Growing up here, Trent Owens has fond memories of going to Darlington Raceway.
Owens remembers the loud sound of cars reverberating off the old covered Brasington Grandstand and getting out of school early on Thursday to attend qualifying for the Southern 500.
He was back at the Raceway on Wednesday as crew chief for Aric Almirola’s No. 43 car to take part in an open, one-day test with other Sprint Cup Series teams.
“I always like coming home, and it is a track I was glad we got to test this season,” Owens said. “I don’t think I have missed a race here, or if I did, I don’t remember.”
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Owens said he is glad to see the race moved back to the traditional Labor Day weekend date for the first time since 2003. He and Almirola used Wednesday’s test to help prepare for that race and try some other things that could help them the rest of the season.
Owens made the Chase with Almirola last year after their rain-shortened win at Daytona in July. The team heads into Michigan on Sunday 14th in points with the best finish, a fifth-place showing, coming at Dover two weeks ago. Last week, the No. 43 car finished last at Pocono after blowing an engine early in the race.
“We have shown some speed and some good finishes. Last week was a bummer to lose the engine,” Owens said “We have managed about an average of 15th-place finish, which is good for our race team. Test sessions like this help us get into that top 10 or top five.”
Each team had one driver represented at the test, which also included Jimmie Johnson, Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Kyle and Kurt Busch among others.
This year’s race at Darlington will have added significance and not just for the switch back to the traditional Labor Day weekend date. The Bojangles’ Southern 500 is one week before the cutoff for the Chase for the Championship at Richmond.
Winning a race pretty much guarantees a driver a spot in the Chase, and that will add more intrigue to the Southern 500. There have been plenty of sparks recently at the track.
In 2011, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick squared off on pit road after the race.
In 2012, Ryan Newman’s crew and Kurt Busch got into a skirmish after the race.
“Darlington brings out the best in drivers as far as tempers flaring,” Almirola said.
“It can get exciting. That element is always there, whether it is Mother’s Day at Darlington, at Charlotte or Martinsville or wherever we are at,” Clint Bowyer said. “That is what makes this sport the way it is. The determination, the competitiveness and emotion and sometimes it gets the best of us.”
Bowyer said the track surface should provide some challenges during race weekend. “The Lady in Black” is starting to show some wear after being repaved in 2008. Before that, Darlington was traditionally known for its abrasive surface, making tire management critical.
“You are starting to slip and slide around, you are about to bust your butt and get nervous,” Bowyer said of the track conditions. “I really like that, the direction it is heading. This is fastest repave wear out ever. It is back where it needs to be to put on good racing.”