Darlington: Crown Jewel Still Making History
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, after a weekend of white-knuckle, heart-pounding racing at Talladega Superspeedway, could use a breather. Darlington Raceway, on deck, won’t provide it. Not a chance.
Known for its unique, egg-shaped layout, cars come to the South Carolina track clean – and leave with the infamous Darlington Stripe after rubbing or smacking the red-and-white wall.
The Stripe is part of history and goes back to 1950, when Darlington hosted its first NSCS race. It was the first paved superspeedway on the series schedule, and Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 remains one of NASCAR’s crown jewels.
The title “Southern 500 Champion” guarantees a coveted place in NASCAR history books. From the first winner – Johnny Mantz – to the most recent – Jimmie Johnson – some of NASCAR’s all-time greats have won the Southern 500. Among that all-sport list: Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon.
Saturday’s race marks the 10th anniversary of one of Sprint Cup’s most thrilling finishes. Ricky Craven led just one lap – the final one – in a door-banging, fender-crumpling joust with Kurt Busch that was decided by 0.002 seconds. The margin of victory was the closest in series history since the advent of electronic timing and scoring.
The finish further defined a “Track Too Tough To Tame” as well as the sport itself.
A year ago, Johnson made history for owner Rick Hendrick. His victory was the milestone 200th for the Hendrick Motorsports organization. Hendrick counts the most series victories at the track with 14.
Now it’s teammate Gordon’s turn to take the spotlight. Gordon will make his 700th Sprint Cup start – all consecutive – and become just the 15th driver to reach that plateau.
Gordon’s seven Darlington victories are the most by an active Sprint Cup competitor. Statistics speak to the four-time Sprint Cup champion’s Darlington dominance: Series bests in Driver Rating (111.8); Average Running Position (8.3); Average Green Flag Speed (160.041) and Laps in the Top 15 (2,615).
“They repaved Darlington a few years back so it’s not the same track it used to be 10 years ago,” Gordon said. “But it’s still one of those tracks where you have to push hard but be patient.
“And it’s one of those tracks you have to respect.”
Great Drivers Dominate But Surprises Happen
Darlington Raceway rarely mints first-time winners. The track’s list of driver and owner winners is a virtual who’s who of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, from Bobby Allison to Glen and Leonard Wood, 12 in all.
There are exceptions to every rule – beginning with Johnny Mantz’s inaugural victory at the track in 1950 and, most recently, Regan Smith’s surprising Bojangles’ Southern 500 win two years ago.
Mantz, driving an underpowered six-cylinder Plymouth, started 43rd but left the competition literally in the pits changing tire after tire. It proved to be the only victory for the Long Beach, Calif., competitor.
Smith recorded two firsts – his initial victory and that of Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team.
Could lightning strike again? Perhaps – especially coming six days after Front Row Motorsports’ one-two upset by David Ragan and David Gilliland at Talladega Superspeedway. Ragan had won before; his team had not.
Ragan’s unexpected victory carried with it a berth in the May 18 Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Only a select few drivers have guaranteed spots for the $1 million to win, non-point affair: 2012-13 Sprint Cup winners and the past 10 years’ All-Star winners and Sprint Cup champions.
The top two finishers of the Sprint Showdown also qualify, as does the winner of the Sprint Fan Vote. Fans can vote an unlimited number of times until 5 p.m. (EDT) on May 18 by downloading the NASCAR Mobile ’13 application or visiting NASCAR.com/SprintFanVote. Votes cast on NASCAR Mobile ’13 will count twice toward a driver’s total.
The 10 drivers currently leading the Sprint Fan Vote standings (in alphabetical order) are AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton, Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Michael Waltrip.
Any of these drivers – or another competitor – gets in with a Darlington victory, giving Saturday night’s race a “last chance” flavor. Stenhouse, a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender, might be that guy.
Two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Stenhouse finished sixth in last year’s Darlington NNS event and fifth in 2011.
Hamlin’s Back But Faces Uphill Chase Struggle
Denny Hamlin’s back and there’s no time to waste. Hamlin has 16 attempts to win enough races – and score enough points – to grab one of two Wild Card spots in this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. It can be done. But it won’t be easy.
The Virginia driver will make his first complete start Saturday at Darlington since suffering a lumbar compression fracture in a final-lap incident March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. He ranks 31st in the standings – 76 points out of the top 20 and Wild Card eligibility.
A year ago, 20th-place Jamie McMurray scored 640 points through Race 26. Hamlin’s current total is 155, suggesting he’ll need an average finish of 13th just to reach last year’s total. Lap leader and winner bonuses could help.
Winning might be the least of Hamlin’s problems. Thirteen of his 22 Sprint Cup victories have come on seven tracks that host races between now and the Chase cutoff in early September – including Richmond, which ends the regular campaign.
He won at Darlington in 2010, a track where Hamlin’s average finish is 5.9 and his Driver Rating, 109.5, ranks third-best.
Joe Gibbs Racing hoped to keep the No. 11 Toyota among the top 10 in owner points during Hamlin’s absence. That didn’t happen despite Mark Martin’s 10th-place finish at Martinsville and Brian Vickers’ eighth in Texas. A trio of finishes of 31st or worse – including the Hamlin/Vickers placing of 34th at Talladega – has dropped the team to 19th in owner standings.
Almirola, Menard Continue Steamroll Toward Chase Berth
This is a season of firsts for Aric Almirola. Prior to 2013, Almirola had never scored back-to-back top-10 finishes. Now, after finishes of seventh at Texas, eighth at Kansas and Richmond, and 10th at Talladega, he has four straight top-10 runs. And, by the way, his top 10s match his single-season career high.
Prior to 2013, he had never cracked the top 15 in points. Now, after those four straight top 10s, Almirola has catapulted up to seventh in the standings and is on his way to a possible berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Richard Petty Motorsports has only placed one driver in the Chase in its four-plus year history – Kasey Kahne in 2009. Kahne finished the year 10th in points.
Consistently, Almirola has shrugged off the pressures of running a car with the most iconic number in the sport’s history – so any outside intimidations shouldn’t be an issue. That No. 43 made famous by owner Richard Petty visited Victory Lane three times at Darlington, all with Petty. Almirola only has one start at Darlington, a 19th-place finish last year.
Paul Menard shares a lot in common with Almirola. They both have famous owners (Menard’s is Richard Childress), both are in prime position to make the 2013 “postseason,” and both have what most would call surprise seasons.
Coming into this season, Menard had been ranked in the top 10 after eight races during his entire career. In this season alone, he has ranked in the top 10 seven different times – including his current position of eighth. Menard has six starts at Darlington, with a best finish of 13th in last year’s Southern 500.
Track Too Tough To Tame Steeped In Hall Of Fame History
South Carolina, in general – and Darlington Raceway, in particular – served NASCAR Hall of Famers and nominees well during their illustrious careers.
Take Rex White, for instance. White, a first-time hall nominee, was from Spartanburg, S.C. Though he went winless at Darlington, he tallied two top fives and six top 10s in 13 starts. He finished runner-up to Hall of Famer Buck Baker in the 1960 Southern 500. He managed to notch three wins in his home state, all at Columbia Speedway (1960 twice, ’62).
Of the 109 premier series races at Darlington, 45 were won by NASCAR Hall of Famers. NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees have won 11 times at the track – Dale Jarrett (1997, ’98, 2001), Fireball Roberts (1958, ’63 – both Southern 500s), Joe Weatherly (1960, ’63), Fred Lorenzen (1961, ’64), Curtis Turner (1956 Southern 500), Benny Parsons (1978). Rick Hendrick earned 14 premier series owner wins at Darlington, most of any owner. In addition, three Busch/Nationwide races have been won by NHOF nominees – Jack Ingram in 1985 and Dale Jarrett in 1990 and ’91.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
David Ragan’s win on Sunday at Talladega marked the third time the No. 34 car won an NSCS race. The other two: Jim Roper took the No. 34 to Victory Lane in the very first race in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Charlotte Speedway in 1949; Wendell Scott’s historic win came at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla., On Dec. 1, 1963. … Quietly, the No. 51 of Phoenix Racing is having a strong season. Currently 14th in the owner points, it will be driven by Regan Smith this weekend. Smith won the Southern 500 in 2011. … The NASCAR Foundation and many throughout the industry will come together on Friday, May 17, at Charlotte to celebrate the 10th Annual NASCAR Day. For the first time, The NASCAR Foundation launches a “Ten Days of Giving” tour that includes philanthropic activities in several markets across the country. At each stop on the tour, beginning this week on Wednesday, May 8, in Atlanta, Ga., and culminating on NASCAR Day in Charlotte, N.C., The Foundation will partner with various organizations to deliver surprise acts of kindness.
Smith Takes Over Top Spot; First Time For JR Motorsports
After a wild race Saturday evening at Talladega Superspeedway, the points lead in the NASCAR Nationwide Series changed hands for the first time this season.
Regan Smith was able to wrestle the points lead away from Sam Hornish Jr. with a win in the Aaron’s 312. Hornish finished 25th.
When the series arrives in Darlington for Friday night’s VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200, Smith will be sporting a 27-point advantage over Hornish. Justin Allgaier (-40), Parker Kligerman (-47) and Elliott Sadler (-47) round out the top five.
Smith’s position at the top of the points standings is a first for his team JR Motorsports, which first fielded a NASCAR Nationwide team in 2005 and is co-owned by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Brad Keselowski, who drove for JRM during part of the 2007 season and all of 2008 and 2009, only got as high as second in the standings during the 2008 season.
This weekend, Smith hopes to increase his lead over Hornish and the rest of the field at Darlington, where his best finish in four series starts is 12th. The 1.366-mile South Carolina track, however, is the site of his only NSCS win. With eight scheduled laps remaining in the 2011 Southern 500, Smith passed Kasey Kahne for his first lead of the afternoon and remained at the point for the remainder of the race, which was extended three laps for a three-car accident.
Eight races into the 2013 season, the New York native has three top-five and six top-10 finishes, and has finished on the lead lap in every race. Smith, who hadn’t competed in the series since running 17 races during the 2007 season, returned to the series in last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where perhaps as a pre-cursor to this season he reached Victory Lane in his first time behind the wheel of a JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
Larson Armed And Ready For Darlington
NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Kyle Larson received some valuable experience and advice recently that could serve him well this weekend at Darlington Raceway.
Larson, along with Turner Scott Racing teammate Nelson Piquet Jr., participated in a private team test at the egg-shaped oval in April. Although Piquet had raced at the track in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the Darlington test was Larson’s first trip to the Track Too Tough To Tame.
“I thought that our test went okay, and it was good to get some laps at a tough track like Darlington,” said Larson, the Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader and driver of the No. 32 Chevrolet. “I got my first Darlington stripe, so maybe I’ll be lucky and have that part out of the way.”
While there, Larson received advice on how to navigate the challenging track from veteran NASCAR driver Todd Bodine, who won there in 2003.
With information from the test and advice from Bodine in hand, Larson is prepared for his first Darlington race and poised to make a run at the top 10 in the standings. He currently sits 12th, 95 points behind leader Regan Smith, and 20points behind 10th-place driver Trevor Bayne.
In eight races this season, Larson has a runner-up finish at Bristol and two other top-10 finishes.
Going Into Darlington, Top 10 Has Different Look
When comparing the NASCAR Nationwide points standings after Talladega to the same time last year, there is one thing even the most casual of observers will notice – there are plenty of new names in the top 10.
Going into Friday night’s VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway, there are six drivers present that were not included in last year’s top 10 after the eighth race: Regan Smith (currently first); Parker Kligerman (fourth; -47); Brian Scott (seventh; -51); Brian Vickers (eighth; -53); Alex Bowman (ninth; -74) and Trevor Bayne (10th; -75).
Of the six drivers, only one of them appeared in the top 10 in the standings at the end of the 2012 season – Scott (ninth). In eight races this season, he has three top-10 finishes.
Kligerman and Bowman, who are both running their first seasons in the NNS, are coming off solid performances at Talladega with sixth- and 13th-place finishes, respectively. Kligerman also has two top-five performances. Bowman’s best performance of the season was third in the season opener at Daytona.
Former 2003 series champion Vickers has a pair of third-place finishes and a fourth, while 2011 Daytona 500 champion Bayne has a pair of fourth-place finishes and a ninth on the season.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
Milestone Watch: This weekend, Joe Nemechek will make his 400th start in the NNS, joining Kenny Wallace, Jason Keller, Mike Wallace, Tommy Houston and David Green on that list. … Justin Allgaier will attempt to make his 150th NNS start. … The last 10 NNS races at Darlington Raceway have been won by NSCS regulars, going back to Greg Biffle’s victory in March 2004. … Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth will be among the NSCS regulars competing in the race Friday night.
Armstrong Progresses With Mentor Compton
Often when a driver begins driving for a new team there is a period of adjustment. However, in the case of Dakoda Armstrong and Turn One Racing, they have jelled quickly. Although Armstrong is still adjusting to driving the heavier NASCAR Camping World Truck Series vehicles from his background in sprint cars, the New Castle, Ind., driver is already comfortable.
Armstrong sits 10th in the standings and has one top-10 finish with his new team (at Martinsville); and if not for a little bad luck in a couple of races, he feels the team could be even higher.
“I think we are off to a pretty good start even though we had a couple of races we feel we should have finished better than we did,” Armstrong said. “We are a new team and everyone is still getting used to working with each other, but I feel we work together very well and Stacy [Compton] is really involved in our success.”
Compton is a former NCWTS competitor himself with a pair of wins on his resume, and Armstrong says the experience behind the wheel has made Compton not only a great owner but a good teacher also.
“Stacy is always on the radio offering advice and he has even jumped in the truck when we test to help us work on the truck to make it better,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong will return to action in the May 17 North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and will compete in the following week’s NNS race driving for Richard Childress Racing.
Multiple Reasons For Crafton To Enjoy Month Of May
May traditionally has been a great month for NCWTS points leader Matt Crafton.
Crafton won his first series race May 16, 2008, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the series resumes competition in two weeks. In 10 races at the 1.5-mile track, Crafton twice has finished among the top five, and seven consecutive races – 2003-09 – in the top 10.
Dover International Speedway, a week after the Charlotte race, is another solid Crafton track. Third in 2011, the California driver counts a pair of top fives and seven top 10s in 12 starts.
This year Crafton and his wife, Ashley, have another reason to enjoy May – the birth, in late April, of daughter Elladee Ann.
“Everybody tells you how it feels – and how you’re going to feel – how much you’ll love having a child of your own,” said Crafton, 36. “But it’s way, way more than I ever, ever thought it could possibly be. It’s indescribable, really.”
Crafton describes his state of mind as “good, though maybe a little sleep-deprived.” Things won’t level off until the team returns to the track.
“I gotta go with business as usual as much as I can, and I honestly can’t tell you how much we’re enjoying this,” he said.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Red Horse Racing and Kyle Busch Motorsports sent trucks to Texas to prepare for next month’s first of two 2013 visits to the Lone Star state. Timothy Peters, German Quiroga and John Wes Townley joined Darrell Wallace Jr. last Monday and Tuesday at the 1.5-mile track that has hosted more NCWTS events – 30 races – than any other track. The WinStar World Casino 400 is set for Friday night, June 7. … Jeb Burton is the only one of the top three Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders with a start at Charlotte, which hosts the May 17 NCWTS race. Burton finished eighth a year ago. Ryan Blaney (-5 in the rookie standings) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (-13) will be making their CMS debut.
Thorn Holds Off Three-Wide Bid For Lead, Wins At Stockton 99 Speedway
A three-wide bid for the lead in the closing laps of Saturday’s race at Stockton (Calif.) 99 Speedway may prove to be a microcosm of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship battle between several young promising drivers with title aspirations.
Derek Thorn, the 27-year-old from Lakeport, Calif., held on for the victory, but it wasn’t without a fierce challenge from Cameron Hayley, 16, Sergio Pena, 20, and Michael Self, 22.
Hayley won the pole for the G-Oil 150 and, after losing the lead to Thorn on the first lap, doggedly chased him the rest of the night. Self carefully moved his way up the pack and looked like he could challenge Thorn if only he could get by Hayley. But a late pit stop ended his shot at the win.
And then Pena, in his first year running in the West after three years in the East, dove down to the furthest inside lane coming out of Turn 4 following a late-race restart on the .25-mile banked oval to grab second away from Hayley and nearly take the lead away from Thorn.
“Sergio Pena did a move I haven’t seen in quite some time,” Thorn said. “And all of a sudden I’m seeing this blue car come out of nowhere. It could have ended very badly. We were able to kind of squeeze by there on the outside.”
With the win, Thorn took the points lead over Hayley. Veteran Greg Pursley, who won the opener at Phoenix, dropped to third – one point in front of Pena.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
- Next Race: Bojangles’ Southern 500
- The Place: Darlington Raceway
- The Date: Saturday, May 11
- The Time: 6:45 p.m. (ET)
- TV: FOX, 6 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 501.3 miles (367 laps)
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
- Next Race: VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200
- The Place: Darlington Raceway
- The Date: Friday, May 10
- The Time: 7:30 p.m. (ET)
- TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 200.8 miles (147 laps)
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
- Next Race: North Carolina Education Lottery 200
- The Place: Charlotte Motor Speedway
- The Date: Friday, May 17
- The Time: 8 p.m. (ET)
- TV: SPEED, 7:30 p.m. (ET)
- Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
- Distance: 201 miles (134 laps)