The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season fired up with qualifying and elimination playoff changes, plus an ever-popular Daytona 500 win by their biggest star—Dale Earnhardt Jr. More stars seem to be lining up.
Winning is now the ultimate goal, and points gathering is a benefit of yesterday. Perhaps NASCAR officials wanted to believe that placing all the emphasis on wins with 16 slots available for contenders going into the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs would create better strategy.
But few could have predicted seven different winners in the first seven races. The only sensible prediction is that the string of unique wins will end soon.
Those seven winners are virtually guaranteed a chance in the 10-race Chase, as only once in the last 10 years has there been 15 different winners after 26 regular-season events. The average is about 12, and in all of NASCAR’s history since 1948, only twice have more than 16 different drivers visited Victory Lane.
The mathematical possibility of 26 different drivers winning before the Chase begins is as about as probable as a driver racing backwards for the last few laps and taking the checkered flag.
So the “Lady in Black,” the ever-brutal 1.366-mile oval at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, is the next challenge for NASCAR’s finest on April 12. With top drivers, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, winless thus far in 2014, the lucky streak of seven might extend to eight.
The “Track too Tough to Tame” takes special skills and experience, as Gordon with seven wins, Johnson with three wins and Kenseth with his 2013 win have proven.
Words won’t substitute for performance, but the thoughts of the 2014 NSCS leaders can help fans understand what drivers and teams face when they head into Darlington territory. Gordon and Kenseth sit at the top of the leader board despite not having a win, so their take is worth checking. Leaders Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch have a win and shared their words as well.
Gordon takes the point lead into a track where he has won seven times. He commented on Darlington Raceway.
“The first time I drove there, it reminded me of a couple of super-fast sprint car tracks that you have to respect or ruin your day,” he said. “Darlington is a cool, fast place. You get that sensation of speed because you run up next to the wall. The track ‘drives’ you.”
Gordon defined the reason why Darlington is never tame.
“At other places, we are typically trying to put the car in specific spots on the track. At Darlington, the track naturally ‘feeds’ you to a certain area which is right up next to the wall.”
Kenseth is one spot back from Gordon in second place. He also hasn’t secured a win yet in 2014, but he is Darlington’s most recent winner.
“It’s such a historic and prestigious race,” Kenseth said. “It’s one you always want to win. We were able to get to Victory Lane last year, a highlight for me. Darlington is fast. The narrow lanes of the track make it a really challenging place to get around.”
Edwards would like to be the first driver to get two wins in 2014. Getting a win in South Carolina would be a plus.
“Darlington is a lot of fun,” Edwards said. “It’s a 500-mile race so it is a true test of man and machine, and it is one of the toughest races of the year. It’s a fast race track, there is so much history there, and to win there would be great.”
Logano is fresh off an important win in Texas. He and the No. 22 team would like nothing better than to take momentum to another Victory Lane.
“You find yourself out of breath when you take the checkered flag,” Logano said. “The first time I did a qualifying lap I got out of the car and was shaking. You are on the edge, trying to go as fast as possible, just inches from the wall. It makes you a little jittery.”
Busch shared the opinion that this racetrack is one rugged place. He has a win this year, so bold strategy might make him the first winner to get another trip to Victory lane.
“It’s a place that’s really tough, challenging,” Busch said. “I’m hearing that the track color has changed more with another year to mature, so maybe the grip level is not going to be old Darlington, but something similar. If you can keep air in the tires, you might win.”
Another lucky driver may get a first win, but fans and teams know the Darlington wall will get its share of fenders in the process.
FYI WIRZ is the select presentation of topics by Dwight Drum at Racetake.com. Unless otherwise noted, information and all quotes were obtained firsthand or from official release materials provided by sanction and team representatives.