Humanity via the NASCAR Foundation, live music and other family-oriented activities. Auction participants can bid for the opportunity to ride in select haulers during the parade.

Miss Sprint Cup, Paige Duke, arrives at 5:15 p.m., for a meet-and-greet and to serve as the event's Grand Marshal. Other activities, plus a live band, await at RaceFest in Darlington Square.

Up Next: Race 12 @ Dover

The Autism Speaks 400 Presented by Hershey's Milk & Milkshakes will take place several weeks earlier than its usual date in early June at Dover International Speedway, aka "the Monster Mile."

The 2010 edition is scheduled for Sunday, May 16, at 1 p.m. ET (FOX pre-race at noon ET).

Reigning and four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Jimmie Johnson won both 2009 events, his second career sweep at Dover. He also swept both Dover events during his rookie season of 2002, leads all active drivers with five Dover victories (he's tied with David Pearson in that category).

Legends Bobby Allison and Richard Petty lead all drivers with seven career victories there. Pearson leads all drivers with six Dover poles.

Mark Martin leads all drivers with 22 top fives and 30 top 10s at Dover, one of his favorite tracks. He has four Dover wins.

The trip to Dover also marks the first "tripleheader" weekend since the three national series -- NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series -- opened their seasons on the same February weekend at the same track, Daytona International Speedway.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are expected to race in all three events that weekend.

Fast Facts

The Race: SHOWTIME Southern 500
The Place: Darlington Raceway (1.366-mile oval)

The Date: Saturday, May 8
The Time: 7:30 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 501 miles / 367 laps

TV: FOX , 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128. (Local: WEGX-FM 92.9.)

2009 Polesitter: Matt Kenseth
2009 Winner: Mark Martin

Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Friday -- Practice, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1:30-3 p.m. Qualifying, 5:10 p.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Richard Petty , Kasey Kahne , Brian Vickers , Bobby Allison , Clint Bowyer , Joey Logano , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin , David Pearson
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing , Hendrick Motorsports , Roush Fenway Racing