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Caraviello: At Darlington, NASCAR's old and young collide

March 12, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The place has loomed over South Carolina cotton country for more than six decades now, and despite a flurry of recent upgrades still retains the wonderfully cranky nature it's had since it first opened its doors. Darlington Raceway is mean and unforgiving and capable of blindsiding a driver when he least expects it, as evidenced by all the black marks that adorn its red and white walls. Demanding equal measures of respect and trepidation, Darlington is the racing equivalent of a retired next-door-neighbor who's never hesitant to kick all the neighborhood kids out of her yard.

And Saturday, the kids arrived in droves. A Camping World Truck Series event at NASCAR's oldest major speedway brought with it a collision between old and young, a track that's 62 and long been set in its ways, and a circuit that seems to grow more youthful every year. Of the 39 drivers who came to Darlington with hopes of starting the appropriately-named Too Tough To Tame 200, 10 of them were rookies, and a robust 17 had never turned a competitive lap at the place before practice opened on Saturday morning.

"I was lost in first practice. I couldn't even do [Turns] 1 and 2 flat. It just came slowly to me."

--NELSON PIQUET JR.

It was a matter of learn quickly, or get schooled. In an era of no testing, there wasn't an opportunity to get up to speed on what's universally regarded as NASCAR's most difficult race track before the one-day show began. They got two and a half hours of practice, and were told to have at it. No wonder 13 of the 16 fastest speeds in the day's opening session were turned by drivers who had been here before.

"This is a trick place," said rookie Miguel Paludo, who prior to Saturday had only seen the track on television. "You make one mistake, you go to the wall. You've got a stripe."

No wonder Paludo and other drivers solicited the advice of experts, among them two-time series champion Todd Bodine. "In between practices I had a lot of guys come up and say, 'Hey, I'm feeling this and I'm doing that, but what should I do and how am I doing it wrong?' Which is great -- I've always enjoyed playing that role, and the guys know they can come to me for an honest answer and I'll help them the best that I can," Bodine said. "Short of handing them the springs and setting the truck up, I'll do anything for them. They know that, and they know they can count on that."

For a newcomer, Darlington can be an eye-opening experience because of its combination of high speeds -- the pole winner circled the place at nearly 174 mph Saturday -- and unorthodox design. The fast way around is right up against the wall. Drivers try to keep the accelerator mashed through the first two corners. The wall bends slightly inward in Turn 2, and all the impacts there over the course of an event can leave the concrete colored black by the end of the night.

"This place is obviously different than any other place we go to," said Ricky Carmichael, competing at Darlington for the second time in his short NASCAR career. "You run right up by the wall, and there's not much room. It's a fun race track, no doubt about it. There's just a lot of asphalt you can't use, because the good line is right up by the top. It's definitely a tough track, but at the same time a fun one."

Knowing the line is up against the wall is one thing. Getting there is another. "The only hard part is ... your gut, and working with that," rookie Justin Johnson said. "You're pretty much racing yourself the whole day. These guys, these veterans, have thousands of laps around here. These rookie guys coming out, all we've done all day is ask the veterans what we have to do to make ourselves better. They've been helping us, and it's been great."

Still, the challenge is ever-present. Johnson finished eighth in his Truck Series debut two weeks ago at Phoenix, another old, idiosyncratic NASCAR facility. Darlington is a different matter. "This is a whole new ballgame right here," he said. "This is crazy."

"I was lost in first practice," added rookie Nelson Piquet Jr. "I couldn't even do [Turns] 1 and 2 flat. It just came slowly to me."

He wasn't alone. Despite the lack of track time, many of the young drivers seeing Darlington for the first time Saturday achieved a level of comfort with the place by the time the race began. Paludo used his experience at Homestead-Miami Speedway, another track where the line is high up against the wall, to help him pick up the knack of getting around Darlington. He didn't even leave a mark on the concrete in practice. Piquet overcame his early struggles -- turned out, a flat tire made him think he was slower than he really was -- to earn a starting spot inside the top 10.

"It's difficult," said Piquet, son of former Formula 1 champion Nelson Piquet. "Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. A track like Phoenix, for example, I had never been there either. It should be easier because it's a little bit slower. But because of the brake timings and thinks like that, for me, I struggled a bit more. Here, it could have been a place where I struggled a bit more, but I got it a bit right. I didn't nail it. ... [but] I think for a track like this, it's quite good. It's a tough track."

Johnson said he stayed off the wall in practice, while Piquet added that he only nicked it a little. And then there was rookie Cole Whitt, whose speed in practice and pole-winning qualifying run belied the fact that he'd never raced at Darlington before. "I kind of thrive on those tracks," Whitt said. "... Anywhere with some real characteristic to it, where you know you've got to get up on the wheel and get after it and make something happen, is a track we seem to shine at. So I'm looking forward to it."

Of course, all this was before the green flag fell and Darlington Raceway bared her teeth. Mastering a demanding layout like this egg-shaped speedway, Carmichael said, takes more than one day because of the toll it can take on a driver mentally. "You've got to be thinking all the time," he added. Moonlighting Sprint Cup star Kasey Kahne well remembers his first time at Darlington, in a Nationwide car, and how he struggled to grasp all that was thrown at him during a race.

Saturday night, it was time for the young drivers in the Truck series to learn the same thing.

"They're going to be learning non-stop," Kahne said. "I still learn every time I come here, and I've raced here, I don't know, 4,000 miles or something. It's a tough track, and you always have to remember it can get you."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.