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Top NASCAR Drivers Trying To Tame Challenging Darlington

To understand why Darlington Raceway is one of the toughest tracks in NASCAR, just take a look at some of the top drivers in Sprint Cup racing who have yet to win on the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval.

If a racetrack best mirrored Kevin Harvick’s personality and temperament, it would be Darlington Raceway – site of the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday night, May 12 (6:30 p.m. ET, FOX). But ironically, 2003 Brickyard 400 winner Harvick never has mastered Darlington.

In 15 starts at the South’s oldest superspeedway, Harvick has just two top-five and five top-10 finishes. In last year’s race, Harvick and his nemesis, Kyle Busch, got into it on the racetrack and confronted each other on pit lane after the race. Harvick climbed out of his car, walked over to Busch – who was still seated in his Toyota – and started swinging away.

Busch simply put his car in gear, ran into the rear of Harvick’s Chevrolet and dumped into it the pit lane wall.

Both drivers were put on probation by NASCAR and have moved beyond their differences. This weekend, Harvick would like to move beyond his mediocre finishes and steer the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet into victory lane in one of NASCAR’s famed events.

“As you go to Darlington, obviously you see the deep history of the sport, and it’s probably the place highest on my list to try to get my first win there, so I’m looking forward to going there this weekend,” said Harvick, who drove the famed No. 29 Chevrolet to victory at Indianapolis in 2003. “It would be pretty awesome just for the fact that everyone knows the significance of the Southern 500, and to win at Darlington is something as a driver that you want to check off your checklist when you have the opportunity. We’ve been close at Darlington, but we’ve just got to put that check in the right box.”

Harvick’s best Darlington finishes include a second place in 2003, third in 2002, sixth in 2010 and a pair of eighths, in 2001 and 2004. Two of those top-10 finishes were not in the Southern 500, when Darlington hosted two races per year.

Because of its unique configuration, Darlington is considered one of the most challenging tracks in NASCAR. Nobody can attest to that more than Harvick.

“Well, any lap around Darlington is a lap where you have to be paying attention to what’s going on because you can get yourself in trouble at any point on the racetrack,” Harvick said. “You carry a lot of speed into Turn 1, and you run right up the banking right up next to the wall and right back into the throttle. As you come back down the hill, you might have to breathe the throttle a little bit, but it’s a lot of fun coming out of Turn 2 as it kind of shoots you down the backstretch. Turns 3 and 4 are probably the hardest because you carry so much speed off of (Turn) 2 into (Turn) 3, and the line kind of moves around a bit there. It’s probably the easiest place to get in the wall. Well, it’s pretty easy to get in the wall anywhere, but definitely the easiest place to get into the wall is the middle of (Turns) 3 and 4.”

Harvick understands what it takes to succeed at Darlington, but it’s not always that easy to execute. It’s a track where drivers must battle the unique conditions just as much as the competition.

And one of the fiercest competitors is two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. Just as Darlington has bewildered Harvick, it has left Stewart just as befuddled.

Stewart never has won in 19 Darlington starts, with just three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. He was seventh last year and scored a career-high Darlington finish of third in 2009.

Despite so much frustration, Stewart has tremendous respect for Darlington Raceway.

“A lot of it has to do with the history of the track,” Stewart said. “If you can say you won a race at Darlington – that’s a feather in your cap. That’s something to be proud of, knowing that you’re in a group of drivers with names like (David) Pearson and (Richard) Petty – the pioneers of our sport who you hear stories about the races they ran there and the races they won there.

“Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don’t see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to get a handle on. If you can have a good day and win there, it’s a track that’s like winning at Bristol. It’s the same type of feeling – knowing that you conquered something that’s very hard to obtain.”

Three-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson swept both contests in 2004 – the final year Darlington hosted two events. Those are his only two victories, two of his six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 13 starts. He was second in 2009 but finished 36th in 2010 and 15th last year.

“The old (Darlington) track when it was worn out and ugly, nasty to drive we were great there,” Johnson said. “Since they have repaved it, it’s been a bit of a challenge. It’s just so tough to pass there. I think your race strategy, fuel strategy, tire strategy is really more important than speed in the car. So hopefully we play that game right and put ourselves in a great position at the end of the race to win.”

The most successful active driver at Darlington and one of the best all-time is four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. He has a staggering seven wins, 18 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 31 Darlington starts. He last drove to victory in the 2007 Southern 500 and followed that with a third in 2008, fifth in 2009, fourth in 2010 and 12th last year.

“I'm always excited about the trip to Darlington,” Gordon said. “This has been one of my favorites since I started racing in NASCAR. It's a track you have to attack. It's a track you have to respect because you are on the edge. Those ingredients have suited me and our team well over the years.

"This is a very tough track, and it's a challenge just to stay off the walls. It's a big transition (from straightaway to apron to turn) that is very narrow. The track can reach out and bite you in a hurry. Darlington is the 44th competitor. There is very little room for error here, and you're doing everything possible to go fast but stay off the wall. And that is when you are out there by yourself. If we drove by ourselves for 400 or 500 miles here, we would still probably hit the wall at some point. The challenge goes up 10-fold with other cars on the track. This is definitely a track you have to respect and do everything you can to stay off the wall and survive. At the same time, you have to be faster than the competition.”

2011 Brickyard 400 winner Paul Menard enters Darlington 14th in the standings and hopes to make a move on Saturday night.

“Darlington is definitely a throw-back racetrack,” Menard said. “You go to this little town, and you don’t see anything except that huge racetrack. It definitely gets you to feel the roots of NASCAR. The only places I feel you can kind of ‘luck into one’ (win) is at restrictor-plate tracks. At every place else, you have to be good, you have to have a good car, good calls and drive well. Darlington fits the bill.”

Former IZOD IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick will compete in her second career Sprint Cup race Saturday night at Darlington. Her first Cup race was the Daytona 500 in February. She was involved in a multi-car crash at the start of the second lap that put her GoDaddy Chevrolet in the garage for 62 laps. She returned to the race but finished 38th, 64 laps down to race winner Matt Kenseth.

She is hoping to have a chance to compete against the rest of the field in her Darlington debut.

“I’m told it’s not going to be so much about the track and getting comfortable and getting up to speed or feeling good, that it’s going to be more about learning how to pass there and how that works because it’s one lane and one groove,” Patrick said. “I believe its high in (Turns) 1 and 2 and low in (Turns) 3 and 4. Just going to two-wide in 1 and 2 can cost you a second a lap, so it’s a matter of being smart about when you’re supposed to let off and give the position up for the sake of overall time. Getting used to that is going to be the hardest thing. Other than that, it’s a new track for me, so feeling out the rhythm of the race is going to be another challenge.”
 

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