Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Revvin' and Ramblin'

When the Busch (now Nationwide) Series was running at PPIR, I used to like to get there early, as in at the opening of the gates. I would either catch a ride with my dear friend Debra (still dear, but now, sadly departed) or with someone I knew who worked at the track. One year I hitch-hiked and caught a ride with the team engineer from the Brewer Motorsports racing team. Anyway, I would get there early, and savor the experience of being there while things were relatively quiet, and I had the entire facility to myself, with the exception of a few others who practiced a similar race day ritual. I would walk along the catch fence, studying the track from every angle, going to the infield and visiting the garage area, when that was allowed, and walking the perimeter of the infield, and along the fence separating the pit area from the public. Then I would go to the top of the grandstands and take the whole thing in. I would have a big smile on my face, as I would declare to myself, "I love this place!"

I imagine that if I lived near the Darlington Speedway, in South Carolina, I would have a similar ritual. I love the place, even though I have never been there. There has never been a race there that wasn't exciting.

Even last year--which was the first race with the new Sprint Cup car at Darlington--when none of the teams had a car that their driver was happy with, it was exciting to watch Kyle Busch race by himself, bouncing off the wall in every turn. He not only had the expected Darlington Stripe off of turn two--he was bouncing off the walls in turn four. He won, because--even though the car wasn't set up well for Darlington--he got the most out of the car he could get. He had no idea of how to do it the "right way."

Nobody had a good car at Darlington last year--because nobody really knew what they needed to run at Darlington. Jeff Gordon had yet to get a handle on the new car, and Tony Stewart, who was driving for Joe Gibbs at the time, probably had one of the better cars--and was essentially taken out of the race early on, having been trapped by Elliott Sadler's Smoke Magnet. The only driver who had a chance to catch Kyle was Carl Edwards, and all he could do was watch Busch bounce off the walls as he continued to broaden the lead.

We have good reason to believe that this year, the situation will be different. First of all, over the last few races, it seems that Elliott has removed the Smoke magnet from his car. Jeff Gordon seems to have gotten a handle on his car, as have several other top drivers. There are guys like David Ragan, David Reutimann, Marcos Ambrose, and Sam Hornish, Jr., who seem poised to win their first race, and will likely give the usual suspects some competition in the race to get up front and be there for the most important lap.

All that being said, if I were to try to write a preview--which I won't since I always seemed to jinx the drivers whenever I did--my five drivers to watch would be as follows:

Jeff Gordon--Stating the obvious here. Jeff has found the handle on the car, and can race even while he is in serious pain and get a good finish anywhere. He knows how to drive smart, and he has five Darlington wins to prove it.

Kyle Busch--If he can't win it the way he did last year, he'll figure out another way to do it. The boy is a lot smarter than people give him credit for.

Tony Stewart--He is ready to get his first win as an owner-driver. He will be careful most of the race, and take the opportunity when it comes. He has yet to win at Darlington, which would add sweetness to the first victory for his own team. Out of sixteen starts, he has 8 top ten finishes including two top fives. He has finished out of the top twenty only two times--one thirty-sixth place due to a race ending crash after lap 225, and last years twenty-first place finish after his very bad start to the race.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr--I am not mentioning him just to get more hits this time. Last year, with all the "crappy" cars, he managed a fifth place finish. He has a knack for Darlington, and it is really fun to watch him race there. Fans who underate him, fail to notice that he is one of the best car control drivers there are, and Jr. can show us how that works at Darlington. He just needs to be patient, and if he can find that patience, he will be very likely to get a very good finish. It would be a good win for his cousin Tony Eury, Jr as well.

Matt Kenseth--If patience is what it takes to win at Darlington, Kenseth is the epitome of patience. He drives a lot like the all time Darlington winner, David Pearson, and perhaps that legacy will pay off. I know I promised my friend Babs that I wouldn't pick him to win in my previews, but, remember, this is not a real preview, this is only a "if I were writing a preview" preview.

So, I'm very excited in looking forward to Saturday night. Part of the anticipation is after the great race at Richmond last week, and part of it is that it is the second race in a row at a track for which I feel genuine affection. Hang on to your hats, this should be good!

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