New surface, same ol' Darlington
Jeff Gordon is anxious after a recent glimpse of television pictures showed the surface at Darlington Raceway had turned gray, reminding him of the old track that ate up tires like a meat grinder before it was resurfaced in 2008.
If the abrasiveness is returning, that means the strategy of the 24 and crew chief Steve Letarte will change.
The old surface forced drivers to be patient and not abuse tires early in a run in order to have something left for the end. Cars would drop off 3.5 to 4 seconds a lap, making four-tire stops mandatory and taking a lot of strategy out of the game.
The new surface is silky smooth, causing little wear. Speeds last year were faster deeper into a run than they were at the beginning. Crew chiefs could decide whether to take two tires, four tires or go gas only to improve track position.
"I'll be curious to see it," Gordon said.
Goodyear officials maintain that the track hasn't changed much from last season, but if anybody can handle the change, it's Gordon.
The four-time Sprint Cup champion and current points leader has seven wins, 16 top-5s and 19 top-10s in 28 trips around the track nicknamed "Too Tough to Tame." Only David Pearson with 10 and Dale Earnhardt with nine have more wins.
Gordon won the last race on the old surface in 2007 and was third in the first race on the new surface last season.
The walls that come up on drivers faster than a sports car does a fully loaded tractor trailer on a steep incline don't intimidate him.
"It's a drivers' racetrack, and we have one of the most talented to ever sit in a stock car," Letarte said. "He knows how to get around it. He knows how to take care of new tires and make time on old tires. He's a very patient and smart driver.
"Some of that strategy is gone with the new surface, but it's all still the same with how you race there. As soon as you lose respect for it and treat it like another mile-and-a-half track you'll be in the wall or have a fender knocked in and you're in for a long night."
The new surface has made Darlington like most intermediate tracks when it comes to setups. But that's about as far as you can compare this 1.366-mile track in the sand hills of South Carolina to other tracks.
The egg shape and steep banking make it one of a kind. The famous "Darlington Stripe" -- the scrape down the side of the car earned primarily coming off the tight exits of Turns 2 and 4 -- hasn't gone away.
"Springs, shocks, everything like that, it's not like anything we used to run at Darlington," Letarte said. "But when you get there you really have to pay attention. Your spotter, driver, everybody has to be conservative. Five hundred miles down there is a long time."
"Experience and laps are pretty key there," said Gordon, who needs one more victory to tie Yarborough for fifth on NASCAR's all-time wins list with 83.
Five of Gordon's wins came in the Southern 500 run on Labor Day Weekend. The name of the race is coming back this season, meaning he can pass Yarborough for the all-time lead in that event.
But Yarborough isn't on Gordon's mind. Darlington is.
"The cars have changed, the speeds have changed and the asphalt has changed, but I don't believe the driver's thinking has changed one bit," Gordon said. "You race the track here, not the other competitors."
Having a car that can handle coming off Turns 2 and 4 is key. It's nearly impossible to have a setup perfect for both sides since 1 and 2 are narrower.
"We've had success at both ends of it," Letarte said. "It seems in the past if we get through 3 and 4 we have a good day. In 1 and 2 there is a lot of driver input -- how far you drive into the corner, how much you get off the gas, how much you play with the brake on the exit. There are a lot of driver tools.
"In 3 and 4 you just kind of roll off in there and you've got to make it to the corner smooth. It if doesn't make it to the corner it's slow."
"It seems like 3 and 4 everything washes you to the wall in the middle," he said. "That's why you hit the wall. Even with the new surface it's the same thing. "You can't be intimidated by the walls. You've got to put it out on the edge."
Just ask David Reutimann, who in two Darlington races has finished 33rd and 19th. He was so worn out after last year's race in which he had a problem with his cool box that he stepped up his entire workout program for this race alone.
"That place is challenging enough when everything is gong right," he said. "It's just a difficult, difficult track. I don't think words can even put in just how tough that place is."
It's all about compromise, whether it's the old surface or new one. Gordon has mastered that.
"Used to be you have to be careful being aggressive at the beginning of the run or you could really wear it out early," he said. "Now you can push harder at the beginning, but if you push too hard there is air pressure buildup, the tires get a lot of heat in them and that's where the handling goes away.
"I'm anxious to see if it's changed any."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
ESPN Travel track guide: Darlington Raceway
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