The racing at venerable Darlington Raceway may have been altered by the track's recent repaving, but veterans say that the track's characteristics remain unique, making predictions ahead of this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup race difficult.
“This place is a little bit like Bristol and Talladega. When you get in a wreck, everybody just says that is just Bristol or that's Talladega and that is kind of the same thing here,” related Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton. “You hit the wall here and you wreck and you just say, 'That is Darlington.' It is a little of the built-in excuse factor. There is no question that this racetrack, if you mess up, you are going to hit something. At Michigan, if you mess up, you are not necessarily going to hit something.”
He added, though, that Darlington's race, like all Sprint Cup events, is subject to the same forces that has shaped all events this year: “If you go back and think about it, there are several races that people won who didn't have the best cars because they put two tires on and got track position," Burton said. "They there are races recently where four tires have been the best. So, you can't just say two tires are always going to be the best or four tires are always going to be the best. It is really situational.
“Double-file restarts is one of the factors, but the factor is the tire. What is the fall-off on the tire and where are you running? The one thing you can't control is what everybody else does. The thing that is interesting here [Darlington] is double-file restarts going into Turn 1 – where are you going, you know? It is going to get bottled up a little bit and it is going to be hard to make up a lot of track position. But, if four tires is that much better than two tires and you are three wide in the middle of Three and Four, you are making something happen.”
Jimmie Johnson reckons that the new surface has shaken the familiar pattern at Darlington, but believes that this plays into the hands of the canniest setup artists.
“The game has changed a little bit here with the track being resurfaced,” the series champ said. “A lot more falls into the hands of the setup, and I think as the track ages again, setup is going to be very important like it was in the old days. I say old days, before the paving job, I know the track has been around for a long time, so my version of old days may not really apply to the true old day.
“As a driver, you had to pick what you wanted. If you wanted to go fast and be a hero and lead for 10 laps, you could do that and you would wear your tires out. But to survive, this track has really always been a driver's track. I look forward to the track losing some grip and migrating back that direction. You have to be extremely disciplined here and I'm hopeful that the track has gone that way a little bit with a year going by.”
Teammate Mark Martin thinks the new surface has just evolved Darlington's level of difficulty.
“This place has always been a challenge, and the challenge is quite a bit different after the most recent repave,” he said. “It keeps you working all the time. This repave and the composition of this asphalt is greatly different than anything they had put down before. The handling challenges are greatly different than anything we've dealt with here before.”
However it may have changed, Burton said Darlington's history still has a hold on him.
“When I was a kid, we used to come here and sit in the covered grandstands in what used to be Turn 4. Matter of fact, I still call it Turn 4. On the radio I will say I am tight off of Four and the team will have to come back and say, ‘Is that Turn 2 or Turn 4?' We used to pile in the motorhome and come here and watch the races. So, this to me, is a really special racetrack.
“They used to have a rookie orientation meeting here and they used to scare the hell out of you,” he added. “They would show you videos of stuff and tell you that you were essentially stupid for even being here, and then they would say, ‘Here are the keys to the car, go drive it.' It was pretty fascinating. They don't do it like that anymore, but it used to be that they would intentionally scare you. I found that quite appealing...”