News & Media

Caraviello: Darlington capable of creating mayhem on its own

May 07, 2011, David Caraviello,

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Don't bring drama to the Lady in Black, she will supply you an ample amount

The landscape has changed from an urban fairgrounds to rural farmland, but the scars still remain. Martin Truex Jr. came to Darlington Raceway with four new crewmen, the result of dropped lug nuts and on-the-spot firings at Richmond. Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya arrived trying to repair an on-track relationship that's been tested from their very first race together. Kurt Busch showed up and explained the reasons behind a profane radio tirade. The rest of the Sprint Cup tour encamped at NASCAR's oldest major race track fully expecting one hot, tempestuous Saturday night of racing to segue into another.

Whether it's the warming weather, the tightening points format, or the ever-present pressure to perform at the sport's highest level, in the garage area these days there are plenty of internal temperature gauges running into the red. Last weekend's event at Richmond International Raceway was a fiesta of screaming, wrecking, frayed nerves and bared emotions, and now the whole scene moves south -- to a facility that's capable of causing havoc even if drivers are on their best behavior.

The feud continues

After meeting with NASCAR, Juan Montoya and Ryan Newman were unable to settle their differences and are still fuming a week after their Richmond drama.

That would be Darlington, a cranky old bird whose reputation for difficulty is as real as the dark black marks that will have defaced the track's red and white outside wall by the time Saturday's event comes to an end. It's a place where drivers will occasionally bring old-timers to show them the lay of the land, a joint so rigorous that five-time series champion (and two-time Darlington winner) Jimmie Johnson was involved in three wrecks in a single evening last year. Participants don't need to beat and bang on one another, have a pit problem, or reignite an old feud to have a difficult night at this 61-year-old facility. Trouble will find them all on its own.

"That's always been this track," Johnson said Friday. "When things start working against you ... it's over."

Of course, that doesn't stop some drivers from hauling in baggage of their own, which amid the punishingly narrow confines of Darlington Raceway is tantamount to swirling shark-infested waters with chum. Newman and Montoya spent part of Friday working on their long-standing issues both publicly and privately, at one point meeting with NASCAR officials to try and smooth over a tiff that exploded last Saturday when Newman pinched Montoya into the wall, and the Colombian responded by spinning his adversary out. It was the latest episode in a series of run-ins between the two that dates back to Montoya's maiden Cup Series start at Homestead in 2006.

"It just adds up," Montoya said. "It gets to a point where too much is too much and I felt it had to stop, you know what I mean? I could have done it a lot more aggressively and completely knocked him out of the race, but that wasn't really the plan. I just felt he could have given me about an inch and nothing would have happened, but over and over and over has been the case. I've been wrecked by him a couple of times. I didn't mind so much that he did it, I minded that at this point we both need the points, and I didn't feel I was being treated fair. Do what I do, what I had to."

Newman's take: "Getting caught up in a racing situation that, in turn, turns into something else because of somebody's temper, is not acceptable in my eyes," he said. "We'll move on. It was sad because of the way it affects our team. I'm not worried about anybody else's team, it affects our team, because of somebody losing their temper. The way that is taken out on a team is different than the way it should be taken out on a driver. That's something we'll get addressed."

Hence the Friday meeting between the two combatants and NASCAR. So is this saga over? Montoya called Darlington "business as usual." Newman wasn't as sure. "I don't think once you have an issue, it's over in what we do," he said. "Even when you think you're over it with somebody else, it can re-flare really quick."

No such flare-ups are necessary to turn an evening at Darlington into the kind of misadventure that Johnson suffered through last year. He pancaked the wall on his own, he plowed into the back of Truex in a multi-car incident, and he was wiped out when a no-brakes A.J. Allmendinger came flying up from the bottom of the race track. "Like a missile coming out of the infield that hit me," Johnson remembered. "It was a miserable night." The resulting 36th-place finish would be Johnson's second-worst of the season, and it intensified speculation that he was vulnerable in a year when he won the championship by a narrow margin over Denny Hamlin.

Johnson hadn't been feuding with another driver, he hadn't been plagued with pit-road problems, he hadn't cussed out his team on the radio the previous week. But at Darlington, such things don't matter. The place is so tight, and so deceptively fast, and there's so little margin for error given how the groove runs right up against the outside wall -- it all lends itself to sparking the kind of mayhem that, at other tracks, drivers need to create between themselves.

"That's always been this track. When things start working against you ... it's over."


"It's more like 90 percent racing the race track and 10 percent racing the competition," Newman said. "... You have to just be respectful of the race track, respectful of the wall. Any kind of slip-up. It's not like at Richmond where you get a little hot, you can slide up to the second lane. It doesn't happen like that here. You ride up to the second lane, your right side is six inches into the wall. It's just demanding. You have to race the race track the entire time. You know, you get to a place like Michigan, it's so wide open that it's like racing the race track is only 10 percent of it, racing the competition is 60 percent of it, and managing your tires is another 30 percent of it. There's things that change around different race tracks, but here it's 90 percent racing the race track."

Particularly since the surfaced was repaved in 2008. Prior to that, the track was so abrasive, and drivers stopped so often for tires, that there wasn't as much urgency to hold onto positions. Although the surface has grayed substantially in the three years since, the grip is still there. Johnson said he heard Greg Biffle hit around 206 mph entering Turn 3 in a recent tire test here. That's a stark difference from the way it used to be in Darlington's slippery days of yore.

"If somebody came pushing hard, you'd give it up, no problem, because you felt like you were going to get it back. Can't necessarily do that today," said seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon. "This track is smooth. The tires are hard and the fall-off is just not there like it used to be. The challenge to me is just the narrow window that you have of making mistakes, because you are carrying so much speed and you are running close to the wall. This is a track where if you sent us out there by ourselves for 400 or 500 miles, we would probably hit the wall without any other competitors being out there."

That's the essence of Darlington Raceway, a place where it was once said that a driver wasn't getting everything out of his car unless the right-rear quarterpanel was slapping the wall coming out of what now is Turn 2. The track spawns trouble as effortlessly as it does stories about David Pearson or Cale Yarborough. Add to that simmering feuds, potentially strained relationships between a driver and his crew, anxiety over points positions -- they're all highly flammable components that could make for another combustible Saturday night.

"This track is going to breed that, as narrow as it is, track position being so important," Johnson said. "If you look at tracks where it's tough to pass, I think you can set up some sort of temper scale, and it will parallel it. Michigan, tons of room, easy to get by people, it's not a problem. Here, Richmond, other tracks where it's really tough to pass, that's when tempers fly."