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Jamie McMurray, with Earnhardt-Childress horsepower, takes the Southern 500 pole | NASCAR Racing Breaking News: Trackside Live, Every Week, Every Sprint Cup Race - MikeMulhern.net


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Jamie McMurray, with Earnhardt-Childress horsepower, takes the Southern 500 pole

  Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray taking aim at the legendary Southern 500....from the pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   The hottest race of the season, that's the way Saturday night's Southern 500 is shaping up.
   "I just started a couple days ago pounding water," Denny Hamlin says. "That's really all you can do.  That, and eat a lot of pasta for the next couple days to try to keep that water soaked in you. 
    "You just do the best you can to make sure you hydrate well."
   Jamie McMurray took the pole for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. ET start, edging Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers with a sizzling track record 180.370 mph Friday afternoon...on a track originally designed for 1950s speeds of 85 mph. That record comes on asphalt now some two years old, and on a blazing hot spring afternoon.
    And the way Friday went here, expect temper-tantrums in this 500 miler.
    Kevin Harvick, the Sprint Cup tour leader, is already in form: When asked about his day, Harvick snapped back sharply "this stuff stinks," or words to that effect. And when asked about the status of contract negotiations with owner Richard Childress Harvick was even sharper in his response: "I don't care to talk about that."
     And that was about all the potential NASCAR champion was willing to say to the media Friday.
    One possible reason for Harvick's irritability could be sponsorship related. Shell announced two weeks ago it would leave at the end of the season; but then last week it appeared Childress and Harvick were in the running for a major Budweiser sponsorship. However with Anheuser-Busch's Monday announcement of it's $1.2 billion NFL sponsorship, the specter was raised that Bud might cut way back on its NASCAR sponsorship. That would be not only a big blow for a NASCAR team but for the sport itself; Budweiser has had a major presence in this sport for some 30 years, but what it has planned for 2011 is unclear.


   Kevin Harvick: not happy Friday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   One of the big stories here this weekend – this will be the first race at Darlington Raceway with NASCAR's double-file restart rule, a rule that has made for some hairy action at other tracks.
    Kurt Busch says double-file restarts here will likely be the toughest yet for drivers: "It's going to be wild.  It's going to be the worst we've seen in all the 22 (other) tracks we go to, because you're so worried about just racing the track that you just want to get single file. 
    "But if you're able to grab three or four positions on a restart, you're going to be so far ahead on that run than if you're that guy getting passed, you'll never make those spots up." 
   Hamlin: "It's just who's going to be the nice guy and who's not. 
    "If you have a green-white-checkered, more than likely it will go to three green-white-checkereds, because we could wreck every lap into turn one if we don't give the position up to whoever is around us.
    "If we do get to a shootout at the end, we're going to have to run two-wide into the corner.  No one is going to give anything.  I just wonder how we're going to make it without crashing. 
    "In the past we've had single-file restarts, or lapped cars that gave way on the bottom. 
     "This time you're going to have guys on the bottom trying to fight for that position and guys on the outside not wanting to give it to them. 
    "I definitely believe if we go to one green-white-checkered, we're going to see all three."


   Mark Martin, last year's Southern 500 winner (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

"Turn two (the old turn four) is probably going to be more pivotal," Kyle Busch says. "You can get through (turn) one side-by-side, but once you get going through the center of one and two and into two, somebody's got to give.
     "If nobody is going to give, there's not going to be a whole lot of room for error."

    Friday was unusually rough for drivers, with half a dozen forced to backup cars after crashing, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Greg Biffle.
    Kyle Busch slapped the wall too but decided to make repairs: "We don't see any suspension damage, so we're going to fix the cosmetic stuff. 
    "There's no point in pulling out a backup and tearing up another one because you know it's inevitable here Saturday night to get in the wall again.  Better to have one than two tore up cars." However after a poor qualifying run, only 39th fastest, Busch and crew chief Dave Rogers changed their minds and went to a backup, which means Busch will have to start at the rear of the field.
    Why the incidents?
    "It is slick," Earnhardt said, with indirect reference to the blazing 90-degree weather.
    "I got my car pretty comfortable; I liked my lap times. This track is real smooth, and you can find that edge.
    "There is a lot of load change -- like landing into turn one, and then the load comes out of the car through the center (of the corner), and then the load increases on the second apex (exit).
    "There is a lot of dynamic wedge going in and out of the car through the corner.
     "The car just really changes a lot as you are going around the corner...and it can just snap on you real easy."

     GM engineer Alba Colon, one of the most powerful women in racing, as a NASCAR program manager, has two of her teams on the front row for the Southern 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Earnhardt was just the first to discover that, slapping the wall on just his second lap of the day: "The right rear got in to the dirt a little bit up there next to the fence in the middle of one and two, and there is just no room.
    "Once you get sideways, the wall is right there.
    "Lance (McGrew, his crew chief) thought the car was okay, but he didn't want to take any chances, so they pulled the backup out. It could have bent the lower A-frame or something that we'd never see until it was too late.
    "This place will probably be the catalyst to my retirement one day. I will probably come here when I am 45, run a race, and say 'The hell with it.' It's miserable hot here, it is a difficult track to drive around, not one of my favorites."
    When Kyle Busch, in victory at Richmond, talked about 'the new Kyle Busch,' that raised eyebrows, coming just a couple of weeks after his post-Phoenix disappearing act.
    Hamlin, Busch's teammate, pooh-poohs that: "There is no new Kyle.  That's just a complete myth. 
    "All you need to do is look back in your stories over the last two years and every time he wins you all say 'It's the new Kyle.' And whenever he loses, you say 'It's the same ol' Kyle.' 
     "Half of my entertainment in this sport comes from Kyle Busch, so I love having him as a teammate."
    However Busch says he has had some major life changes lately, not just getting married – his new Truck team operation isn't going all that well, and he lost a major sponsorship too. "It's changed my life considerably – I've got to do everything to cut back my spending....because they seem to be blowing it all pretty well," Busch grumbles. "I make the money I do, but yet I come out at the end of the year at zero.  That's kind of frustrating. 
    "We didn't have that planned in (losing sponsorship), and just not being able to pick up any more sponsorship."
    So that's just another headache for Dave Rogers, Busch's new crew chief, to deal with.

   Mystery man this season: Tony Stewart. Hot stuff last year, his first as owner-driver, but this year down in the dumps (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Rogers notched his first tour with at Richmond, which should help resolve any questions about Busch's decision to swap.
    Hamlin has watched Rogers and Busch work together: "I really think he likes working with Kyle, I think he likes the challenge of working with Kyle.
    "Kyle is definitely a really tough guy to please inside the race car.  I've seen him leave races and raise hell about his car. 
     "That makes him tough to beat when you're trying to race against a guy that's got that much drive. 
     "And Dave obviously has much thicker skin than people realize...and he does a really, really good job of balancing what Kyle says into making those changes to make the car better.  To me he's one of the best around."
    Well, Rogers may need to be at his best Saturday night, if the action is a rough and ragged and heated as expected. As fast and slick as this track is, Kyle Busch says the four-hour race will be "pretty mentally demanding. You've got a car in front, and you want to pass, so you try a little more, a little more, a little more, a little more....and then 'Boom!' You're in the fence. 
    "You need to concentrate on running a good lap time, making sure you keep yourself away from the wall, and just wait for pit stops. 
     "If cars are going by you, might as well let them go by you, and work on it during the stop and try to make it better."
    And that will be part of Rogers' job.

                The starting lineup for Saturday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway


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A rough day at the office: Darlington Stripes abound (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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