The Road to Darlington

Can David slay Goliath at Darlington?

ashain@thestate.comMay 10, 2013 

  • When David wins

    Eight times since 2003 smaller teams have won NASCAR Sprint Cup races, including last weekend:


    DateTrackDriverTeam
    March 2003DarlingtonRicky CravenPPI
    October 2004KansasJoe NemechekMB2/MBV
    April 2009TalladegaBrad KeselowskiPhoenix
    August 2009MichiganBrian VickersRed Bull
    February 2011DaytonaTrevor BaneWood Brothers
    May 2011DarlingtonRegan SmithFurniture Row
    November 2011PhoenixKasey KahneRed Bull
    May 2013TalladegaDavid RaganFront Row

    This weekend’s schedule

    Nationwide

    Race: Sport Clips Help a Hero 200

    Green flag: 7:30 p.m. Friday

    TV: ESPN2

    Sprint Cup

    Race: Bojangles’ Southern 500

    Green flag: 6:45 p.m. Saturday

    TV: Fox

    Track information

    Address: 1301 Harry Byrd Hwy. (S.C. 34/151) in Darlington

    Tickets: (866) 459-7223, www.darlingtonraceway.com

    Weather: Friday — Mostly sunny, slight chance of afternoon showers with a high of 88 degrees; Saturday — Mostly cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms with a high of 85 degrees.

    Upset-minded?

    Drivers who have a chance to be a surprise winner at Darlington this weekend:

    Aric Amirola: The season’s upstart is sitting seventh in the point standings; drives for legendary Richard Petty

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Top rookie this year, 2012 Nationwide series champion, Danica Patrick’s boyfriend

    Marcos Ambrose: His two career wins are on road courses, but he finished ninth and 13th in past two Darlington races

    Kurt Busch: Redemption for losing by a nose a decade ago? Former champion driving for smaller Furniture Row team that won at Darlington in 2011

— What most racing fans remember about Ricky Craven beating Kurt Busch at Darlington Raceway in 2003 is NASCAR’s closest modern finish ever.

But Craven’s victory represented another rare feat in the sport – a David beating a Goliath. Craven’s small one-car team edged one of NASCAR’s most well-heeled outfits, one that would win the next two season championships.

As racers get ready to wrestle the track dubbed “Too Tough to Tame” this weekend, the idea of an upset by an upstart team is the talk of the garage. In part, that is because David Ragan, then 30th place in the points standings, powered past three of the season’s Top 4 drivers on the last lap to win Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Ragan’s win was just the eighth time in a span of 270 Sprint Cup races since 2003 that a driver from outside of NASCAR’s top-tier teams has taken the checkered flag.

The last time that happened was at Darlington in 2011. That was when Regan Smith, running for the only team based west of the Mississippi River and in 29th place in the standings, held off a charging Carl Edwards, who would lose the season championship on a tiebreaker.

Money is the main reason why NASCAR’s Davids have a hard time beating the Goliaths – namely Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

About 20 of the 43 cars that line up each week don’t have the top-level financial backing, said Humpy Wheeler, former president at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“They lack that extra 10 horsepower, they lack the crew chief expertise to get a quarter of a second off their lap times or they have a driver who might be off a tad,” he said.

But Busch, a former Sprint Cup series champion who now drives for a smaller team, said the chances of a David winning can increase, depending on the track.

“There’s certain tracks that tailor themselves to the whole field, and then there’s tracks that tailor themselves to how the engineering and the infrastructure of a team can outspend another team,” Busch said this week.

Tracks at Talladega and Daytona, where all cars must use plates that restrict engine air flow to slow them down, are a “great equalizer” among race teams, Busch said. Three of the eight David victories in the past decade have happened at superspeedways.

“The core, though, of our schedule is still on the mile-and-a-half (tracks) – Darlington, Dover, Phoenix, New Hampshire,” Busch said.

But bigger budgets may not ensure mastery of Darlington, where drivers must contend with differing turns of the 1.366-mile-long egg-shaped track and changing conditions as the sun sets, track president Chris Browning said.

“Money buys speed in a lot of cases, but that doesn’t always translate at Darlington,” he said.

Underfunded underdogs, first-time winners and drought-ending victories can generate excitement among NASCAR fans, Wheeler said. “Nothing beats the guy who’s not supposed to do it.”

Craven said this week that underdog wins – like his, Ragan’s and Smith’s – are like a small-market baseball team beating the New York Yankees. (The NASCAR equivalent would be five-time series champion and reigning Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson.)

“Not everybody wants to see the Yankees win year after year,” Craven said.

Still, NASCAR cannot afford to have no-names win every week.

“No one paid attention to golf without Tiger (Woods),” Wheeler said. “Fans want the superstar, and they want the underdog to come along and beat them.”

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