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The Lady going gray

May 11, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



The Lady going gray
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Darlington's surface is losing grip, and drivers hope tire wear will follow

The outcome of last season's Sprint Cup event at Darlington Raceway was so surprising not just because of who won but because of how he did it. Regan Smith's gamble to stay out on old rubber might have netted the driver his first career victory on NASCAR's premier series, but in the process, it also upturned decades of history at a venue where tire management was once a variable capable of separating the winner from everyone else.

That all changed five years ago, when this ageless facility received a new coat of asphalt that fundamentally altered competition on NASCAR's oldest major speedway. Drivers still needed to focus more on racing the race track than racing one another, and the fastest way around the egg-shaped oval remained against the wall. But Darlington's abrasive surface, that saw-toothed ribbon of pale gray that devoured tires like piranhas attacking bait, became a thing of the past. Forever, drivers pitted for fresh rubber whenever the caution was issued. Last year, Smith won by staying out. It was as if someone had added a chicane to the backstretch of the 63-year-old track.

"I would say by year 10 we will be back to good old Darlington where it just chews the tires apart, the way the summers and the sand and stuff is down here."

--REGAN SMITH

And yet, Darlington is a place where old traditions do not go down easily, and the sandy soil of this region of eastern South Carolina takes it toll on any surface. That much can be seen at Darlington today, in a race track that gets a little grayer every year, to the point where drivers allow themselves to hope that one day soon, the Lady in Black might show the same kind of bite she used to.

"I think it is definitely slowly getting back to where it was before they repaved it, from a standpoint of how worn out it is," Smith said Friday, sitting in the same chair that he did after winning last year's event. "It will take years. I don't know how many years exactly -- we are only on the fifth year on this asphalt -- and it takes time. I would say by year 10 we will be back to good old Darlington where it just chews the tires apart, the way the summers and the sand and stuff is down here."

Darlington always has been a narrow track, and the racing groove was whittled down a little farther by the necessary addition of the SAFER barrier. The increased grip created by the new surface also made it more difficult for cars to pass. That's a stark contrast to the former surface, where tire fall-off would create differences in how fast the cars were relative to one another and allow drivers more chances to overtake their competitors. "You've got to be a lot faster to pass somebody right now," Jimmie Johnson said.

Before the repave, Darlington's surface forced drivers to strike a compromise between speed and tire management. Every tenth of a second faster you went at the beginning of a tire run, two-time Darlington winner Greg Biffle remembered, cost you time on the back end. On new tires, "you were like Superman," he said, "but you had to drive them like you had an egg with a soft shell on them." Ripping off a fast lap cut a chunk off tire wear, and after 10 laps the rubber dropped off dramatically.

It's easy to see how much Darlington has worn in the five years since the new surface was put down. Every season the track gets a little more gray, loses a little more grip, becomes a little more slick, makes cars slide around a little bit more. And yet, the extreme tire wear that was once such a hallmark of this race track isn't exactly following suit, Biffle said.

"It doesn't seem like the tires are wearing like they did on the old pavement," said Biffle, second-fastest in Friday's final Sprint Cup practice. "So even though the track has less grip, I don't think that new tires are just way, way faster like they used to be. They are definitely better. But I don't think from new to old, it's like it was."

That much was evident last season, when Smith stayed out of the pits on the final caution and outran Carl Edwards -- who had taken new tires -- in a two-lap shootout. For Darlington, it seemed like anathema. And yet should the same scenario present itself Saturday night, drivers almost certainly will remember what unfolded 12 months ago.

"Obviously, people will be thinking back to last year, and if it comes down to that, you're going to have guys stay out," Martin Truex Jr. said. "And you just need to hope you're in front of those guys and can do it, too."

The 2007 repaving was part of a $10 million facelift that helped modernize Darlington, and it replaced a former surface that had been covered in asphalt patches. Even five years after the project, it still seems strange to think that drivers can win on tires that once would have been chewed up in 10 laps. Edwards hopes no one discounts Smith's victory because of the tactics that were used to claim it.

"I think all of us drivers hope that the tires will fall off a little bit more and the track will eat those tires up, and then it becomes really a battle of the race cars and the drivers and not so much the pit strategy," Edwards said. "But I would not take anything away from what Regan did. He hung on. He drove hard and he didn't win that thing solely because he stayed out. It was a great job on his part."

And yet, even Smith looks forward to the day when Darlington races once again are decided more by tire management and less on the kind of pit strategy he used to win the Southern 500.

"I know we all enjoy race tracks where the tires wear out and where strategy plays out from that standpoint where if you run hard on your tires for the first 10 laps you might pay for it for the next 20, or vice versa," he said. "That, as drivers, I think that is what 90 percent of us look for in a tire, in a race track, in a total combination, total package. It will be just like that very soon, if it isn't already this time."