05/09/12 12:50PM Darlington, NASCAR Truck Series, nationwide series, Sprint Cup

At Darlington, Trouble Lurks Around Every Corner

May 8, 2012


From any angle, whether you’ve been there once or 20 times, Darlington Raceway is a challenge.

The racing line is narrow, the asphalt aged and the chassis set-up that works well in one set of turns is a compromise – at best – in the other.

Competitors in Saturday’s 63rd Bojangles’ Southern 500 will be racing at speeds of more than 180 mph on a track where the pole speed was 85 mph for 1950’s inaugural event.
A Darlington Stripe – the ubiquitous scrape on the ‘passenger’s’ side – can be a badge of honor or the beginning of abject horror. A split-second’s inattention can produce a slide into SAFER barrier, another competitor or both. The last seven races have seen the caution wave an average of 10.7 times. The record, 17, was set in 2009.

Denny Hamlin, with two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories this season, won his first Southern 500 in 2010 and can’t wait to roll his No. 11 Toyota onto the 1.366-mile layout. "I just strive on harder race tracks to try to figure out – the Poconos, the Martinsvilles – tracks that just some people love and hate," said Hamlin, whose Joe Gibbs Racing team has won two of the past four Darlington races and three overall. "It just seems like we have adapted to it and found a way to get around the track." For others, well:

Brad Keselowski has both momentum and a pleasant Darlington history. Keselowski won at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, his second victory of the year. He finished third at Darlington a year ago and seventh in 2009. Owner Roger Penske hasn’t been to the South Carolina track’s Victory Lane since 1975, when NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison swept both races in an AMC Matador.

A year ago, Regan Smith became the sixth driver to post his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Darlington, joining inaugural winner Johnny Mantz, two-time champion Terry Labonte, Larry Frank, Lake Speed and Nelson Stacy. Smith needs a pick-me-up. He’s finished among the top 15 just once in this season’s first 10 races.

Danica Patrick hasn’t seen NSCS racing until she’s witnessed firsthand the perils of Daytona. She’ll do that this weekend, also competing in Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race. She’s locked into the race based on Tommy Baldwin Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet ranked 33rd in Owners’ Championship points.

Kurt Busch and Phoenix Racing need a good showing in a home state race. James Finch’s team is based in Spartanburg, S.C., the hometown of NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson, whose 10 victories are the most by any driver at Darlington.

Darlington Raceway was NASCAR’s first paved superspeedway. Its construction in a cotton field by Harold Brasington presaged the organization’s path to national prominence. By the beginning of the next decade, similar tracks were built in Daytona Beach, Fla., Atlanta and Charlotte.

Eight NASCAR Hall of Fame members – Pearson, Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson – won a combined 39 Darlington races.

Not So Sweet 16: Can Hendrick Quench Drought At Darlington?
More than a decade has passed since Hendrick Motorsports slogged through this kind of drought.
Back in 2001, Hendrick went the final eight races without a win. Then in 2002, the squad went the first nine winless. That 17-race drought ranks as the team’s sixth-longest in an NSCS history that began in 1984.

The seventh longest? This one. Right here, right now.

Sixteen races have passed since Hendrick’s last win, but one of its top tracks awaits – Darlington Raceway. Hendrick has 13 victories at The Track Too Tough To Tame, most by any owner all-time. On Hendrick’s personal wins list, Darlington ranks tied for third with Dover behind only Martinsville (18) and Charlotte (16).

So, is this the week? As was the case every race since the team’s most recent win last October, the chances certainly seem solid.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., third in points, comes off his sixth straight top-10 finish – matching a career-long stretch.

Jeff Gordon, whose "when it rains, it pours" season continued in Talladega, leads all active drivers in Darlington wins with seven. Jimmie Johnson swept Darlington in 2004, but hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 2008.

Kasey Kahne finished fourth last year at Darlington, but prior to that race stumbled through five consecutive finishes of 20th or worse.

Last Call: Darlington Final Opportunity (Sort Of) To Make All-Star Field
This is it. Kind of.

Saturday night’s race at Darlington Speedway marks the final points race before the May 19 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. That means it’s the final opportunity for drivers not already locked into the field to do so. In a way.

In actuality, after this weekend’s race, those not already locked into the all-star field can do so by finishing either first or second in the Sprint Showdown or winning the Sprint Fan Vote (click here to vote: http://nas.cr/a32m).

But no driver wants that kind of pressure. The Sprint Showdown is blink-of-an-eye quick (two 20-lap segments), so anything but a fast start likely spells trouble. And with some fan-favorite names on the Sprint Fan Vote ballot (i.e. Dale Earnhardt Jr.), it’s not wise to rely on that. So, Darlington it is.

Those thoughts swirl in the heads of some huge names, namely Earnhardt, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton and AJ Allmendinger.

All sit in the top 20 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings, and all are currently without an all-star nod.

Who among that group fares the best at Darlington? Burton owns the top average finish, with a 12.1. Coming off his first top-10 finish in six races, he boasts two Darlington victories (both in 1999).
 
Tops in Driver Rating at Darlington: Earnhardt. With four top 10s in the last seven races, he owns an eighth-best Darlington Driver Rating of 92.5.

Points Leader Biffle Counts Pair Of Darlington Victories
Greg Biffle didn’t just dodge a bullet at Talladega. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader fired the gun.

Fifth-place wasn’t a win but it offers further proof that the standings leader since after race No. 3 in Las Vegas won’t relinquish his advantage easily. Not even to Roush Fenway Racing teammate and Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, who jumped from fourth to second in the standings to trail by seven points as the series moves to Darlington.

Biffle and Talladega haven’t always been the best of friends. Biffle needed 13 trips to the 2.66-mile track to gather his first top-10. He crashed out of four of five races in 2006-08.
Things have changed – and how. Beginning with 2007, when he finished seventh and fourth, Biffle has finished seven consecutive races on the lead lap.

Darlington, where Biffle won consecutive Bojangles’ Southern 500s in 2005-06, is an opportunity to solidify the championship lead. Biffle finished eighth a year ago and has but a single DNF – engine failure in 2008 – in 11 Darlington starts. His Driver Rating of 109.7 ranks second.

Still, Biffle takes nothing for granted. "If you make a little mistake or your car gets away from you a little bit, you've got a Darlington Stripe, and hopefully just a Darlington Stripe because you're going so fast, it can damage the car quickly," he said.

Victory Eludes Stewart At Darlington Speedway
For Tony Stewart, it’s one track down and two to go.

The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion entered the 2012 season winless at just three tracks on the current schedule: Darlington Raceway; Kentucky Speedway, which ran its inaugural event in 2011, and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Scratch Las Vegas; Stewart won there in March leading a race-high 127 laps.

Darlington remains an uphill climb. Stewart owns just three top-five finishes in 19 previous starts. His Driver Rating of 88.1 is 11th best. He finished seventh, however, a year ago.
Stewart remains well ahead of last year’s title pace but his No. 14 Chevrolet team, with Spartanburg, S.C., native Steve Addington handling crew chief duties for the first time, continues to seek consistency. Two victories and a points ranking of seventh make Stewart pretty much a lock for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.
 
"If you can say you won a race at Darlington – that’s a feather in your cap," said Stewart. "That’s something to be proud of, knowing that you’re in a group of drivers with names like Pearson and Petty – the pioneers of our sport who you hear stories about the races they ran there and the races they won there."

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Milestone Markers: Ryan Newman aims, yet again, to become the ninth driver to reach 50 career Coors Light Poles. He has one pole at Darlington, in 2003. … Greg Biffle’s next lap led will be his 5,000th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series lap led. … On Saturday night, Brad Keselowski becomes the 189th driver to reach 100 career NSCS starts. Six drivers have won their 100th start: Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Junior Johnson, Rex White, Joe Weatherly and Carl Edwards. … With his next top-five finish, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will become the 34th driver with 100 top fives. … With Danica Patrick piloting the No. 10 Chevrolet, David Reutimann will run the No. 93 BK Racing Toyota.

Can’t Keep Reigning Champ Stenhouse Down For Long
After a tumultuous beginning to his 2012 season, the reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has fought back from ninth in the standings following Daytona to retake the No. 1 position five points ahead of second-place Elliott Sadler. 

Consistency has been the key to success for Stenhouse. While Sadler and Stenhouse both have two wins, Stenhouse has the upper hand with his series-leading six top-five finishes compared to Sadler’s four.

The tide may turn back in Sadler’s favor after Darlington. While both Sadler (third) and Stenhouse (10th) posted their best series career finishes at Darlington last season, Sadler’s experience might give him the edge. Sadler has made eight starts at Darlington, posting one pole, two top fives, three top 10s and an average finish of 18.7, compared to Stenhouse’s two starts, posting one top 10 and an average finish of 23.5. Several key pre-race Loop Data categories give Sadler the edge heading into Darlington: Driver Rating - Sadler (120.8), Stenhouse (85.5); and Average Running Position - Sadler (4.2), Stenhouse (16.3).

Blaney Showed Veteran Experience In Debut; Can He Back It Up At Darlington?
Among the glitz and glamour that followed the big-name drivers of the series around two weeks ago at Richmond, one driver, Ryan Blaney, let his driving speak for itself.
Blaney, 18, the son of NASCAR veteran Dave Blaney, made his series debut at Richmond, starting eighth and finishing seventh. But Blaney’s race was no cakewalk. After experiencing a penalty on pit road that dropped him outside of the top 10, Blaney kept his resolve and fought his way back to seventh place. In the process, he made 40 Quality Passes (passes made during green flag conditions while running in the Top 15), the most of any driver in the event.  

"Anything that Ryan does is not a surprise," said two-time NNS champion Kevin Harvick. "He is a tremendous talent." (Click for Harvick’s audio)
In just four starts in the K&N Pro Series East and West, Blaney has a win – last November at Phoenix – a second and two other top-10 results. Blaney is running for Tommy Baldwin Racing, a team with a limited schedule that also includes drivers Ryan Truex and Bobby Santos.

Star-Studded Field Provides Plenty For The Fans To See
The storied history of Darlington Raceway has caused many of NASCAR’s top drivers to sign up for this Friday’s VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 under the lights. Not only will the field have the likes of NSCS drivers Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, but also NNS standouts Travis Pastrana and Danica Patrick. Patrick will be pulling double duty, driving the No. 10 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet in the NSCS race Saturday night. The weekend will be Patrick’s and Pastrana’s NASCAR national series track debut at Darlington Raceway.
 
"I know it is going to be hard, and I know there will be some frustrating moments, and that I am probably going to feel a little embarrassed. But I am there to get my Darlington stripes and move along," Patrick said

Pastrana took advantage of the opportunity to meet with NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee David Pearson on March 31. Pearson holds the most NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins at Darlington (10) and most poles (12).

 "I’m still learning the sport of NASCAR, so to get some great advice from a legend like Mr. Pearson will be extremely beneficial for me when I get to Darlington," Pastrana said.

NASCAR Nationwide Series, Etc.
Kyle Busch, the 2009 series champion, is the defending winner at Darlington. He will play the role of team owner this weekend, overseeing brother Kurt Busch in the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota. Kurt delivered Kyle’s first NNS win as an owner two weeks ago at Richmond. ... It’s homecoming week for Jeremy Clements (Spartanburg), Danny Efland (Irmo) and the JD Motorsports team (Gaffney). Clements is currently 14th in the driver standings.

He was as high as 11th three times earlier this season. Efland, a graduate of the University of South Carolina, will make his third start of the season at his home track.

It will be a welcome week at home for JDM after scrambling to get to Talladega following a hauler fire at their shop on April 29. The team’s driver, Mike Wallace, will attempt to make his 425th series start (third on all-time NNS starts list). … Plenty of young talent has forced its way into the top 10 in the current series standings, but veterans Mike Bliss and Joe Nemechek are ninth and 10th, respectively. Bliss finished 12th in the final rankings last year for his TriStar Motorsports team. Nemechek, the 1992 series champion, also was ranked 10th following Phoenix in March. ... Due to a late-race incident that cost him an almost certain top10, Michael Annett‘s string of six consecutive top-15 finishes was snapped at Talladega. Despite the 23rd place, Annett is sixth in the standings. … Brian Scott will be among the current and former NASCAR drivers participating in the skid plate race Thursday night at Myrtle Beach Speedway’s "NASCAR Celebrity Night." Proceeds benefit the Victory Junction Gang Camp.

Keselowski Pursues Pair Of NASCAR Truck Goals
Job 1 for Brad Keselowski Racing is backing Parker Kligerman to the 2012 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship. So far, so good as Kligerman – coming off an eighth-place finish last month at Kansas Speedway – ranks sixth in the standings.

"We’re solidly knocking off finishes, picking up valuable points and bringing home clean trucks," said Kligerman, who’s competing in his second full season in the series. "We’ve got good speed in our Ram [truck]. We’ve got what it takes. We just have to execute better."

The team owner, however, has some unfinished business. Brad Keselowski competed in only one full season before climbing the ladder to Penske Racing, a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship and six NASCAR Sprint Cup victories. He still lacks a truck win.

"I’m just motivated; I want to make that happen," said Keselowski after finishing third in Kansas. A victory in the May 18 Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway would make him the 24th different driver to win in all three national series. He also would join his father, Bob Keselowski, as a NCWTS winner – an unprecedented achievement
.
The elder Keselowski, whose family team was a charter member of the series in 1995, won at Richmond in 1997. Brad’s NASCAR career, as crew member, team engineer and later driver, grew with the Michigan operated organization
.
"I know we’ve had some seconds and thirds in this deal. It’s a lot harder when you do it with your own team versus a Cup-affiliated team, that’s for sure. It makes it that much more worthwhile," he said.

Charlotte Meister Wauters Hopes To Work Magic With Rookie
Richie Wauters’ debut as a NCWTS owner has been bumpy, to say the least. Unaccustomed, as a crew chief, to seeing his driver outside Victory Lane, the top five and top 10, Wauters No. 5 Ford driven by Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Paulie Harraka has yet to experience success.

Charlotte, where Wauters is a magician, could be a great reset for the first-year team and driver, who stands 20th in points after four races.

In seven starts at Charlotte Motor Speedway with three different drivers – Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola and Shane Hmiel – Wauters counts two wins, three top fives and six top 10s.
"We’ve been fortunate to have some awesome drivers that have helped with that success," said Wauters, who wears both owner and crew chief hats in 2012. "Coming into Charlotte with a rookie driver is a bit more challenging, but with seat time and laps logged, Paulie will adapt quickly," he said. "Charlotte is the fastest track we’ve run other than Daytona."

Sunday will be a big day for Harraka, who will receive his bachelor’s degree in Markets and Managements at Duke University’s Wallace Wade Stadium. "Graduating from Duke is an amazing milestone in my life. It's taken a lot of hard work, but I'd do it all again if I had the chance," Harraka said.

Ty Dillon Holds Solid Rookie Lead – For Now
Ty Dillon’s got a great jump on a NCWTS first: joining his older brother and 2011 champion Austin Dillon as the Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

With four of 22 races down, Dillon is the top-ranked of 13 freshman candidates. He leads Daytona winner John King by 16 points with Cale Gale third. Dillon has been the top-finishing rookie contender in three consecutive races.

History suggests the double-digit lead will shrink. Although Dillon continues to rank fourth in overall series standings, the rookie award – which Austin Dillon won in 2010 – is based upon a candidate’s 17 best finishes.

 Rookies placed two finishers among the top 10 in last year’s North Carolina Education Lottery 200: Cole Whitt (third) and Parker Kligerman (eighth).

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
 Cale Gale returns to his home state Saturday to compete in late model racing at Montgomery (Ala.) Motor Speedway. … James Buescher goes to Darlington Raceway on Friday for NNS action, having finished seventh at Talladega Superspeedway on May 5. … Jason Leffler, with a car recently purchased from Rockingham winner Kasey Kahne, will drive in sprint car events at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Ind., Saturday and Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway Sunday. … Justin Lofton and his father, Bob Lofton, finished seventh in 1500 P class and 13th overall in last weekend’s off-road racing Best in the Desert Silver State 300 near Las Vegas.