Darlington notebook: Dale Jr. ready to climb mountain
Of all the tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule that Dale Earnhardt Jr. deems challenging, it’s fair to say none is more so than Darlington Raceway.
A 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval known as the track "Too Tough to Tame," Darlington provides headaches for rookies and veterans alike while proving to be one of the hardest places to win.
Among the sport’s biggest names yet to find Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup Series race at the South Carolina facility are Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and, yes, Earnhardt Jr.
"Sometimes you show up and have a lot of fun," Earnhardt Jr. said in an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com. "Sometimes you show up and it’s a lot of work, depending on how the car drives and what shape the racetrack’s in, how the tires and everything are reacting. It just depends on a lot of different variables and it’s always a lot of work actually. It’s a real, real physical track and one of the hardest races physically and mentally all throughout the year. You’ve got to be ready. You’ve got to wrap your brain around what you’re getting yourself into. It’s just such a different track and it’s really narrow and there’s a fine line on being able to run the right kind of lap and getting a good lap in, and it’s really challenging."
Most of the racetracks I look at, the tracks themselves are real simple and it’s just a matter of putting together a whole day and a solid race to be able to win, whereas Darlington’s like Everest, man. It’s like a mountain and sometimes you’re going to have to turn around and come back down before you make it to the top.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Unlike his legendary father, who rang up nine wins at the notoriously difficult track, Earnhardt Jr. is 0-for-forever here. He’d love to change that in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
"I’d be blown away if we won there," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It’s such a hard, challenging race. I look at a lot of other racetracks completely differently than I look at Darlington. Most of the racetracks I look at, the tracks themselves are real simple and it’s just a matter of putting together a whole day and a solid race to be able to win, whereas Darlington’s like Everest, man. It’s like a mountain and sometimes you’re going to have to turn around and come back down before you make it to the top. It’s a real tough challenge and it’s unlike anything else. It’s round and wide-looking and doesn’t look that completely different from the other tracks we’ve run on, but once you get out there and you’re on it, you’ve got two lanes and you’ve got to hit that line just perfectly and it’s just real challenging."
The points leader for much of the season, Earnhardt Jr. arrives at Darlington a season-worst seventh in the standings after surrendering the series lead with an early crash that left him 43rd in Monday’s rain-delayed race at Texas Motor Speedway.
"The main thing, really, after a race like Texas is you just want to get back in the car and get back to work and sort of put that whole experience from Texas as far behind you as you can," he said. "The more things you can do to put it in the rearview, the better."
Reigning six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has endured, at least by his standards, a rough start to 2014. Winless after seven races, Johnson came painstakingly close to victory three weekends ago at Auto Club Speedway and again the following weekend at Martinsville Speedway, only to see possible wins slip through his fingers in the closing laps.
Then, in Monday’s rain-delayed race at Texas, Johnson suffered damage to his No. 48 Chevrolet when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked in front of him on the race’s third green-flag lap.
Johnson, who has had no trouble winning races — and championships — over the past decade, admits it’s not a lot of fun to seemingly not be able to catch a break.
"There’s definitely an ‘ouch,’ but it’s more from a position where we hate to see opportunities slip away," Johnson said. "It doesn’t hurt our confidence. For us, and I think most teams, when you’re that close and have a shot to win, and know that you have fast race cars and you don’t pull into Victory Lane, it’s a confidence booster. The end result isn’t what you want or what you like, but you know your cars are fast and your pit stops are good. You have all the pieces there and it’s just about running the distance of the race and getting the job done."
Johnson is seeking his fourth Darlington victory in Saturday night’s 500-mile race.
"I’ve been through various challenges in my Cup career and one marker I always look for is clearly fast cars and, ultimately, top five finishes," he said. "And I firmly believe that if you’re running in the top five, you’re going to have your shots at winning races. And even a step further, top-threes. But our goal, since I’ve started, has been if we can run in the top five all day long, we’ll have a shot to win the race. And it’s led to a lot of victories for us."
Earlier this week, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers participated in a Goodyear tire test at Michigan International Speedway in preparation for the annual June race at the 2-mile track.
Speeds from the test proved alarmingly fast, with some drivers topping out at around 220 mph at the end of the straightaways.
Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle isn’t overly concerned, however.
"It makes it a little more like a qualifying lap more than anything," said Biffle, who won last June at MIS. "The corner was about the same. Let’s keep in mind that it was 40-something degrees with a track temp of 66. So it was cold temperatures with high grip and they were testing tires that had more grip. They put a tire on the car that we are not going to race that went that fast. So on the standard tire I think the mph was down maybe three or four mph from that. I am not so worried about those end-of-the-straightaway speeds."
It was an eventful opening practice on Friday for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon, who both slapped the outside wall and found out what it truly means to earn a Darlington "stripe."
"Well, Kyle came over and asked, ‘Where did you hit?’ " Dillon said of his fellow rookie. "I said, ‘Off Turn 2.’ He said, ‘Me, too.’ I said, ‘Did you try you try to come off the wall and make it turn?’ He said the exact same thing. So we are just learning, I guess. You get really tight. I felt good into (Turn) 1, and then through the middle, I get tight late around the corner. It just carries speed. Just hit the wall, but I learned a lot right there. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen again."
While Dillon won’t have to go to backup car, Larson wasn’t as lucky.
"We were talking and it sounded like the exact same thing that we were describing," Larson said of his fellow rookie. "Difference is I have to get a backup out. Our backup, they said, is just as good as our primary, so we had a really good run before we I hit the wall. Just learning."