DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Already considered the toughest track on the NASCAR schedule, the fabled Darlington Raceway may have gotten a little tougher in time for Saturday night's Dodge Charger 500.
Shadows created by a new lighting system make the walls seem even closer during the race, Dale Jarrett said. And while that should make the race even more exciting for fans, it only adds to the anxiety of running laps at a place that goes by two nicknames: "The Lady in Black" and "Too Tough to Tame."
Darrell Waltrip used to say the walls at Darlington reach out and grab drivers. "You know she's going to get you; you just hope it's not this time," he said.
Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barriers erased three feet of the racing groove a year ago. Shadows now give the appearance the racing groove has been reduced to a few inches.
"It's going to be fun, I think," Jarrett said. "I tested the Busch car there last week and I was a little surprised. It's the first track that I've seen that actually had a shadow from the wall and the lights. There was about a three- to four-foot shadow coming off the wall, but everywhere else that we race we don't race against the wall like that. Maybe it's up there and we just haven't noticed it, but there is a definite shadow.
"(Turns 3 and 4) could become a little bit of a trouble spot because you're relying so much on what you can see right there in trying to get around the corner, but it's still pretty cool. To be there at night, I think it's going to be a great show for the fans."
Drivers were supposed to practice at Darlington on Thursday, but the workout was rained out. The Busch and Nextel Cup series cars will be allowed to practice this morning -- weather permitting -- before qualifying in the afternoon. The Busch cars will qualify at 3:30 p.m. (Speed), followed 90 minutes later by the Nextel Cup cars. The Busch Series cars then hit the track at 8 p.m. for the Diamond Hill Plywood 200.
Rain is expected today at the speedway, although it's expected to move through the area by late afternoon. If the practice sessions are rained out, NASCAR will cancel qualifying and use the time set aside for time trials for the only practice session of the weekend.
Jimmie Johnson swept both races at Darlington last year. He drives for Hendrick Motorsports, which has won four of the last five races at Darlington.
In fact, Hendrick and Roush Racing have dominated the circuit for nearly a half year. Those two organizations have won eight of the first nine races this year and 13 of the last 15 dating back to last year.
Jarrett, who works at Robert Yates Racing, said NASCAR doesn't need to make any changes to help other teams win. He said everyone else just needs to work harder.
"They just seem to have everything together better than the rest of the teams," he said. "Everybody just has to work harder if you're going to catch up. You always hear that strength is in numbers and they both have four or five race teams (each) so that enables them to have a lot of people. There is a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of opportunity to get a lot of good people there, so you'd have to think that's an advantage. We've looked and explored that. We thought in starting our Busch team that it would help us get in that direction, so I think it's just the number of people and engineers that they have is putting them on top."
After finishing 15th in the standings a year ago, Jarrett and his Yates teammate, Elliott Sadler, are both ranked in the top 10. While he said neither has been good enough to challenge for a victory, they're both in good position to make a run for the championship during the Chase for the Nextel Cup during the final three months of the season.
"Well, we're there but we're not where we want to be," Jarrett said. "We want to be contending for and winning races and we haven't gotten to that point yet. Elliott has had some good runs, but we've just kind of hung around and that's why we're in the position that we're in. But we like to think that our team can get to that point.
"We know that we have to become more competitive to where we're leading laps and contending to win races, so we just have to keep pushing forward. I felt like we needed to work on our aero program and we're addressing that, and then there are some chassis issues that we're looking at. But we've just got to continue to work. That's the only thing that's going to help us get better."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.