Darlington is a rhythm track, and proof of that was supplied during Friday practice. In the first session, seven drivers -- including veterans Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon -- earned Darlington Stripes. Late in that same practice, Danica Patrick hit the wall hard enough to necessitate a backup car, but the mood changed dramatically for Happy Hour.
During the later practice, no one scraped the wall, and drivers who struggled earlier in the day jumped to the top of the speed charts. Biffle posted the sixth fastest lap of 175.987 mph, while Gordon settled into eighth with a speed of 175.836 mph. Patrick improved her speed slightly between the two sessions, a more impressive feat considering how little time the team had to work on the car. The improvements recommend Biffle and Gordon, although fantasy players would be hard-pressed to activate Patrick.
Paul Menard posted the fastest single lap in the morning session with a speed of 173.963, but as the track took on rubber and drivers found the groove, the fast lap increased to 177.070 mph in the later session, a speed hit by Juan Pablo Montoya. Menard’s top speed from session one would only have been 25th-best later in the day; in fact, Menard posted a nearly identical speed in Happy Hour while more than half the field improved. His team will need to put in some extra hours to make him competitive on short runs. Menard should be considered a dark horse for the race, however, as he still had the fastest 10-lap average in Happy Hour with a speed of 170.124 mph during his first 10 laps on the track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not had much success in recent seasons at Darlington, with an average finish of 19th in his latest four races. The past five races of 2013 have not been any better. He posted the second-quickest 10-lap average in the morning, however, and could be activated if he fits the final roster slot in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game.
Only a few drivers ran 10 consecutive laps in Happy Hour, but Clint Bowyer was the best of that group. He posted a speed of 169.205 mph early in the session, improving on his fifth-best average of 168.683 mph posted late in the morning session. As a former dirt track racer, he likes the slick surface of Darlington and could be this week’s most pleasant surprise.