NOTES FROM THE NASCAR NATION: TAMING THE TRACK TOO TOUGH TO TAME

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will see another round of Saturday night action at the track to tough to tame: Darlington Raceway. The Showtime Southern 500 is guaranteed to be filled with action when the 43 car starting field takes the green flag for 500 miles of racing on one of the most physically demanding, both on the drivers and the cars, race tracks on the NASCAR schedule.

THE STORY BREAKDOWN

One of the keys to winning at Darlington is a driver’s willingness to push himself and the car to limit especially through turns one and two where it’s so narrow. It will require them to earn their “Darlington Stripe” which occurs when the car goes sailing high into turn one and lightly grazes the wall leaving a paint scrape mark on the right rear quarter panel.

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This move is also necessary to maintain and improve track position which is another huge key to winning at Darlington. The other part of track position is, of course, superior performances from the pit crews during stops. These crews will be under pressure Saturday night to shave a few ticks off of the clock during a pit stop in order to get their driver off of pit road just a little faster than the competition.

Crew chiefs will also be feeling the pressure Saturday night as well. As the race progresses into the night, the track will cool down and that will mean the handling of the cars will change. It will be imperative for crew chiefs to get all the information they can from their drivers to make that all important informed decision regarding what their car is going to need to turn better.

The good news for the Sprint Cup teams is the fact that tire wear is not expected to become a negative factor during the race. There was a time when Darlington would chew up tires like a kid eating candy. However that factor was eradicated back in 2008 when a construction crew did an outstanding job repaving the speedway.

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During this age of NASCAR’s “have at it boys” policy what would a Sprint Cup race be without at least one feud in the making? The feud de jour Saturday night involves Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman following their bump and run incidents last weekend during the Richmond race. Both drivers are known for having short fuses when it comes to excessive hitting on the track. At this writing there doesn’t seem to be any indication they have contacted each other to smooth things out. This will be a pair to watch Saturday night.

There does seem to be one feud, from Richmond, that has reached a resolution. That would be Martin Truex Jr versus his Michael Waltrip Racing pit crew. After charging hard to lead the Richmond race, Truex lost a ton of track position on pit road due to a miscue involving a tire change. A very angry driver came over his radio and said “you’re fired, each and every one of you.”

In the aftermath came word that there will be new faces to carry and change the tires on Truex’s Toyota at Darlington Saturday night.

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Throughout the Darlington weekend you’ll be hearing updates regarding the medical condition of NASCAR Sprint Cup/Nationwide Series driver Trevor Bayne. Hopefully those updates will be as encouraging as the one we received on Thursday when we learned that he has been released from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and is now resting comfortably at his North Carolina home.

The popular Daytona 500 winner was treated for what was described as a possible inflammatory condition that created nausea, extreme fatigue and vision impairment. By Thursday the nausea and chronic fatigue were abated while the vision problems were treated with medication that seems to be generating improvement. Bayne will be continue to be closely monitored by Mayo Clinic doctors who earlier said that his condition was in no way considered to be life threatening or career ending.

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For many years now NASCAR has maintained a policy that said any race team that was within the top 35 in owner’s points would be guaranteed a starting berth in the next Sprint Cup race. Going into Saturday night’s Darlington race, there seems to be as much intrigue at the bottom of the owner’s standings that rivals the tight race at the top of the championship rankings.

At this point in time Ken Schrader, driver of the #32 Fas Lane Racing Ford, Casey Mears driver of the #13 Germain Racing Toyota and Andy Lally driver of the #71 TRG Ford are tied for that highly coveted 35th position in the owner’s standings. This will also be an interesting point to keep an eye on during the Darlington race.

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THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN

The Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE), has Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch sitting at the top of their rankings this week and their backing all three drivers with 6 to 1 odds. Hamlin is a rock solid choice. He’s the defending race champion, he has two top five finishes and four top tens at Darlington along with a very impressive 6.6 average finish ratio. Hamlin is also coming off the momentum of that badly needed strong run at Richmond last week where he finished second. Hamlin will also be looking for another strong effort to elevate his 17th place position in the points.

Johnson’s Darlington stats are equally impressive. The five time Sprint Cup champion, currently second in the points standings, is a two time winner and has compiled six top fives, nine top tens and a finish ratio of 6.3

Kyle Busch, third in the points standings, is also a previous Darlington winner and is always a threat to charge to the front at any track he races on. He also has a top five finish and three top tens with a finish ratio of 18.2.

Ranked at 8 to 1 odds this weekend is four time series champion Jeff Gordon. Now here’s a driver with some very impressive Darlington numbers. He’s a seven time winner there with 18 top fives, 21 top tens and a healthy finish ratio of 11. A horrendous accident at Richmond last weekend dropped him to 16th in the points and he’ll be looking to improve that situation Saturday night.

Also ranked at 8 to 1 is current Sprint Cup points leader Carl Edwards who has been a model of consistency all season long. Edwards is still looking for that first Darlington win but does have a pair of top five finishes and a 15.6 finish ratio.

All by himself, at 10 to 1 odds, is Kevin Harvick who’s also seeking that first Darlington win. Currently fifth in the championship standings, Harvick has a pair of top five finishes, along with five top tens at the track too tough to tame.

At 12 to 1 you will find a trio of drivers featuring Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Greg Biffle. All three of them might be an interesting long shot wager. Stewart, tenth in the points, is also looking for his first ever Darlington win and seems determined to improve performance levels of his self owned team which he termed “embarrassing” last weekend.

Earnhardt has turned into the model of consistency of late and is fourth in the points. He’s still seeking the Darlington victory lane but does have three top five finishes, and seven top tens, with a finish ratio of 15.2.

Biffle may be the long shot bet that lines your pocket with some Las Vegas cash. He’s a two time winner at Darlington with a finish ratio of 14.8.

In the middle tier of this week’s WSE ratings you will find Clint Bowyer who could also turn out to be a long shot wager. Bowyer has enjoyed some strong performances as of late that has elevated him to seventh in the points. However be advised that his Darlington stats are not that strong. We’re talking no wins, no top fives, one top ten and a 23.2 finish ratio.

At 20 to 1 you will find the duo of Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch. However Jeff Burton and Mark Martin, at 25 to 1, might be an interesting consideration. Both drivers are two time Darlington winners.

At the lower end of the WSE list this week is a quintet of drivers led by unhappy campers Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also in this group are Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray. At the bottom of the list are Michael Waltrip Racing divers Martin Truex Jr, 40 to 1, and David Reutimann at 50 to 1. All other drivers, not appearing on the list, are automatically rated at 25 to 1 by the WSE.

Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these posted numbers are for information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage not condone the placing of wagers on their races. They would much prefer that you use your gambling money for more important causes such as purchases from the NASCAR online store.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

Saturday’s Showtime Southern 500 in 367 laps/501.322 miles around the Darlington Raceway’s 1.366 mile egg shaped oval.

The race has 47 entries vying for the 43 starting berths. 12 of these entries are on the go or go home list meaning they are not guaranteed a starting berth in the race because they are currently outside of the top 35 in NASCAR’s owner’s points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speeds to make the race.

The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington was held on Labor Day of 1950 and was won by California driver Johnny Mantz. The race had a starting field of 75 cars and took over six hours to complete. The average speed of that first race was 76 MPH. In direct comparison the fastest average race speed at Darlington, 140.350 MPH, was set by winner Kyle Busch in the spring of 2008.

There has been 107 Sprint Cup races at Darlington since 1950 that has sent 44 different drivers to victory lane. The Silver Fox, David Pearson, leads the all time list for Darlington wins with ten. Jeff Gordon leads the active drivers win list with seven. Gordon’s stats at Darlington are very much responsible for Hendrick Motorsports topping the team win list with 13. Chevrolet leads the manufacturer’s standings with 38 wins.

With track position being so important at Darlington, a good qualifying run is essential. Denny Hamlin holds the track qualifying record, 180.370 MPH, set in May of last year. 19, of the 107, races have been won from the pole position. 67 wins originated from within the top five starting positions, 93 have originated from the top ten positions.

Darlington Raceway presently has seating for 68,000 fans. Turns one and two are banked at 25 degrees and measures 79 feet wide. Turns three and four are banked at 23 degrees and measures 62 feet wide. Both the front and back stretch measures 1,229 long, 90 feet wide and has three and two degrees of banking respectively. The pit road measure 2,025 long by 46 feet wide. The pit road speed is 45 MPH. The pit window for Saturday’s race is an estimated 52 to 56 laps.

Weather could impact final practice sessions and possible the Nationwide Series race Friday night. The forecast calls for a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms after 2 pm eastern time. The Saturday forecast calls for sunny skies and 79 degrees during the day and cloudy conditions and 56 degrees Saturday night.

The Showtime Southern 500 will be broadcast live by Fox Sports beginning at 7 pm eastern time. The re air will be on Wednesday, May 11th, beginning at 12 pm eastern on SPEED.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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