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NASCAR: Darlington Survival Is All About the Stripe

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IMay 5, 2011

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 08:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 AMP Energy / National Guard Chevrolet, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 8, 2010 in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The South Carolina track Darlington Raceway is known as "The Lady In Black", and she needs to be played fast and loose if she is to be conquered.

The 1.366 mile track was repaved in 2008, which took mechanical grip out of the racing equation. The cars are aero-sensitive, and hard as it may be, a driver sometimes has to just let the car next to him go.

There is a reason the track is called "Too Tough to Tame." It is one of the most difficult tracks for the NASCAR Cup drivers on the entire circuit.

The groove is narrow, and the turns in one and two are so different from three and four. Crew chiefs struggle with focusing attention on which end of the track to set up for while trying to find balance.

The repaved surface will mean team strategy with tires can be a real game changer with decisions of taking two or four tires and when to do it.

A driver needs to be up on the wheel and aggressive while still allowing the back end of the car to hang out. At Darlington, if you don't have a stripe, you aren't racing.

The best place to drive is at the top against the wall, but if something goes wrong, you know it won't be good and you will either hit the wall or a competitor or both.

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Getting a rhythm is key to success at Darlington Raceway, and finding it is not an easy thing to do. Few drivers have repeated wins and consistently good finishes.

Jeff Gordon has seven consecutive top-five finishes since 2004, with one being a win in 2007. He has seven total wins at Darlington, which ranks him third behind David Pearson with 10 and Dale Earnhardt Sr. with nine.

Racing in the South Carolina heat and humidity is usually typical at this time of year, but things will get hot even if a cool front passes through.

Driving this legendary track is physically demanding because a driver has no time to relax with the close racing conditions that can turn really ugly in a heartbeat. There were 11 drivers who failed to finish the 2010 Showtime Southern 500.

The key to finishing well may be qualifying well with good pit position. A lot of time can be lost in the pits at this track, especially under green flag conditions.

Some of the best NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers like Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart have failed to win at the track "Too Tough to Tame."

There is a lot of pent-up anger building within the ranks of the Cup drivers as the season moves along. The "have at it" between Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya at Richmond was an example.

Frustration is building with drivers and their teams. Kurt Busch let loose with a rant towards his Penske team that looked to be warranted.

Martin Truex Jr. had enough with his team and said they were fired over his radio at Richmond. Sure enough, four crew members were replaced by Michael Waltrip Racing, so it remains to be seen how that works.

Things have been going well for Dale Earnhardt Jr., but a late stop for gas caused him to finish 19th and drop to fourth in the point standings.

Junior was not too happy after the race, and now we wait to see if he and his crew chief, Steve Letarte, can get back in sync with good finishes and maybe break that exhausting winless streak.

Now it is time for the 2011 edition of the Showtime Southern 500 at the great historic track. One thing for sure is the winner will have a Darlington stripe on the right side and that is a good thing.

Cars that have the Darlington stripe on both sides of the car will probably be in the garage, and that is a bad thing.

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