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Smack: What awaits Stewart, Danica and Pastrana?

May 10, 2012, ,

Smack debates Lady in Black and the luck awaiting Stewart, Patrick and Pastrana

1. Earlier this season, Tony Stewart scored his first victory at Las Vegas. Now there's only one active Sprint Cup track that's been on the schedule longer than a year where he has yet to win: Darlington Raceway. Does he check off that box Saturday night?

Joe Menzer: Hmmm. I'm going to say no. I don't think so. That No. 14 Chevy team from Stewart-Haas Racing has had some consistency issues lately -- and Tony probably doesn't think they can all wreck enough Saturday night for him to have a chance. Now if they could run a figure eight formation somehow, maybe Tony the Tiger would grab that place by the tail. But it's a little late to be reconfiguring the Lady in Black now.

Mark Aumann: I just don't see it happening. Yes, he's been better there in recent years, including that third-place finish in 2009, but he's never led more than seven laps in a race at Darlington. And I don't think he's ever felt that comfortable there. There are just tracks that drivers don't ever "get." And for some reason, Tony's never really gotten a handle on what it takes to be fast there.

David Caraviello: OK, for fairness' sake we should probably mention that Smoke also has yet to win at Kentucky, but you can't really count that against him because it's only been on the schedule one year (hence the wording of the question). But as for Darlington, Stewart has been all over the place there, and it's kind of hard to get a read on how good the guy is there. Top 10, 20-something. Top-10, 20-someting. His results have vacillated like that throughout his career there, so tabbing him as a favorite might be a stretch.

Joe Menzer: Do you guys like how I worked all those nicknames into one sentence?

Mark Aumann: Did you use too tough to tame?

Joe Menzer: Dang. Left that out.

David Caraviello: Not to digress too much, but the most impressive thing to me about Tony's "rant" -- if that's what it was -- last weekend at Talladega was that it almost sounded like he had the thing memorized. The deadpan delivery was dead-on, like he was reciting lines from a script. That was well done. Now, if he could only always vent his frustration in that manner ...

Moving forward

Tony Stewart was less than pleased with his results at Talladega, and now heads to Darlington where he's never won.

Mark Aumann: And how come nobody ever runs a figure seven or a figure nine? I think it's discriminatory against odd-numbered integers.

David Caraviello: I've always thought a figure five track was long overdue.

Joe Menzer: Yes, Tony's rant was quite humorous for most of us -- although I'm not sure the higher-ups from NASCAR were laughing about it, and somehow even some fans seemed to miss the obvious sarcasm, delivered ever so beautifully.

Mark Aumann: Well, they'll be at a figure 10 next week -- Charlotte's oval, which has a drag strip next door. But I digress ... yeah, Tony gets his point across sometimes in a way that goes over the heads of those who don't catch the tongue-in-cheekiness. But I think he'll have to be totally serious at Darlington to run up front. I think he likes the track. For some reason, the track doesn't like him. And 500 miles there -- when you're not running well -- can add to the frustration he felt last weekend.

Joe Menzer: I will get back to what I've said many times, though. What the drivers like and what's good for the fans aren't always the same thing. In fact, they usually are at almost opposite ends of the spectrum. Most fans I've interacted with thought the Talladega race was great fun, the best they've seen in a few weeks at least. Yes, it's difficult on the drivers and yes, there are cars torn up. But the element that anything could happen at any time on the track was finally back. That's what had been missing.

Mark Aumann: But I think Tony's point was, how much do you have to tinker with the rules to force the kind of racing you want? Is it worth putting the engines on the edge of blowing up, just to say you have "pack racing lite?"

Joe Menzer: I get kind of tired of the drivers complaining about Talladega. It's the same for everybody on that particular day. You get paid an awful lot of money to deal with whatever is thrown your way. You're a pro. Go deal with it.

Mark Aumann: I like that! Joe Menzer: taking a stand. He'd have made one heck of a drill sergeant. Or a buck private.

David Caraviello: OK, back to Tony at Darlington. We all know the guy can wheel it anywhere, and he's finished as high as third there, as recently as three years ago. So clearly, the potential is there. But his long-term trends at that track aren't exactly promising. Just three top-fives in 19 career starts. An average finish of 12.3. A driver rating that's 11th-best on the circuit. Clearly, this is not his best track. But I guess Vegas wasn't either, and he won there anyway. Heck, you win at as many places as he has, you're going to pull some out at places that aren't your favorites.

Joe Menzer: Sorry, I digressed back to 'Dega and the rant. Darlington is a tough track, too. It's not easy to drive there and sometimes there are wrecks, tempers flaring. Is Tony going to complain there, too, if he gets caught up in something? Probably, but that's racin'.

David Caraviello: To be fair, the Chevrolets seemed to have more of a problem with overheating than anyone else, so it may well have been more of a manufacturer issue. Speaking of hot, sweltering days, I'd like Tony's chances a lot more in the Southern 500 if this was still a Labor Day weekend race. Not pining for that day to come back, but Tony is so good at hot, slick race tracks, and the old Labor Day, pre-resurfaced Darlington was just that. If anything, the date change and the repaving may have neutralized one of his strengths.

Mark Aumann: I think this is the track where we get back to some banging and beating. It's a chance to take out some aggression at a place where passing is at a premium. No more worrying about water temperatures and tandem drafting.

Joe Menzer: Well, I will say that Denny Hamlin and some others think that the Darlington track is starting to age a little and show some of its old character, so maybe that'll help Smoke. And again, I'm not saying the fans necessarily want to see a bunch of wrecks all the time. But you have to have a wreck or two once in a while, some fenders rubbing, for the element that anything can happen at anytime to return to NASCAR. That's part of what makes the sport great.

Mark Aumann: I do miss the traditional Labor Day date, but you know what? There's something pretty cool about the old lady, all lit up at night. She sparkles pretty nice for someone in her 60s.

Stewart and the 'Lady'

Year-by-year statistics at Darlington
YearSpring StartSpring FinishFall StartFall Finish

David Caraviello: It is a beautiful scene as the sun goes down. And watching you two go back and forth, it seems the beating and banging has already begun.

2. There's no more famous mark on a wall than a Darlington stripe. Where does this quirky, cranky old speedway rank on the list of the most difficult tracks in NASCAR?

Joe Menzer: You ask the drivers, and a whole lot of them will say No. 1. And of course they're the ones who should answer this question, since they drive it. Probably the only ones who wouldn't answer that are the ones who can't handle the road courses, and would instead opt to say Watkins Glen (or Sonoma, but it seems to me the Glen is the tougher of those two).

David Caraviello: Well, in all my years as a racing driver ... seriously, how are we supposed to answer this? Who came up with this question? I'm a writer. To me, they all look difficult. I'd end up wadded up in the wall at any one of them. But given what we see on the track, and what we hear drivers say, and my ample PlayStation experience, this one has to be up there very near the top, given the unusual layout and the line right against the wall. It's all so counterintuitive, it has to be like culture shock the first time a driver goes around it.

Mark Aumann: Well, I miss the days when the track was so worn and rough that the tires were used up two laps into a run, and you were just hanging on for dear life the rest of the run. When guys who could throw the car into a corner on the edge of spinning out -- somebody like Jeff Burton -- had an edge. From what guys are saying, we may be starting to see more of that. I just wish the current chassis had a little more room for adjustments. Seems like the car goes way tight or way loose, and there's not that feeling that the driver can adjust his driving style enough to compensate.

Too Tough to Tame

A Darlington stripe is a rite of passage, but it's not only youngsters who find trouble at the unique track.

Joe Menzer: Yeah, that's what Denny Hamlin was talking about last week at Talladega. He said the asphalt at the Lady in Black actually is looking whiter and whiter these days, with some rocks peeking through the surface to give it that bumpy quality that drivers say gives tracks character. He was very excited, talking about it.

David Caraviello: Even so -- it's damn hard, but I don't know if it's as difficult as it used to be. The resurfacing has changed the place. There's been so much grip there recently, where guys once had little, and were doing all they could to not slide up into the wall. They still are, of course, but I don't know if it's the same. And the abrasiveness has been replaced by a surface that helped Regan Smith win last year on old tires. For the better part of 50 years, that kind of thing was unthinkable there.

Joe Menzer: How much of that is the track and how much of it is a Goodyear tire that's hard to wear down? I think sometimes Goodyear is making too good of a racing tire these days, if you know what I mean.

Mark Aumann: Track position is perhaps more key at Darlington than anywhere other than a road course. And that was certainly the case, pre-repave. But the better drivers always had the ability to pass back then. Now, it's more of a one-lane kind of place because, as DC mentioned, there's so much grip.

David Caraviello: So many people pine for the Labor Day weekend date. Like Mark said earlier, I miss the old surface, and the way it forced drivers to manage the track. Resurfacing has to happen at some point, I get that, but Darlington lost more in the deal than most other tracks, and it's going to be a long while before that track grays into anything near what it used to be.

Mark Aumann: In honor of David Pearson, every car at Darlington should be required to carry a cigarette lighter.

David Caraviello: And strips of chewing gum taped to the dash. One for every 100 miles.

Joe Menzer: At least the track is moving in the right direction, per Hamlin's comments. And I seem to remember that was a pretty awesome race there just last year. For me, that's the thing. Everyone pines for the way it used to be. The good ol' days and all that. But the bottom line is that last year's race was fantastic, one of the best held all year. So how much, really, can be wrong with the place just as it is right now?

Mark Aumann: I don't know what it is about the Sand Hills/Pee Dee area -- whether it's the weather or the composition of the asphalt mix around there -- but that's what I remember most about Darlington and Rockingham: How quickly the tires ground down at both tracks.

David Caraviello: Yeah, Mark, there's the possibility for long green-flag runs at Darlington these days. And Joe, it may be moving in that direction, but it's not there yet. Things move more slowly in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. And we're not talking about it being wrong, we're talking about it being different. The resurfacing had a huge impact. I know, you probably can't relate, given that you were off covering football or some such nonsense at the time.

Joe Menzer: Regan Smith winning at Darlington last year, holding off none other than Carl Edwards on old tires, was one of the best stories of the entire year. That's the bottom line.

Mark Aumann: The fact that Darlington still exists on the schedule is a tribute to the folks running the place and the fans who stayed true. I honestly was worried that it would join Rockingham and North Wilkesboro on the extinction list when the Southern 500 date disappeared. The idea of NASCAR without Darlington seems unthinkable.

David Caraviello: No question, Mark. In a strange way, contraction probably saved it. People rallied behind it, and having one date allowed the facility to really focus on selling one event. But back in the early 2000s, it seemed like an absolute goner. It's the same Darlington, and always will be, thank goodness. But it's amazing that the place has a relatively secure future coming from where it once was.

Mark Aumann: Heck, this started as the convertible race. Maybe they need to go retro.

Joe Menzer: You covered the convertible races there, didn't you, Mark?

Mark Aumann: You don't put a cover on a convertible, Joe!

David Caraviello: But the question had to do with difficulty. So, in descending order, I guess you'd have to rank them like this: 4, Watkins Glen; 3, Indianapolis; 2, Darlington; 1. Chicagoland. You just don't walk into Joliet and expect to win!

Joe Menzer: Hey, who let Tony Stewart and all this sarcasm in here?

David Caraviello: Scratch that. Next year the No. 1 will be the new Talladega Figure Eight course!

3. Crossover stars Danica Patrick and Travis Pastrana are both entered in Darlington's Nationwide event. Who has the better race Friday night at the Track Too Tough to Tame?

Joe Menzer: Well, my guess is they'll both struggle mightily. But having watched them both throughout the Richmond Nationwide race, they both impressed me at times. Pastrana, in particular, since he was running his first race in the series. But in the end, she still finished something like 21st and he was like 22nd. Wake me when they start getting top-10 finishes consistently and contending for wins, please.

Mark Aumann: OK, got to pull out the statistics here. Tony Stewart's first Darlington race in what's now the Nationwide Series? Started 27th, finished 20th in 1996. Jimmie Johnson? Started 16th, finished 36th in 2000. This is perhaps the hardest track on rookies, bar none. David Pearson, who won 10 times at Darlington, finished 27th in his debut. Darrell Waltrip finished 24th. It's hard.

Who will win it all?

Follow your favorite driver's chance of winning this week's race and the series title.

David Caraviello: Oh, boy. I hope the best for both of these drivers, I really do. But we could be in store for some rude awakenings this weekend. Neither one of these folks has ever seen anything like this place, and I don't know if they truly understand what they're in for. Especially given the testing limitations, nothing can prepare you for Darlington, for racing right up against that wall. At the very least, it should be entertaining to watch.

Mark Aumann: Even Dale Earnhardt ran 16th, 54 laps down, in 1978. So a good night for Danica and Travis would be getting to the checkered flag. Finishing position? Not as important as logging seat time.

David Caraviello: I seem to remember Kurt Busch winning the pole there as a rookie, Mark, and I want to think Kasey Kahne might have fared relatively well there his first time out. But you're right -- it's a bear. It's so different, and the way you have to drive it seems so backward, that there's almost always a trying adjustment period. Can't wait to see it happen!

Joe Menzer: Earnhardt finished 54 laps down? Then I say Danica finishes 56, Pastrana 57 down.

David Caraviello: OK, Menzer, let's not go piling on. Pastrana did a heck of a job at Richmond given his level of inexperience. Heck, at one point he was ahead of Brad Keselowski, and we know how good that guy is. So he really did exceed expectations there. But Darlington is another level altogether. I wonder why Pastrana has this race scheduled, given how freaking hard the joint is. Same with Danica and the Sprint Cup race. Everyone will be interested to see them, of course, but why not pick someplace that's at least easier to prepare for?

Mark Aumann: To me, the best news is knowing Eric McClure will be there, even though he won't be in the car. That was a huge hit at Talladega.

Joe Menzer: Yes, that is indeed good news. That was very scary. Of course before he gets behind the wheel of a race car again, he will have to pass some tests administered by NASCAR's medical folks. As it should be.

Mark Aumann: I think we take the safety issues somewhat for granted, and perhaps leap to conclusions when something out of the ordinary happens. This is still a dangerous occupation -- and I know the drivers are well aware of it. Just takes an incident like that to snap us all back to reality. And Darlington has had its share of really bad wrecks. I think back on Richard Petty cartwheeling down the frontstretch there. And the wreck with Larry Foyt and Steve Park under caution.

Joe Menzer: When you're driving a stock car that weighs 3,400 pounds (well, maybe Nationwide cars are a little less) at the high speeds these folks drive at, the sport can never be completely safe. There is an inherent risk to it. To be honest, though, that's the same in many other sports -- football with the hard hits, baseball with pitches being whipped up there at 90-plus miles per hour, someone throwing a javelin way off target and spearing an innocent bystander. OK, so maybe the last one hasn't happened to my knowledge, but I love being sarcastic. I see why Tony Stewart likes it so much.

David Caraviello: Automotive safety experts will tell you that in racing, absolute safety does not exist. Something like McClure's crash reminds us all of that. Despite all the safety advances -- which are truly amazing and indispensible and have transformed the sport -- hard hits are going to happen, and some of them can come with adverse effects. Glad to see Eric is out of the hospital. Not sure of his plans at this point, but we'll find out when he talks to us Friday.

Joe Menzer: And what's your point on Danica and Darlington, Mr. Caraviello? They have to learn to drive at Darlington sometime, don't they? What do you do on a hard golf course, given your limited playing skills? Skip the No. 1 handicap hole? I think that's a silly argument.

Mark Aumann: David, I think the prevailing opinion is, "Let's go to the hardest place and try to learn as much as possible, with the idea that it'll make the other tracks seem easier in comparison." But you get strokes deducted from your handicap in golf, Joe. NASCAR is scratch. You don't get a mulligan.

Joe Menzer: Caraviello requires multiple mulligans.

Mark Aumann: Thankfully, there aren't many water hazards. Although out of bounds is bad in both sports.

David Caraviello: Wow, Menzer must have had a tough day in the carpool line. There's the approach Danica is taking in her Sprint Cup efforts -- take on the toughest tracks there are -- and there's the approach the Wood Brothers have used with Trevor Bayne, which is pick the places where they can most make an impact and perhaps have a chance to contend. Obviously, Trevor's experience is at a much different level. But given how good Danica can be on 1.5-milers, fast places where she can put the hammer down, I wonder about skipping tracks like Las Vegas and Texas in favor of Darlington and Dover.

Joe Menzer: You know what? Go ahead, DC. Take a mulligan on that earlier silly argument if you like. ... And for all you novices out there, the dang carpool line is tough every day. Yet I don't avoid it. It oftentimes brings out the worst in humanity, yet I tackle it every chance I get and try to become a better driver for it.

Mark Aumann: That's the real crux of the matter. In the Woods' case, it's picking and choosing the lower-hanging fruit. In Stewart-Haas' situation, it's trying to prepare Patrick for a full-time gig. Sort of "trial by fire" in a way, sink or swim. The deep end of the car pool, as it were.

Joe Menzer: Amen, brother. And if the Wood Brothers had the funding, or a sponsor who asked them to put Bayne in a car at Darlington, he'd be there. Instead, is Trevor available to sub for me in the carpool line? I could use a break!

David Caraviello: If the carpool line is so tough, maybe Danica and Pastrana should give it a spin.

Mark Aumann: Only if they drive convertibles with the covers on.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the participants.