May 12, 2012
By Donalde z Smith
Darlington Raceway, in South Carolina was built in the fall of 1949.
Believing that Bill France's fledgling NASCAR just might catch on, Harold Brasington set out to shape a 1.25-mile speedway on land that had once produced peanuts and cotton.
The track "Too Tough to Tame" continued to keep pace with the booming NASCAR world, adding lights for a night race in 2005 and expanded seating in 2006. Darlington is tough for several reasons. The racing line is narrow; it has an abrasive track surface that quickly takes the “new” off a set of tires. Additionally, the track’s two sets of turns are dramatically different.
Equally as tough, it would seem, has been Hendrick Motorsports’ quest for their 200th Sprint Cup victory. Fifteen races have passed since Hendrick Motorsports' last win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, when Jimmie Johnson gave the team its 199th victory on October 9, 2011 at Kansas Speedway.
Photo Courtesy Hendrick Motorsports
This fifteen-race winless drought ties the longest for Hendrick since the latter part of the 2002 season and the beginning of 2003, when the racing organization went fifteen races without a victory. Just one more win will propel Hendrick to the position of just the second team in NASCAR's top racing circuit with 200 or more victories. Petty Enterprises holds the record with 268 wins.
Win number 200 is imminent. After all, the Hendrick racing talent is impressive:
Kasey Kahne, in car No. 5, is currently nineteenth in the point standings. His Crew Chief is Kenny Francis.
Although he’s the newest member to the Hendrick four-car stable, Kahne brings with him considerable racing experience. His fifth-place finish at Talladega moved him up four positions in the point standings last weekend.
He has finished in the top-ten the last four races and in the top-five the last two. Needless to say he is “hot” right now.
In nine Sprint Cup starts at Darlington Raceway, Kahne has earned three top-five finishes, including a fourth-place result in this race last year. Kahne is also the defending Darlington pole winner and has four career pole positions at the track. This is the most for any active, fulltime driver there. His 2011 qualifying effort established a new track record with a lap of 181.254 mph.
Jeff Gordon, in car No. 24, is currently twenty-third in the point standings. His Crew Chief is Alan Gustafson.
Gordon ranks third in all-time career wins (85) and third in all-time career poles (71). Jeff Gordon can also boast of the most Darlington wins among active drivers with seven. Jeff Gordon’s seven victories include three consecutive wins in 1995-96. Gordon produced Hendrick Motorsports’ most recent Darlington win in 2007.
However, Gordon has had a tough 2012 season with only one top-five and two top-ten finishes in ten races. Although he has run well, bad luck has turned promising finishes into track failures. Last week is a perfect example of the No. 24 team’s woes. After starting on the pole, Gordon had an overheating issue which made him drop to the back. While there, he was caught up in a wreck and finished 33rd. This latest disaster dropped him five spots in the point’s standings.
Jimmie Johnson, in car No. 48, is currently eighth in the point standings. His Crew Chief is Chad Knaus.
What can you say about a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion? Jimmie Johnson has two wins in thirteen starts at Darlington Raceway. He swept both races in 2004, the last time the track scheduled two races in the same season. Johnson also has the last Hendrick’s win on 10/09/2011 in Kansas.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., in car No. 88, is currently third in the point standings. His Crew Chief is Steve Letarte.
Race fans have selected him as the winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award, nine consecutive times. He joins Bill Elliott as the only other driver to win it nine consecutive seasons since 1956, the first year the honor was given.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to reverse his recent Darlington trend; two finishes outside the top 15 in his past three starts. He finished fourteenth in last year’s Darlington race. However, Dale’s 2012 season is the opposite of his teammate, Jeff Gordon. He has four top-five and leads the series with eight top-ten finishes in ten races. (Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson have seven). He trails points leader Greg Biffle by just nine points.
Earnhardt Jr. is “hot” and can set a career record for consecutive top 10 finishes this weekend. His sixth straight top-ten, ninth at Talladega, matched his 2004 streak.
Now to go even further out on that limb; NRM is predicting that perfect scenario, where NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Jr. breaks his winless streak (139 races without a win), sets a career record for consecutive top 10 finishes, AND hands Team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th victory! That would be a storybook ending worthy of this wonderful sport!
If you would like to learn more about Donalde z Smith, please check out her web site at NASCAR Race Mom.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.