Greg Biffle put his Ford on the pole for tonight’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 in Friday’s qualifying and believes his quick trip around Darlington Raceway’s treacherous 1.366 miles represents another step toward a special season.
His year already glitters — two wins and the lead in the point standings — and his second pole bodes well, especially after he completed his 180.257 mph lap relaxed rather than with his hands shaking.
“(The car) can be a handful or stick like it did,” he said. “Going eight-tenths (of a second) faster in qualifying than in practice ... you have no idea what to expect. It turned out to be an uneventful lap, and (winning the pole) tells me we’re going to have a good opportunity to win” in tonight’s 500-mile chase.
“I think we’re going to be a tough competitor all year, a tough customer. I was a little nervous coming here because we didn’t run that good year. ... and certainly now I feel a little bit better about my chances.”
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To earn his third Darlington victory — he won the Southern 500 in 2005 and ’06 — Biffle will need to fend off a posse of challengers; less than two-tenths of a second separated the top 13 cars. The Hendrick Motorsports duo of Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne finished an eyelash slower and will start second and third.
The 43 drivers who take the green flag tonight will challenge a slightly different Darlington, one that four years after being repaved is slipping more back into the mold of a tire-eating monster.
“You can slide the car around a little bit more,” said Carl Edwards, Biffle’s teammate with Roush-Fenway Racing who finished second a year ago and starts seventh tonight. “It’s more fun than it’s been the last couple of years, so I think it’s going to be a heck of a race.”
Of course, he added, that slipping can put the race car into the fence.
“You want to drive as hard as you can and you want to get that last little inch right up by the fence,” he said. “But if you watch the fence and go a little too far, it sucks the front of the car right into the fence, and it’s really bad for the equipment.”
That means, Denny Hamlin said, that the focus will be challenging the race track for perhaps three-quarters of the race, then concentrating on rivals over the last 100 miles or so.
“It’s fun for us drivers when there’s tire wear,” Hamlin, who starts eighth, said. “The driver becomes more of a factor. You’re starting to move around now and see different lines.”
But he knows, “around the fence is almost always the fastest.”
Johnson, who has two Darlington wins, used the day’s practice time to his advantage.
“We put up a good time off the truck,” he said. “We made a couple of efforts to fine-tune the qualifying setup and got into race trim. We brought some of that into our qualifying setup and it paid off.
“The cars are going to be very equal on speeds, and it’s going to be tough to pass. I think strategy — that-last-pit-stop strategy — is going to be king at the end of the race. It could come down to fuel, but that last pit stop is going to be important, too.”
Although assured of a starting spot on car owner points, Danica Patrick, who will be the third woman to race in the Southern 500, qualified on speed and will start 38th. She finished .74 of a second off Biffle’s pace at 175497 mph..
“There’s such a difference in power between a Nationwide car and a (Sprint) Cup car,” said Patrick, who started 15th in Friday night’s Nationwide race and will be tackling Sprint Cup competition for the second time. “Obviously, the track is very challenging, and we’re learning some things. We were three-quarters of a second faster in (Sprint Cup) qualifying than we were in practice.”