The Dodge Charger 500 is the eleventh race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Schedule. The Cup Series will visit the 1.366 mile Darlington Raceway just once in the 2006 season. Darlington Raceway was the site of the first NASCAR Nextel Cup (Grand National) race to be held on a paved track and the series’ first 500-mile race on September 4, 1950. The first Nextel Cup race winner at Darlington was Johnny Mantz, and the record for most wins (10) is held by David Pearson. Jeff Gordon leads active drivers with six wins at the track. The track is an egg-shaped oval with twenty-five degrees of banking in turns one and two and twenty-three degrees of banking in turns three and four. Both the frontstretch and backstretch measure 1,229 feet with two degrees of banking. Drivers will race 367 laps (500 miles) on Saturday night. The field will include 2005 pole winner Kasey Kahne and race winner Greg Biffle.
48 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Saturday’s race, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes the remainder of the season. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team’s time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Darlington is 173.797 mph, set by Ward Burton in 1996.
Jimmie Johnson extended his point lead to 55 points after a mediocre 12th place finish at Richmond. Tony Stewart is off to an unusually strong start for his team in 2006 (which must worry some of his competitors), and has moved to second in points behind Johnson, 55 out of the lead. Matt Kenseth, who found trouble at Richmond, dropped to third place, with Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick rounding out the Top 5. Heading into Darlington there are only 12 drivers currently in position to the make the 10 race Chase for the Championship at the end of the season.
What to Expect
At Darlington, drivers race the track more than they race each other. The Lady in Black is rough and worn, which leaves drivers screaming for new tires almost as soon as fresh ones are put on. Pit strategy is key here, getting tires at the right time before that driver adds a fresh Darlington stripe to the right side of the car. That’s the biggest factor at Darlington: the drivers. Whether someone can save their tires or find a better line to run to pick up speed without shredding his tires is key.
More than a few of those Darlington stripes will be handed out Saturday night…it’s like a badge of honor. Certainly, it could be a rough night for the rookies as they get used to this famed track…but it’s not a cakewalk for the vets, either. If the car isn’t handling right or has suffered damage, you can be in for a very long night at the Lady in Black.
Who to Watch
Six-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon is still looking for his first win of 2006, and should be a strong contender in Saturday’s race. After his trouble at Richmond, he needs a good run to keep from falling into another slump like he did at this point last year. Point leader Jimmie Johnson has a fondness for Darlington as well. He’s scored six Top 10 finishes, including two wins, in the last seven Darlington races.
RCR driver Jeff Burton has been solid this year and has run well at Darlington in the past. Look for him to possibly sneak in and snatch a victory. His teammate Kevin Harvick is riding high with six Top 10 finishes in the last seven races, including a dominant run at RIR last weekend. He could very well come away with a win Saturday night, too. On the rookie side, Denny Hamlin is coming off a career best finish of second at Richmond. Look for his momentum to carry over this week. And don’t count out Roush drivers Mark Martin and defending race winner Greg Biffle, fresh off his first top five finish of the year.
Did You Know
- Rookie-of-the-Year contenders Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in their first career NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race at Darlington "" the 2002 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. Only two other active drivers posted Top 10 finishes in their Darlington debut: Tony Stewart (sixth – March 1999) and Mark Martin (seventh – April 1982).
- Nineteen of 102 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races at Darlington have been won from the Bud Pole, the most productive starting position. Thirty-five have been won from the first two starting positions, and 67 have been won from the top five. Three of the past 10 Darlington races have been won from outside the Top 30 starting positions "" including two of the last five 500-mile races.
- Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin have all scored top-five finishes in each of the last two races at Darlington, the longest current streak.
- Dale Earnhardt led 2,648 laps in 44 races at Darlington, more than any other driver. Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 1,553 laps led in 25 races there.
You Don’t Say"¦
“Darlington is a cool track that I’ve always liked. I ran second there to Dale Earnhardt twice in ‘89 and ‘90 and finally won in ‘93. Sometimes I think that people seem to forget that I won a Southern 500. I’ve had a lot of success at Darlington and an enormous amount of Busch wins. The place brings back some great memories of some great battles. Actually the win in ‘93 was four in a row, and that was a big deal." *Mark Martin* on his often forgotten moment in the sun at Darlington
“That was the last Southern 500 over Labor Day weekend. To me, that was always one of the biggest races we ran every year. It was a real tradition that I hated to see go away. Bill Elliott and I were running really good during that event and I thought to myself, ‘Well, if we can’t win I hope Bill can.’ The two of us had run at Darlington so many times and understood the history of the track, so I thought that would be neat. It was really cool to win that race.” *Terry Labonte* on his thoughts of his final win at Darlington. Labonte will be making his final start at this track on Saturday.
"Darlington is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. I’ve gotten several of the black stripes over the years but I’d still put it up there as one of my favorite tracks. Winning this race there last year was one of the highlights of my career. There’s so much history at Darlington that winning there puts you on a list with the legends of the sport. I got my official parking spot on pit road next to Buddy Baker and David Pearson and I plan to use it as long as they let me keep it. We’re going to go there with the car we won with last year and plan on doing everything we can to defend the title." *Greg Biffle* talking about some of the perks you get by winning at Darlington
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