For many, taming the Lady is vital
For race teams just getting into a groove, Talladega Superspeedway and Darlington Raceway aren't the most welcome sites. Especially back-to-back. When confidence is fragile, surviving one can be a blessing.
Surviving both is unlikely.
That's what Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and others are hoping to do. Some are on a climb upward while others, having hit a skid, aim to stop a slide downward. Either way, they're going to have to do it Saturday night at the "Track too Tough to Tame," and that's a tall order.
"Even the slightest touch on the old concrete walls, and it would crunch the whole right side of the car," said Junior, who met the wall last year during practice when the track lacked grip. "The track configuration is very unorthodox. Looking at it from the grandstands, or even an aerial view, it would look pretty easy to drive, but it ain't easy at all. Even with a good car -- hell, even the best car -- you still feel like it ain't that great."
It felt OK last year, though, when Junior finished 10th in the first race at Darlington. He finished 11th in the track's second race last season. Now, he's coming off of a 15th-place showing in Alabama last weekend, which put him in the top 10.
In a similar boat is Kevin Harvick, although Harvick and Co. don't quite know what to expect from this old South Carolina trickster. Harvick finished top 10 in this race at Darlington last year, but limped home a lowly 32nd in the second race.
"It seems like Darlington is feast or famine for this team," Harvick said. "When we avoid trouble, we always run in the top 10. But if we get into the wall or struggle mechanically, then we never seem to be able to fight our way back. The one thing I have seen this year is that this team is willing to fight back and get the best finish we can. Hopefully we can stay out of trouble and run up front all night long. That's what championship teams do week-in-and-week-out."
That has not been the case for Harvick's No. 29 team all year, but of late he's rattled off three straight top-20 finishes, including a 12th-place effort at Talladega, and has snuck into the top 10 for the second time this year.
That's more than Jeremy Mayfield can say, but after four straight top-15 finishes, including last weekend's fourth-place posting, Mayfield is finally knocking on the door of the top 10. He's currently 12th and looking to return to the position he was in last year, when he made the 10-driver playoff for the title. Incidentally, his playoff berth was helped by a top 10 finish at this ornery South Carolina racetrack.
"After a slow start this season, the performance has really improved the last four races," Mayfield said. "We realized we had a problem early and went to work to correct it. It's been a team effort, a lot of hard work by everybody on the No. 19 Dodge Charger team. [Crew Chief] Slugger [Labbe] and I are communicating better; the team is working together.
"We're still not where we want to be, but I think we've done the work to put ourselves in a position to get there. Our goal is to make the Chase again this year."
While Junior, Harvick and Mayfield are trying to sustain their upward climbs, a handful of racers hope to halt a slump. Darlington is never a good place to go looking for favors, but Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards plan to try.
"The wall goes in-and-out and in-and-out," said Martin, describing the track he's always had a love-hate relationship with. "Your line is as smooth as anywhere else, but the track's all over the place. You go from touching the apron to touching the wall and you've never even changed directions. It's really narrow and banked a lot. The cars go really fast and the track goes everywhere so it's always a challenge."
Martin dropped five spots in the standings after last weekend, putting him 11th. But last year he finished seventh and second, respectively, in the two Darlington races, so he's hopeful.
Darlington doesn't have any of the aero-push issues drivers worry about at other racetracks. It's just a matter of saving tires and fighting to get a handle on the car's setup in the varied turns. It's a racer's racetrack and, after last weekend's follow-the-leader parade which ended for Martin with a wreck and a 33rd-place finish, he's just happy to move on.
"After Talladega you can't help but really look forward to that kind of racing again," he said.
Martin's teammate, Carl Edwards, was off to a torrid start this season, but trouble in Bristol, Martinsville and last weekend in Talladega have relegated him to 14th overall. While he ran only 13 races last year, one of them was the second race at Darlington and Edwards finished a surprising seventh. Edwards's crew chief, Bob Osborne, said that has given the team confidence.
"I think we're all just glad to be done with Talladega," Osborne said of the team's 32nd-place finish. "We had a pretty rough weekend there so we are looking to Darlington to bounce back. We had a strong run there last year at the Southern 500 and I know Carl really likes the track a lot.
"I think we have the potential to go in this week and run well. The Office Depot team has been working really hard and we've been having great pit stops so that, coupled with Carl's skills, should fare well this weekend."
For these racers, surviving Darlington would be great. Succeeding there would be huge. A good run at a tough track is great medicine. Still, there's always the other side of the coin.
"Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day," said driver Tony Stewart, who crept back into the top 10 this week after a quick dropout. "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.
"It's one of the tracks where we seem to work the hardest. The way the tires fall off and as narrow as the track is -- it's hard to pass. So, you've got to get your car driving well to be able to pass. You don't want to use up your tires too early in a run. It's definitely one of the harder tracks on the circuit."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.