NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Outstanding Lessons We Learned at Darlington

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IMay 13, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Outstanding Lessons We Learned at Darlington

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    Darlington Raceway is nicknamed the "Lady in Black" because she will reach out and slam a car into the wall, leave her mark and wish the driver well.

     A car that survives without the Darlington stripe probably wasn't racing hard enough.

    The track that opened in 1950 is chock full of history. Few have truly been able to tame the egg-shaped track.

    Darlington looks wide, but the racing groove is against the wall. Drivers don't race each other, they race the treacherous track.

    Even the best drivers in the series can suddenly find themselves sucked against the wall coming out of the banked turns.

    There is nothing easy about racing at this South Carolina track. To win at the historic track is an accomplishment that ranks right up there with Daytona and Indianapolis. It is a big deal.

    Tensions even run high with the pit crews, as we saw with the wild retaliatory move by Ryan Newman's crew because of Kurt Busch's actions at the end of the race.

    This slideshow will highlight some lessons we learned in the Bojangles' Southern 500 at the track that is "Too Tough to Tame."

1. Danica Accomplished Goal

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    For Danica Patrick, it was trial by fire in her second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Her first race in the No. 10 Chevrolet was at Daytona, but she was involved in a wreck early in the event.

    Patrick is running the most difficult tracks during her limited Cup series schedule in 2012. Darlington was a track that is probably as tough as it will get for her.

    Patrick just wanted to finish the race with the car able to make it back to the garage. She finished 31st, six laps down and kept her car relatively clean. She accomplished her goal at Darlington.

2. Quest for 200 Ends

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    It had been 16 races since Jimmie Johnson got the 199th Cup win for Hendrick Motorsports. Since that time, they had tractor trailers filled with merchandise for that 200th win going from track to track.

    Johnson got Rick Hendrick that 200th win at the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington. It was an honor for Johnson that all of his teammates had hoped they could bring the boss.

3. Tony Stewart Can't Win at Darlington

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    Tony Stewart has won at every track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit except for Darlington and Kentucky Speedway.

    The three-time series champion looked to be in contention for a win as he ran up front, but he had to settle for a third place finish.

    Stewart has only run the inaugural race at Kentucky Speedway. He returns to Darlington year after year only to be frustrated by his inability to get a win a the track "Too Tough to Tame."

4. Green Flag Runs

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    The current trend of extended green-flag runs continued big time at Darlington. The first caution didn't come until 172 laps into the race.

    For a track known for wrecks and cautions, this was the longest caution-free run at Darlington Raceway since 1963.

    Many find this lack of restarts, which allow for more exciting racing, to be boring. The cars are so competitive that it is hard to make passes, especially in the lead pack, when they get strung out.

5. Jeff Gordon's Dismal Adventures

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    Jeff Gordon's season behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports just seems to continue to implode.

    It was thought a dark cloud was hovering over his teammate Kasey Kahne, but now it seems to be following Gordon.

    He has been plagued by engine problems, cut tires and accidents despite having a car that is often fast. At Darlington, a tire went down, and upon his return to the track after a pit stop, a tire went down again.

    Gordon's car was taken to the garage for examination. He completed 339 of 368 laps and finished 35th, after starting 12th. The driver of the No. 24 is currently 24th in the point standings and winless.

6. Fuel Strategy

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    With 58 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson was leading the race and told by his crew chief, Chad Knaus, to conserve fuel. At the time, Tony Stewart was hot on his tail seeking his first Darlington win.

    Johnson began the task of shutting his car off and re-firing it during the ensuing caution periods. Other drivers were probably doing the same thing as teams played the fuel strategy game.

    The question remains, just how effective is this procedure? As the race came to a conclusion, there were more caution periods than there had been during the entire race.

    It would seem the reduced speeds during cautions actually save much more fuel than flipping the switch. For Johnson, fuel was not a problem since he won the race.

7. Running Companion Nationwide Races Is Good

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    It appears the theory of Cup drivers running in the companion NASCAR Nationwide races benefits their performance is valid.

    Drivers like Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and others all seemed to perform well with that added track time, even though the cars are much different.

    Patrick did not finish all that high, but she did stay out of trouble. The other drivers ran in the lead pack for much of the race.

    It may be especially helpful on the more difficult tracks. For some drivers, like Jimmie Johnson, it may be a moot point.

8. Finding a New Line

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    Typically Darlington Raceway is a one-groove track, with drivers inches from the wall. The famous Darlington stripe is a result of running that high groove.

    During the Bojangles' Southern 500, drivers were running low on the apron of the track. They were seeking grip anywhere they could get it.

    It appeared atypical of Darlington races, as cars ran lines from the top to the bottom of the track. Of course, those who ran the high groove frequently encountered the "Lady in Black."

9. Was Dale Earnhardt Jr. Racing?

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    Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, was only nine points out of the lead heading to Darlington. He was coming off six consecutive top-10 finishes.

    Earnhardt qualified poorly for the Bojangles' Southern 500 by securing the 24th place slot. He appeared more concerned with taking care of equipment than mixing it up for a win at Darlington.

    His team was adjusting the car, but progress was slow. The driver apparently did not want any changes other than tires and fuel for what was supposed to be the final pit stop.

    One would have thought his car had become more competitive, but he lost positions in the closing laps. Earnhardt finished in 17th place, though he managed to hang on to the third position in the standings.

    Could it be this driver was points racing and just hoping to escape Darlington unscathed?

10. Kurt Busch Is a Wheelman, but His Temper Flared Again

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    Kurt Busch put on perhaps the best show of the race with his unsponsored Phoenix Racing No. 51 Chevrolet.

    Busch started the race at Darlington from 25th on the grid. He quickly moved through the field with his Hendrick Motorsports powered car, despite green-flag pit stops that would drop him back.

    The single-car team, that in today's Cup racing environment is considered low-budget, doesn't have a top-flight pit crew either.

    Busch raced his way into the top five and stayed in the top 10 most of the race. He brushed the wall late in the race—a tire was apparently going down and he hit the wall again with a car that was out of control.

    The No. 51 finally went into a spin just six laps from the finish. It caused Ryan Newman to check up and get punted to the wall by Aric Almirola, but the No. 39 never made contact with Busch's car on the track.

    Busch deliberately did a burnout through the No. 39 pit stall while the crewmen were still on pit road. Members from the No. 39 crew headed for the Phoenix Racing crew to mix it up.

    Post-race, Busch reverted to his fiery commentary after striking Newman's car on pit road. Just when we thought Kurt was having lots of fun, he lost his cool, but he did prove he can wheel a car. 

    NASCAR is evaluating the situation and talked with the No. 39 team. It may end up being no more than another Saturday night melee that broke out on pit road much like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch last year.