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Darlington: Wicked!

Darlington: Wicked!

Legendary David Pearson: best ever at Darlington Raceway...maybe the best driver in NASCAR history (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




   By Mike Mulhern

   Okay, here's the deal:
   This track is still very, very fast.
   Tire wear is more of an issue this time around than last (when Regan Smith won by skipping a final pit stop with 20 miles to go).
   And the entry to pit road is as tricky as ever.
   Throw in raw rookie Danica Patrick as part of the lap-traffic, and we've got a recipe for one of the season's most unpredictable events.
   Dodge engineer Howard Comstock sizes up Saturday night's Southern 500 (7 p.m. ET) this way:
   "They tried to pave tire wear out of the track when they did the repave in 2008, but it's back.
   "You can run about any lap you want to run on tires….but the faster you run, the faster they're going away.
   "So if you don't get cautions on some regular basis, you'll be in trouble. And we've seen the last several years there are lots of green flag laps during this race.
   "You cannot count on cautions. And you can't come in for tires (under green) unless other people come for tires, or you'll get laps down in a hurry."


  Darlington's pit road is very tricky. Here Matt Kenseth pitting during 2011 Southern 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And pitting here is a potential for disaster every time.
   "The pit lane here is odd," Comstock explains. "It comes up on you fast, off that very fast backstretch (the old frontstretch). When you get to the end of the backstretch, you've got to dive low on the track to dive on to pit road…and you've got a lot of speed built up.
   "So you're going downhill, literally, into the pits…a lot of drivers really struggle with either speeding or sliding the tires or turning the car around."
   And it looks like four-tire stops will be the rule.
   Teams like to put extra bracing in the right-side of the race car, because virtually every driver will slap the wall during the four-hour 500. Just how NASCAR is policing that is unclear.
    Add to all this the weather. Yes, it's supposed to be clear and dry. But the race should start with ambient temperatures in the low 70s but close with the temps in the upper 50s. So crews will likely chase changing track conditions.

   Travis Pastrana's car, after one of his Friday stunts. Darlington Raceway is certainly X-games caliber NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Kevin Harvick should be one of the men to beat in the 500. Even though the Richard Childress camp has struggled with engines this spring, Harvick is very good at this track.
   Another man to watch: Greg Biffle. He and crew chief Matt Puccia are showing no signs of letting up, and the league-leading team is actually looking stronger as the season goes on.
   While Tony Stewart says he's moving past last weekend's Talladega rant – "I wasn't trying to send a message. I wasn't trying to get them to make changes." – fellow drivers are privately applauding his pluck.
   "I found some humor in it," Biffle said with a grin. "As drivers we're in a spot where we can't do anything right, so to speak.
   "We just drive the car and try to do the best we can with the rules package we have.
   "You're always going to have the problem with restrictor plate racing of accidents happening when you that close together and all traveling at the same speed.
   "The fans didn't like two-car racing, and when we were communicating with all the drivers. They (NASCAR) took all that away.
   "I see Tony's point – what can we do differently to make everyone happy?"

   Greg Biffle: a good money pick for this Southern 500....and the Sprint Cup tour leader knows it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Here Biffle faces a different issue – slower drivers, like Danica Patrick.
   "That's where accidents happen at this track --  because the unpredictability of this place is so hard," Biffle says of newcomers.
   "In practice I had a perfect example: I got a great run in turns three and four, because I was on new tires, and I caught a car and got a run on the inside of him coming off the corner.
   "He pointed me to the bottom…but he didn't let out of the gas until we got to the corner.
   "If you can't get in front of the guy by the start-finish line, and move up (in front of him) to have the line down into the corner, you're in trouble. You can't make the corner.
   "If they run you down into the corner, you're going to wreck….because I'm going to drive it off in the corner with enough speed that the car is going to slide all the way to within a couple feet of the wall. If he's still there, we're going to crash.
    "It's probably the toughest thing about this place – passing cars that aren't as fast. It's difficult.
    "It's a tremendous advantage when you've run here before.
    "It's really hard to come here for the first time, because you're learning little things about this track.
    "And this place is very, very unforgiving. There's no margin for error."


     Darlington Friday: in the springtime it's not quite the same as the Labor Day Southern 500, but who needs the sand fleas? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)




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