Darlington: Tony Raines preview

TONY RAINES A New Car for an Old Friend CORNELIUS, N.C., (May 7, 2007) - NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow (COT) made its debut just a little more than a month ago on March 25, 2007, in the Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. Darlington...

A New Car for an Old Friend

CORNELIUS, N.C., (May 7, 2007) - NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow (COT) made its debut just a little more than a month ago on March 25, 2007, in the Food City 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.

Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, made its debut on the NASCAR circuit on Labor Day, 1950.

This week, the month-old COT meets the 57-year old Darlington.

In the words of George Costanza from TV's Seinfeld, "Worlds are colliding!"

Known as the track "Too Tough to Tame," Darlington is arguably the most challenging track on the 36-race NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series schedule.

The track, which hosts the Dodge Avenger 500 Nextel Cup Series event on Saturday night, is shaped like an egg. The turns are banked at about 24 degrees and the pavement is worn and abrasive. What this translates to is drivers running up against the wall throughout the race, often so close that they'll exit a turn with a black mark on the right side of their car, a mark that has become not so affectionately known over the years as a "Darlington Stripe."

Darlington will be the fastest and most aerodynamic-dependant track thus far for the COT, and it's really anyone's guess as to how the cars will truly handle in traffic at higher speeds in race conditions.

Tony Raines and the DLP HDTV Team are hoping that their mild success with the COT will continue at Darlington. Raines, with the help of crew chief Brandon Thomas, has finished inside the top-25 in all four COT races, including a 14th-place effort at Phoenix.

It's old meets new on Saturday night, and unlike Costanza, who would fret about the situation all week, Raines and Thomas are staying cool, calm and collected in hopes of finding victory lane at the famous old racetrack.

TONY RAINES (Driver, No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet):

Overall thoughts heading into Darlington:

"It will be the first race for the COT on a faster track, so it will be interesting to see what happens. Our COT program has been good at times. We've still got work to do, but I think we're off to a good start. Darlington will be a good test for us, as well as everyone else. I'm looking forward to it."

What makes Darlington such a notorious racetrack?

"It's a wicked track because the pavement is all worn out. It's narrow and then it got even narrower when they put the SAFER Barrier up. Just the way the place is banked and the layout, you have to run as close to the wall as possible. So if you slip a little bit, you get the 'Darlington Stripe.' You're going to kiss it (the wall). The trick is just to not kiss it too hard, because you're going to do it in the race once or twice. Sometimes hitting it too hard can knock you out of the race. So, that's really what you have to battle."

Do you like racing at Darlington?

"I like it a lot. It's a fun track to drive. The old IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park) racetrack used to be like that before they ground it and paved it. It was just a groove where you went up to the top as far as you could and as fast as you could. The way you drove IRP was a lot like Darlington. This was before they ground and paved IRP. You used to run right up to the wall, and it was old, worn-out asphalt. Some of the guys that used to run there said the same thing - and that was before I had ever driven at Darlington. Darlington was a lot like IRP, only bigger. That was a long time ago, though."

How important are tires at Darlington?

"They are life and death as far as your racing speed goes. New tires are worth two seconds a lap for a good while. It's the most abrasive race track we run on all year."

What does it take to have a good, solid lap at Darlington?

"The biggest thing is probably hitting your mark, no question. Being able to open the throttle early, and then keeping it open."

What do you think of Darlington's history and tradition?

"It's great. It's awesome to go somewhere where they have been racing for years and years. Basically, the track is unchanged. The race track is a challenge when you're out there by yourself, let alone with 42 other guys. That makes for good races. It comes down to one or two cars fighting for the spot. Everyone else is beaten and bruised after running around all night. It's just a cool place."

BRANDON THOMAS (Crew Chief, No. 96 DLP HDTV Chevrolet):

A lot of people think that the Darlington race will be the first true test for the Car of Tomorrow. What are your thoughts?

"Yeah, obviously with the speed, the aero component of the car is going to be huge there. It always has been in this era of car, so that's going to be a big test. The tests that we did with NASCAR last year - I don't particularly like the aero-characteristics of the car in traffic, so we'll see what that means at Darlington."

Would you have preferred a full, two-day test at Darlington before racing there?

"Darlington is a tough place to test at because NASCAR limits us to 10 sets of tires at one of their official tests. To really understand your car at Darlington, you need to put on a set of tires every run because the tires fall off so fast. So, you really need to plan your test around doing 15- to 20-lap runs every time you make a change. I've tested at Darlington before in previous years and didn't feel that it helped a whole lot. Darlington is one of those places that you love or hate. You just have to adapt to it on the fly."

Darlington is getting repaved next year. What are your thoughts on that?

"Yeah, the place is a dump from a track-surface standpoint, but that's the beauty of it. You look at any track they are repaving right now and how poor the racing is for the fans and how technical the racing becomes for the teams to try and figure it out. All they're going to do is dramatically increase the speeds at Darlington. Right now, you have a very, very interesting and, from my standpoint, a very fascinating race in terms of - a guy will go out and be the rabbit and run away from people, and 10 laps later he's burned up his tires. You'll see a lot more of the smarter veteran racers conserve, conserve, conserve. And they'll come back in and reel that guy in in a hurry. You'll see somebody who the TV announcers will talk about for five minutes at the beginning of a run being really fast. Twenty minutes later you'll look up and see he's just been lapped by the leaders because he's running too fast and not paying attention and racing the race track the way you are supposed to. So a repave at this time is really going to kill that."

What's going to be the biggest storyline for the COT at Darlington?

"It will continue to be the front half of the car. You might see some people mess around with the wing angle there, but you've always tried to claw for as much downforce as you could at that place. So you'll see the rear wing maxed out and you'll see people really try to work on the front end of the car. As bumpy as it is, as irregular as the surface is, you're going to have to come up with a suspension setup to keep the front end low and work from there."

Be it the old car or the COT, what is the one thing you want at Darlington as a crew chief?

"You have to make your car drive. You don't necessarily care what kind of lap time it cuts. If your car drives well and sustains itself well on tires, then that will translate into lap times in the race. You look at a place like Kansas compared to Darlington. At Kansas, if you're not quick on the board, you're just not quick and it's not going to get better. At Darlington, you can go down there and be dead last on the board and walk away with a top-10 finish because you stay smart, stay off the wall and you run a smart race. You take care and conserve the car, and 30 laps in you might be a half-second faster than everyone else, but that doesn't show up on the timing and scoring sheets."

-credit: hofr

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Tony Raines