Friday, May 09, 2008

Flirtin' with disaster

There is a reason Jeff Gordon has seven wins at Darlington. Of all of the tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup curcuit, Darlington is probably the one that requires the most overall skill by the driver, and say what you will about Jeff, but he can finnesse just about any aspect of racing.

Because it is a high speed track--1.36 miles with 23-25 degree banking in the turns--it fits into the superspeedway category. Because it has turns that are different at every corner, and a treacherously narrow groove in turns one and two, it acts like a short track.

The driver can be aggressive, but not too aggressive, because that would cause disaster in turns one and two. Going into turn three too hot off of the backstretch would also be disasterous. But turns three and four are the only real passing point on the track, and the temptation to drive in hot is there.

A big difference between Darlington and a short track is that if something happens in turn four, it will be resolved long before it gets to turn one.

The faster speeds enabled by the new pavement will likely result in some incidents early in the race, before the drivers get a feel for the track and settle down. Some favorite drivers might go down early in the race, caught up in the dreaded accordian effect, but the drivers in the front should be safe for a while, and since Dale Earnhardt, Jr starts on the front row, Junior Nation will be able hold on to their rage from Richmond for a little while longer.

As every driver will tell you, once you get comfortable the track will come back to bite you. They will also tell you that the driver is racing the track more than the other drivers. This takes patience, car control, and give and take. Every pass that is made without an accident will be dependent on give and take, and that is more obvious at Darlington than any other track.

Pole sitter Greg Biffle has won at Darlington before, he has matured into a driver who has learned all about give and take, and he is one of the better car control drivers. If he can remember the patience part of the equation, he will be one to watch.

Much the same could be said about Dale Earnhardt, Jr, another of the top car control guys. He has yet to win at Darlington, but he seems to have a handle on what he has to do. He is a smart driver, and, if he can avoid bad luck, he should have a very respectable finish.

Speaking about bad luck, what is up with Matt Kenseth? This is a driver who has a balance of skills equal to those of Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, and bad luck seems to be taking up residence in his car. Some bloggers and sports journalists have already written him off this year, but all he needs is a few good breaks, and he will be back. Kenseth showed some frustration with his pit crew after he wrecked out of the Nationwide Series race Friday night, and he could be feeling some of the same frustration with his Sprint Cup team. Jack Roush should really be looking at making some changes in that crew. That being said, Kenseth, along with Mark Martin, is the kind of driver Darlington "likes." He can show patience from wherever he is in the field, and wait for something to happen that he can take advantage of. Saturday night, we may see a change of luck for him.

Whatever happens, it should be an interesting race. The attrition was high, Friday night, with only twenty three cars finishing the race. The Cup race, Saturday night may have similar attrition, may have more, or may have less. You never know with the "Black Lady."


Tim Zaegel said...

Great preview, Jim. My pre-practice / pre-qualifying pick this weekend was Newman, but I'm not really feeling quite as confident after watching qual's. The Biff was in my top-six, though, and I think this would be a great opportunity for him to rebound after these past few weeks. He always runs well at Darlington.

theStewartFan said...

This track is definitely a NASCAR tradition and my pick for the first track to get its second date back (if one ever does). One track I'd really like to see in person.