With resurfacing, Darlington Raceway is faster than ever
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived at Darlington Raceway on Thursday with a retro Mountain Dew paint scheme on his No. 88 Chevrolet. It didn't take long for him to get a retro Darlington stripe.
With speeds more than 10 mph faster on the newly resurfaced track than they were on the first day of practice a year ago, drivers had to negotiate the tight turns on this egg-shaped track more than ever.
The wall from the end of Turn 3 to the middle of Turn 4 was almost black with tire rubber after two Sprint Cup and Nationwide practices.
"The speeds are pretty insane," said Earnhardt Jr., who was third fastest in the first session.
Let's put it into perspective. Kyle Busch was fastest in the first practice session with a lap of 175.278 mph. The fastest lap a year ago was 163.904 mph, which was slower than the slowest lap [165.278 mph] on Thursday.
Speeds were even faster in the night session as A.J. Allmendinger topped the charts at 178.679 mph. Thirty-one cars topped the track record of 173.797 mph, set by Ward Burton in the first race after the track was resurfaced the last time in 1996, under the lights.
"It's fast," Busch said. "It's grippy."
The question: How will it be in race conditions?
"I can say for sure it's going to be an aero race now," Busch said. "Nobody likes that."
Martin Truex Jr., who was 11th fastest in the first session and 10th in the second, couldn't believe he was at Darlington.
"It's awesome," he said. "I've always been a fan of Darlington. I've just never been this fast. The speeds we were going out there were pretty damn cool."
Unlike the Darlington of old, where speeds quickly decreased as tires wore against the abrasive surface, Truex said his laps were quicker toward the end of a run.
"I had my fastest lap on the last run," he said.
But will it make racing at a track that in 2003 produced the closest finish in NASCAR history any better?
"It's going to be a lot different," Truex said. "Last year it didn't matter how fast you were. It just mattered how fast you were at the end of a run."
Most agreed that Goodyear did a good job of developing a tire that not only is durable but has good grip.
"The track definitely has a lot of grip and the speeds stay very consistent and very fast," David Gilliland said. "It's a lot of fun. You run every lap like you used to qualify."
Ryan Newman, who did two tire tests for Goodyear here, doesn't expect racing to be much different than it was before.
"We never saw much side-by-side racing here," he said. "I don't expect that will be different this weekend. Track position could be more important."
Newman was more concerned with why he had to be at Darlington for two Thursday practices after spending Monday and Tuesday at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte for a test session.
"This is stupid to be here on a Thursday and it was stupid to test at Charlotte on a Monday and Tuesday," he said. "It [Charlotte test] was not needed. No matter what the strongest teams are going to be stronger."
Bill Elliott, who won the first Winston Million here in 1985, said the key this weekend will remain the same.
"I still say you've got to race the racetrack," he said.
Asked if the track dubbed "Too Tough To Tame" had lost any of its charm, Elliott said, "I'll get back to you on that."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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