LIVE BLOG: Updates from Darlington Raceway

ashain@thestate.comMay 11, 2012 

5 p.m. -- Nationwide qualifying Defending series champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the pole for the Nationwide race. All that practice seemed to help Danica Patrick, who qualified 15th. X Games star Travis Pastrana qualified 25th but will start in the rear for repairs.

4:50 p.m. -- Hold the pom-poms After his trouble finishing races, Jeff Gordon is not looking for a pep talk.

"It's the same ol' story we're running good, we have fast race cars and we're doing everything we can as a team and having things like that happen to us," said Gordon who is in 23rd in points after finishing 33rd after a wreck last week in Talladega. "I don't think we need a lot of cheerleading right now. We need to get as prepared as we can for the next race to try to perform well."

Gordon knows he will have to make the Chase as a wildcard, which is earned by the two drivers between 11th and 20th places in the points standings with the most wins.

4:40 p.m. -- Biffle the champ? Greg Biffle, the points leader for the past eight weeks, can appreciate fans thinking this is his best shot at winning a title, but he feels no different than other years where he's been competitive.

"We're running as good as we have in several years and I think we're as strong as we were in 2005 right now," he said referring to the year he finished a personal-best second.

4:30 p.m. -- Out of the Busches -- Kevin Harvick is not exactly interested in reliving last year's Darlington dustup with Kyle Busch, though he understands why the track used the fuss to promote this year's race.

“The race track has to do what they have to do to sell tickets," he said. "It’s not like it didn’t happen. You can’t really hide from that." Though the pair have not reignited their feud, don't expect them to swap greetings any time soon. “I don’t talk about Kyle or to Kyle,” Harvick said.

2:20 p.m. -- What scares Pastrana -- He's a daredevil on motorcycles, but Darlington has put a big bit of fear in Travis Pastrana.

"Never been scared in a NASCAR until today," said Pastrana, who is making his first appearance at the track in the Nationwide series. "It's definitely faster than it looks on TV."

The X Games veteran spun out during his practice session where he finished with the 18th-fastest time. He was surprised to see veteran drivers not being able to avoid collecting a stripe.

"They're the best drivers in the world and they're hitting the wall," Pastrana said. "And that's with no one on the track."

Pastrana is running a limited Nationwide schedule while driving full time in the K&N Pro Series East series.

His car will be a little lighter tonight: Pastrana cut his hair -- something he said he wouldn't do until he won. But his wife threatened to divorce him.

"She wasn't too optimistic about my winning in the near future," Pastrana joked.

2:15 p.m. -- Let's be friends -- After smacking the Darlington wall four times in Nationwide and Cup practice, Danica Patrick hopes she and Lady in Black can "become friends."

Patrick said she expected to be slow in her first laps the track, which is part of her apprenticeship before jumping full time to the Cup next season. She was slowest driver in the two-hour session.

1:30 p.m. -- Practice report: Harvick leads, Patrick lags -- The last sight of Kevin Harvick's car at Darlington was it slowly turning left into the pit road wall after a push by Kyle Busch at the end of the 2011 race.

The latest sighting is atop the practice board with the fastest, ahead of points leader Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards.

Several cars -- most of them in the lower portions of the standings -- already collected Darlington stripes.

Danica Patrick was not among them for much of the two-hour session, though she scraped the wall in the last part of practice.

But Patrick has other issues. The star driver was the slowest among the 47 cars entered at practice some 9 mph slower than the fastest lap.

During a break, her car owner, Stewart, came over to Patrick's garage stall for a long chat.

Patrick was 17th fastest at Nationwide practice this morning.

11:20 a.m. - Junior slims down -- NASCAR'S most popular driver is not a fan of working out -- he prefers to play sports -- but Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he has changed his diet over the past year.

Earnhardt credited the influence of teammate Jimmie Johnson for his better eating habits -- no more fried food and good-bye to white bread.

And he's slimmer for it. Earnhardt has dropped 20 pounds from 190 to 170 and was looking good in a slim Mountain Dew T-shirt.

Though he's more fit, don't put too much on his shoulders.

Earnhardt said he does not think NASCAR's success relies on whether he ends his near four-year victory drought or finds his way atop the series standings. He's in third place just nine points behind Greg Biffle.

He blamed the economy for empty seats and said more fans will come when confidence in their wallets improve.

"We do have a great fan base and a loyal fan base that I think watches the races regardless of how we’re running," Earnhardt said.

As for Danica Patrick, who drives for his Nationwide team, Earnhardt said don't expect a bang up showing in her second Sprint Cup start. Most first-timers at Darlington struggle with the narrow, fast track, he said.

"It will be great to get experience," Earnhardt said.

10:50 a.m. - Kenseth has no sympathy for Hendrick crew -- Matt Kenseth was asked about the troubles Hendrick to net its 200th team win since getting No. 199 in October.

"I feel bad for them. They only have won five of the past six championships," he said sarcastically. "I hope they get it straightened out." Asked if he ever was a spotter for a race, Kenseth said he has done it for his son but didn't care for the abuse spotters receive -- and he had another deal breaker: "And I don't like heights."

10:40 a.m. - Jimmie, the counselor? -- Jimmie Johnson has a pair of Hendrick Motorsports teammates going in different directions.

Kasey Kane comes into Darlington as one of the circuit's hottest drivers in recent races -- averaging sixth-place finishes in the past four races -- after a terrible start with no finishes better than 14th.

But Jeff Gordon is stuck in 23rd place. He has the 11th-best average running position but the 26th-best average finish.

"The results suck but the performance has been really good," said Johnson, who sits eighth in points.

Gordon, who is listed as Johnson's car owner, has yet to seek counsel from his driver.

"Maybe I should reach out to him," Johnson said.

10:15 a.m. - McClure satisfied with safety measures -- After suffering a concussion and internal bruising after a hard hit in the wall during the Nationwide race at Talladega, Eric McClure's 3-year-old daughter brought out a stethoscope and offered to rub his heart.

McClure, who said he as still in pain from the lick, thanked the sport for its safety measures for not getting injured worse -- though NASCAR officials visited his team's race shop to check his damaged Toyota.

Jeff Green will substitute for the five-year veteran in the No. 14 car tonight. McClure said he has no doubts about getting back in the car and is more confident about pushing the safety envelope. He is week-to-week on returning to the track.

McClure said he appreciated well-wishes he received and finally got to meet a driver he admires -- Jeff Gordon, who has endured some rough hits in the wall in recent years.

"I hit as hard as I could," McClure said. "Mario Andretti said I was tough, so I must be tough."

9:30 a.m. - Smith looking for sunlight -- The last man to sit at the media center podium a year ago was the first in the seat for this year's race weekend.

Surprise Southern 500 winner Regan Smith has been struggling the past four weeks with an average 28th-place finish: "We have hit a wall."

The team has a relationship with RCR but that top-flight team is "not as quick as they would like to be," Smith said.

Even qualifying has been an issue. He came into Darlington last year with one of the series' best average starting positions. This year, he ranks 22nd.

Smith said he learned to never said things can't get any worse. Soon after saying that he finished a season-worst 40th at Talladega last week.

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