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Rookie Erik Darnell is under the gun: make something big happen at Atlanta, to show he belongs on the Cup tour...but without making mistakes | NASCAR Racing Breaking News: Trackside Live, Every Week, Every Sprint Cup Race - MikeMulhern.net


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Rookie Erik Darnell is under the gun: make something big happen at Atlanta, to show he belongs on the Cup tour...but without making mistakes

   Erik Darnell (C) is making a big step up to Cup, at one of the most wickedly fast tracks in the sport. Talk about pressure....(Photo: Autostock)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Erik Darnell has one goal this weekend: "To prove myself."
   The 26-year-old second-generation racer will be making his Sprint Cup debut in Sunday night's Atlanta 500, in what he himself concedes was a move "that came out of the blue."
    And he realizes – he thinks – the pressure he is under: "To be honest, I don't have anything lined up for next year, in either Cup or Nationwide, so it all depends on these seven races.
   "If these don't work out, I don't know where that puts me for next year."
    Darnell gets the sudden opportunity at Bobby Labonte's expense, and that makes for an awkward situation.
    And everyone at Doug Yates' place is watching to see how Darnell responds, not only on the track but with the media.
    "Obviously, I'm very excited to be in this position….it's a little bit unexpected, it happened in a hurry.
    "But I feel very fortunate."
   Certainly. But running a Cup car is not nearly as easy or as fun as driving a Nationwide car or Truck, which Darnell has been doing the past three years for Jack Roush.
    Heck, driving a Cup car isn't all that much fun for guys who do it every week.
   So Darnell, with little Cup testing, faces a steep learning curve over these next 48 hours or so…and over the next few weeks.
   At least Atlanta is a track he likes. "It's going to be a bit of a challenge. I haven't spent much time in a Cup car, so it's going to take a little bit
for me to get up to speed.
    "But I'm looking forward to the challenge.
     "I have to show I'm able to do this – that I'm capable of doing this in a Sprint Cup car. This is my opportunity, to show I can run in these cars. 
     "I'd like to earn a chance to race one of these things next year."
    So can Darnell pull a Carl Edwards – who made an impressive debut in Cup five years ago, when he was suddenly thrust into Jeff Burton's ride in late summer?
   "It was a little unexpected," Darnell conceded.  "I didn't really know a whole lot about it before it actually happened.
    "Honestly, it just came out of nowhere."
   The move has drawn some criticism, because the man Darnell is replacing is the well-respected Labonte, who hasn't been very happy about the unexpected turn of events. Labonte did manage to make a quick deal to drive here for Chevrolet's Slugger Labbe.
   "I've got nothing but respect for Bobby Labonte and what he's done in this sport," Darnell says diplomatically.  "He's a champion and a great race car driver….and I don't think this necessarily had anything to do with him.  I think this was the fact that Yates Racing had races that needed sponsorship and we were able to bring a little bit of that over."
    Darnell has been one of Roush's development drivers, but finding a slot on the Cup roster has been tough:  "They probably wanted to get me in some Cup races eventually…but they've got to go down to four teams next year, and I don't really think they had too much room.
    "So when this opportunity opened up, they said 'Let's go for it.'"
    At least with Labonte landing another ride, Darnell doesn't have that hanging over him here.
    "It's nothing against Bobby Labonte…I kind of felt bad for him…so I was happy to see he's in that car this weekend," Darnell says. "He's a class act, 100 percent.
    "But with the way the sport is these days, money is a big thing….."
    More pressure on Darnell – he's had three years in development, and it's time to make it pay off…if he can. In these seven races.
   However he's been flying under the radar somewhat, without the splash of runs like, say, Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards.
   But then that's just the way that Edwards came in, unknown, and Kevin Harvick too.
    Darnell finished fourth in the Truck standings last season. "And I really feel like the Nationwide series we've run very competitively this year," he says.  "We ran up front and had a shot to win at Darlington.  We sat on the pole at Milwaukee. 
    "They wanted to see if I could do it at the Cup level. I feel I've proven myself in the lower two series, and this is my shot, this is my chance to do it in Cup."
   On the downside, Darnell has to make a statement in these coming weeks, and yet he can't afford to make mistakes. The best rookies are usually the ones that don't get headlines.
   And these Cup cars are a handful…and Atlanta is maybe the fastest track on the tour. With half a dozen men trying to make the championship chase, Darnell has his work cut out.
   "It's definitely going to be tough," he admits.  "There's a lot on my plate.
   "The little bit of testing I've done (in a Cup car), they're way different than a Nationwide car; they're way different than a Truck. 
    "They're harder to drive; they've got more horsepower….
    "It's going to be tough, no question.
     "But with what I've done up to this point, I think we've had some pretty good results.
    "And at some point you're going to have to make this step and do it. And this is it for me.
     "I've run well here in the Trucks; I feel I know the track pretty well. But it's going to be a completely different beast doing it in a Cup car.
    "If they had given me the opportunity to start on a one-mile track or a half-mile track -- Martinsville, Bristol, Phoenix or Loudon -- it might have been a little easier.
   "This is going to be a challenge. It's going to be tough. But I think we can do it."

Make something Happen?

Darnell is driving the 96. Last time I checked, not even a holy-deity- to-be-named could get the 96 up front.

Eric Darnell is not David Copperfield. This is unrealistic and unfair to test Darnell in the 96 and expect him to "do something".

All one could hope for is that Darnell does not take out a Chase contender in the 96.

Please unnamed holy deity. Thanks in advance for your kind efforts unnamed holy deity. Amen.

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