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Fanning the Flames: All Darlington, All the Time

My beloved Derby has come and gone, and so have Talladega and Richmond; but all three gave us spectacular racing action. Now, there’s Darlington on Mother’s Day Eve, two weekends in Charlotte are on the agenda… and the fish are biting, too. Oh, how I love the month of May!

You guys gave me a good batch this week. Keep those questions rolling in, and I’ll get to ya as soon as I can.

Q: What are we to expect from the newly repaved Darlington Raceway? If speeds are up like they were in the tire tests, will it make it harder for drivers to pass? And what about the excessive tire wear? Is that still a concern, or has the repave taken care of that? Thank you. – Donnie

A: I really hate to say this, because I just love Darlington; but unfortunately, I’ve been told that the speeds are up so high racing side-by-side in the turns is going to be difficult. “Almost out of the question,” was the quote given to me by a source, in fact. It looks like the new asphalt – as we’ve seen on a number of tracks over the years – is going to need some weathering before it comes in.

As for tire wear, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman participated in a Goodyear test in early March and weren’t happy with what they found; the tires went from too hard to too soft too quickly. After providing feedback, the three came back later in the same month for another one day test – at Goodyear’s request – but the jury’s still out on how that went.

Here’s the bottom line: I’d expect continued use of insane camber settings – which are not regulated by NASCAR – by the teams, as well as lots of rubber buildup just outside of the groove. But again – and I hate to say it – expect a lot of single-file racing come Saturday night.

Staying on topic…

Q: Hi, Matt! I have a quick fantasy racing question for you: Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch at Darlington? I’m 23 points out of first in my league, and am looking for any advantage I can get. Pick me a winner and I’ll cut you in on the winnings! – Anonymous

A: Just so you know, Anonymous, I charge 20% of the take. And now that we’ve agreed on that… I’d take Hamlin. The guy has a real knack for Darlington; just look at his career stats. And remember the No. 11 pit crew woes last year? That’s the only thing that cost him this race in ’07. Add a 10th-place run in ’06 (not to mention two straight wins from the pole in Busch/Nationwide events) and it’s clear Hamlin makes a living running up front at the Lady In Black.

I think you also can’t overlook momentum. I know Kyle has been the talk of the town all season… but Hamlin is the real scorcher at the moment. Let’s throw out last weekend’s near miss – because we all know who had the car – and you’ll see Hamlin hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 since Atlanta in early March. Yes, Kyle has the talent (as we hear every weekend) but Denny and that No. 11 team are the best outfit on the circuit through 10 races in my book.

Now, for a more thorough breakdown of all this stuff, you can check out Frontstretch’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans feature that posted today. Cami Starr and Mike Neff will certainly have plenty more in-depth details about the upcoming Darlington show – in case you don’t trust my judgment.

Man, you people love you some Darlington. Here’s another one:

Q: With Darlington coming up, we were wondering the last time the Cup Series ran on Mother’s Day weekend (before the schedule change gave that slot to Darlington). Also, do you think the Southern 500 will ever return to Labor Day weekend in Darlington? Thanks and keep up the good work, Matt! – Sharon and Paul Malone

A: Good questions, guys. Interestingly enough, the last Cup race run on Mother’s Day Weekend was actually run on Mother’s Day. It was the 1986 Winston, held not at Charlotte (as it was known back then) but Atlanta Motor Speedway.

This was the second running of the All-Star event, and at the time the idea was to move the race from track to track each year. However, the turnout was so sparse – it would have made a WNBA preseason game look like the Super Bowl – that NASCAR had to rethink its strategy. The next year, the race was moved back to Charlotte, placed on the weekend before the Coca-Cola 600; and there it has remained ever since.

As for the ’86 race itself, hometown favorite Bill Elliott beat a field of 10 drivers, a group which nearly outnumbered the spectators in attendance. Dale Earnhardt finished second, followed by Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Neil Bonnett, Geoffrey Bodine, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte and Greg Sacks. Man, I miss those guys.

And yes, the Southern 500 will return to Darlington at some point. It may be three or four years down the road, but when even this sport’s most ardent supporters (the FOX broadcasters) are howling for it, you know the sanctioning body is taking a beating on this. NASCAR is slow to act on anything (see: drug testing, mandatory head and neck restraints, SAFER barriers) but it typically gives in once the outcry has reached a deafening roar… or it’s given no other alternative.

Q: (Referring to last week’s column) You said it would take (Tony) Stewart to make his decision before the other free agents (Bobby Labonte, Newman, Carl Edwards, Biffle, Martin Truex Jr.) would make their moves. Well, Labonte, Edwards and Biffle look like they’ve decided to act without worrying about Tony! Nice try, though. – Robert Barnett

A: Hey, what can I say, Bob? I was asked a question and gave as straight an answer as I could with the information given. However, don’t be so quick to judge. Edwards, indeed, has signed; but Biffle has not (although it wouldn’t surprise me to see him stay at Roush). And while reports say that Labonte has agreed to stay at Petty, I’m not 100% assured that anything has been signed.

We’ll see. Let me tell ya, Silly Season is fun to discuss, but no fun at all to report on. Too much speculation, rumors and hearsay to know what’s the truth and what’s a bread trail… and when you follow them, they usually lead you over the side of a cliff.

Finally, the one question I was hoping no one would ask…

Q: So… Did you win any money on your “two-minute adrenaline rush?” – Kelly Brennan

A: No Kentucky Derby winnings for me. But there never are… so I’m not too upset over it. I made two predictions last week: Hamlin and Colonel John. One dominated, only to finish 24th; the other never sniffed the lead and finished out of the money. Just goes to show you prognostication is not an exact science. Humiliating… but not exact.

Thanks for the time. See ya’ll next Thursday.

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