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Greg Biffle: atop the Sprint Cup standings, and on the Southern 500 pole

Greg Biffle: atop the Sprint Cup standings, and on the Southern 500 pole

Travis Pastrana: smart enough to be scared at Darlington




   By Mike Mulhern

   Danica Patrick isn't the only raw meat rookie here this weekend.
   Travis Pastrana, the X-games hero, is lining up for Friday night's Nationwide 200, and he knows he's really in for it.
   In fact Pastrana even warmed up Friday morning at Darlington Raceway with a nifty double-360….and he didn't even hit anything.
   And the judges say…..

   Ford's Greg Biffle, the Sprint Cup tour leader most of the spring, won the pole Friday evening for Saturday night's Southern 500 (7 p.m. ET), upsetting what had been shaping up as a Hendrick frontrow. Biffle and Jimmie Johnson have the front row, with Johnson's teammate Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman in row two.
   Patrick, such a headliner for the sport this season, with her fulltime Nationwide schedule and a 10-race Cup schedule, didn't have to race her way into the field, and that's probably good, because she was only 38th fastest in qualifying. She was guaranteed a spot in the field because David Reutimann is racing with her number in the Cup races in which she's not entered.

   Crew chief Matt Puccia listens intently to Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Pastrana, who knows even less about NASCAR stockers than Patrick, seems eager for this round of the game.
   At least he's got the right attitude: "Never really been scared in NASCAR until today.
   "Everyone says every track you go to 'Oh, this is the hardest track,' or 'this is this,' or 'this is different or challenging.'
    "But never before have I been that scared that far along.
    "It's definitely faster than it looks on TV.
     "You have so much room to the inside -- but there's only one line. You have to hit it, especially into turn one.
     "Going into turn one you have to hit the inside line, and then the car slides all the way to the top, no matter how slow or fast you go. So you might as well
hold it pinned and see what happens.  
     "I kept lifting right at the end of the straight, and they said 'Well, the good drivers around here will hold it pinned.' So I did that -- and I spun a 720 down the backstretch…and was able to keep it off the walls -- and realized maybe I'm not a good driver yet."

    Now Pastrana has scared himself before: "With 'rally' there are 100-foot cliffs, or trees, or snow or fog, and that's scary. But this -- you know what's coming up and the fact that it is still scary is quite overwhelming.  
    "I watched Jimmie Johnson on the second lap get into the wall pretty hard, and you're like 'These are the best drivers pretty much in the world, and they're hitting the wall…and that's with nobody else on the track.'"

    And Pastrana wants to run NASCAR why again?
    "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he says with a laugh. "Honestly, I know I can drive a car.  I know I have good car control.  
    "This is the most-competitive sport I believe we have a shot at.  
     "It's just going to take some time."
    Staying on the lead lap is the first goal, in Friday's 147-lapper.
    "When my spotter says 'Hey, leaders coming behind,' then we will figure that out where to go.
    "Richmond (two weeks ago) we started out 25th…and I dropped to 35th in the first two laps.  
    "These guys are like sharks in the water. When they smell blood -- if you mess up a little bit, you're going back huge.  
    "And if you run too wide here, you might get around that guy, but three other guys are going to come by you because you didn't get the drive off the corner."
    Pastrana offers an interesting perspective on Darlington Raceway, one that veterans and veteran fans might appreciate:
   "This track, because of the fear factor, because the line you have to be so spot-on, everything has to be right," Pastrana says.  
    "It takes guts.  
     "That first turn you slide all the way up to the wall.  You lift for a second, then you pin it and just pray, just hope it's going to work, and you hit that line right.  
     "A lot to learn.
     "I definitely had no idea….
     "The iRacing simulator shows it, but it doesn't show how scary it is."

    Throw in the changing conditions over a 100-mile tire run, and cooler weather…
    "The tires feel really good Lap two, three, four, five," Pastrana says. "You feel like Superman out there.  
    "Then it just gets worse and worse and worse.  
    "You go from really loose at the beginning of the run to really tight at the end of the run.  
     "Talking to Mark Martin, he says 'No track on the circuit will you start out so free and end up so tight.'  
      "If you start out perfect, you're done at the end.  
      "If you start out too loose, then you're going to crash."

   Curiously perhaps, Cup drivers practiced during Friday's heat and not during cooler night conditions, with the Southern 500 set for 7 p.m. ET under the lights.
   And this track is notoriously fickle, with heat and tires.
   Regan Smith won the Southern 500 a year ago by skipping the last round of pit stops and hanging on with well-worn tires. "Regan was doing an incredible job driving,"  Carl Edwards marvels.
   Jimmie Johnson says "the grip is so high and the track is so narrow, we can't really pass like you would want to. It depends on how your car is handling, but you’ve got to be a lot faster to pass somebody right now.
   "With us all running very close in speed, and in my opinion really, one good chance to pass a lap, it just limits your opportunities to pass and puts it more in the hands of strategy than it does a fast race car."

   Johnson is part of another big story here this weekend – the continuing struggles of the Rick Hendrick guys.
   Damned straight there's luck involved in this. Like Richard Petty likes to say 'Rather be lucky than good.'
   Which brings us to the Hendrick guys:
   Bad luck?
   By the truckload for Kasey Kahne, and for Jeff Gordon.
   Not to mention Dale Earnhardt Jr….and of course Jimmie Johnson.
   Now these guys have won more NASCAR Cup championships the last few years than anybody else in the sport. But when luck turns against you, well, just grab hold and wait it out.
   Let's look briefly at the cold, hard numbers:
   Johnson scored the most recent tour victory for Hendrick – last October at Kansas City.
   Gordon scored his most recent tour victory at Atlanta last Labor Day.
   Kahne is in his first season with Hendrick, and has suffered through an horrendous start, but he does have the most recent tour win of the four, winning Phoenix last fall for his former team, Jay Frye's Red Bull. However that was Kahne's first win in over two years.
   Earnhardt is mired in one of the sport's longest winless streaks. His last tour win was in June 2008 at Michigan.
   On the plus side – and perhaps curiously, since Tony Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman get engines and cars and engineering support from the Hendrick operation – Stewart and Newman have three tour wins together this season, and Stewart could well have scored more.
   Gordon, after getting crashed out at Talladega last Sunday, said his luck was so bad it was almost funny.

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