The mix of Darlignton's ever-so-close walls and the reduction of the rear spoiler may turn tonight's Dodge Charger 500 into another demolition derby.
A week after 25 cars were involved in a single crash at the Talladega Superspeedway, the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series is bracing itself for more problems during the first prime-time race at the 55-year-old speedway (7 p.m., Fox).
The lower spoiler reduces the amount of downforce on the rear wheels -- not something drivers need to navigate around the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped track. Most of the cars in tonight's race will finish with damage on the right-rear fender after bouncing off one of Darlington's walls. The tradition of hitting the wall is so prominent, drivers say the damage is "earning a Darlington stripe."
"We're out of control this year more than I've ever been here at Darlington," said Elliott Sadler, whose Ford is fourth on the grid. "The track is just getting old and gray. You have a lot less room to slide around because of the SAFER barriers, but we like the SAFER barriers. It's going to create great racing, I think. When have you ever come to Darlington and seen a boring race? You can show the highlights of this place, whether they had new asphalt, SAFER barriers, no SAFER barriers, and then we add a new element of nighttime racing with the lights, and I think you're still going to see a great race."
The SAFER barriers -- Steal and Foam Energy Reduction barriers -- we added a year ago to absorb some of the impact with the outside walls during a crash. While it cushions the severity of a crash, it erased 30 inches of the outside racing groove. By the time tonight's race is completed, the outside walls at both ends of the speedway -- especially Turns 3 and 4 -- will be blackened by contact.
Kasey Kahne will start on the pole. He was clocked at 170.024 mph in a Dodge on Friday night. And in accordance with NASCAR's new rules, his car was impounded after time trials and won't run again until the race starts.
"If you're tight in qualifying, you're going to be tight in the race," he said. "If you're loose, you might be all right. These impound races are so much tougher, because you don't know what you've got until the race starts."
When a car is tight, the front wheels don't grip in the turns. When a car is loose, the rear wheels lose traction. Teams aren't allowed to make adjustments to the car after qualifying.
Kahne said his car was right in the middle during qualifying -- not too tight, not too loose. He said his first goal in today's race is keep away from the walls.
"It's a pretty tough track; it can bite you," Kahne said. "It's gotten me a couple of times. I've run into the wall a couple of times -- not too hard yet, so that's a good thing. It's a tough track to stay off the wall and stay out of wrecks and get your car handling good. It's the same old Darlington. It's tough to get hold of and it'll be tough to get everything the way you want."
Ryan Newman is second at 169.555 mph, while Greg Biffle is third at 169.222.
"As drivers we have the option to slow down and not hit the wall, which is cool," Newman said. "It's like driving on grass or wet grass and then hitting pavement or driving on snow and hitting ice. You can drive on snow, but you don't want to drive on ice. Most of the passing and racing gets done on old tires here. The whole deal with the spoiler is to make less downforce and make the drivers have to drive the car more."
Biffle said Friday's practice was difficult. He said the 367-lap race should be "really, really tough."
"I only made a 15-lap run (in practice) and that's all I could hold ... all I could hold my breath," Biffle said.
The rest of the top 10 are: Sadler in fourth at 169.665; Brian Vickers in fifth at 168.607; Kyle Busch in sixth at 168.089; Sterling Marlin in seventh at 167.773; Jeremy Mayfield in eighth at 167.693; Jimmie Johnson in ninth at 167.676 and Carl Edwards in 10th at 167.642.
Kurt Busch, the defending series champion, was 11th at 167.550.
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