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On the surface, three top-15 finishes at Darlington for the four-car Roush Fenway Racing team doesn't seem so bad.
But the Roush Fords struggled all night and were fortunate to have Matt Kenseth (13th), David Ragan (14th) and Carl Edwards (15th) get respectable finishes. Greg Biffle was 22nd after hitting the fence.
"We just weren't very fast and we didn't handle very well as a group," Kenseth said. "Even when we got it balanced, we just don't have speed and I don't really know why. It was just a struggle. I'm actually super happy to come home 13th. That was probably way better than we should have finished."
The story was similar for Ragan, who went a couple laps down early in the race but said "the good Lord was looking after us" and allowed the No. 6 car to catch some lucky breaks.
A pit call to stay out helped his cause and the team got a timely caution.
"We caught a caution, got the wave-around and then got a lucky dog," he said. "We had to race all night and there's no doubt it was the toughest 14th-place finish I've ever had."
The Roush cars in general haven't had a good stretch lately.
Despite being 11th in points, Edwards has been inconsistent and has only led two laps all season. Ragan has one top-10 all year. Biffle (seventh in points) had seven top-10 finishes in the first eight races but has none since.
And Kenseth (fifth) started the season with six top-10s in the first seven races but, like Biffle, has hit a cold streak.
"The last month has been really hard for whatever reason," Kenseth said. "We show up at the track and we're slower than we were a couple months before that. It's just been a battle lately.
"It's been a lot harder than the first two months of the season. We've got to figure out how to get our cars running a little faster and that makes the rest of it easier."
Remember the mistake Jeff Gordon made last night? On the final pit stop, while he was running in the top three, Gordon initially missed pit road and had to come around again.
But when a caution came out and Gordon was on pit road, he was actually ahead of the leaders and was able to remain the last car on the lead lap.
So his mistake actually didn't turn out to be so bad, even though he wasn't happy with himself for losing the track position.
"We were going to come in and pit a little early and take two (tires), I just didn't signal the guys behind me and I was going to get run over," he said. "I just didn't get slowed down good enough. My fault. Of course, Steve (Letarte) is saying if we had pitted and the caution would have come out, we might have been in worse trouble, but I still don't like making mistakes like that."
Nevertheless, Gordon finished fourth after driving back through the field (he restarted 13th) and seemed to be gaining on the leaders. But asked if he could have won the race, Gordon seemed unsure.
"If we'd gotten out front, I think we had something for them," he said. "But I don't know if we were ever going to get out in front of the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin). He was good. I would have liked to have seen what would have happened there.
"We didn't really have the best car in the second half of the race, I felt like."
Gordon once again led the most laps but failed to come away with a win. His winless streak extends to last April at Texas.
Many of his setbacks this year have come due to a late green-white-checkered finish; but in this case, it would have seemed to help Gordon, not hurt him.
"The one time we needed it and we didn't get it," he said. "That's kind of the way it's been for us for this year. I'm hoping we keep running the way we're running when those moments really count for these wins and this championship.
Gordon gained two spots in the point standings and moved up to fourth, 147 points behind leader Kevin Harvick.
Here are the latest point standings following the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s relationship with Lance McGrew was getting testy during a long night at Darlington Raceway, growing more tense by the lap as driver and crew chief sniped at each other over the team radio.
At one point, Earnhardt Jr. accused McGrew of "having a line for everything," and McGrew fired back that his driver possessed the same habit.
And yet, after the race and an 18th-place finish, the pair put on a display that showed everything between them isn't what it seemed.
Sitting side-by-side on the step of the No. 88 hauler following an animated discussion, Earnhardt Jr. told a pair of reporters to interview he and his crew chief at the same time.
Uh, OK. This could be awkward.
So, Dale, that was an interesting night...
"I mean, I was alright," he said. "We wrecked that car in practice and we were so far off, and I thought, ‘This is going to be one of the worst weekends we've had in a long time.' We qualified OK and we ran OK, we just got tight in the middle part of the race and tighter and tighter. They changed everything they could and we just never got turning and couldn't do nothing."
OK, but what about all the back-and-forth comments between the two of you? Was that in the heat of the moment?
"There's no heat," Earnhardt Jr. said.
"There is no heat of the moment," McGrew said at the same time.
Public relations representative Mike Davis stepped in and joked, "We're going to have to separate you guys!"
McGrew: "Watch out, now, easy!"
Earnhardt Jr. (laughing): "I'm ready to flinch, man! Lookout!"
McGrew: "We get along terrible."
And then, like a pair of twin brothers, driver and crew chief launched into a finish-my-sentence explanation of their radio chatter.
Earnhardt Jr.: "The great thing about it is..."
McGrew: "...He's a smartass, and I'm a smartass back. That's just how it works."
Earnhardt Jr.: "And we both appreciate each other's ability to be smartasses..."
McGrew: "...to be smartasses, and actually have a comeback."
So is the radio chatter a product of trying to out-do one another?
Earnhardt Jr: "No."
Earnhardt Jr.: "We're just trying to finish. We're trying to finish the conversation but nobody wants the other..."
McGrew: "...Nobody wants to give up, absolutely not."
Earnhardt Jr: "...to have the last word."
The back-and-forth ended as both chuckled, and Earnhardt Jr. took a more serious tone.
"It's cool," he said. "We just didn't run good. We did OK. It wasn't the worst run we've ever had. Where'd we finish? 18th? I passed some people, but you said I was still the last car on the lead lap."
"They weren't on our lap," McGrew responded.
"Oh," Earnhardt Jr. said.
Hang on a second. So Dale, you're not frustrated, even though you sounded that way at times on the radio?
"What am I gonna do? I'm gonna let Lance handle it," he said, putting his hand on McGrew's shoulder and squeezing as the crew chief burst into laughter. "Next week will be better."
And then the Earnhardt Jr./McGrew comedy act resumed.
McGrew, imitating Earnhardt Jr.: "I don't know why I was bad! Ask Lance!"
Earnhardt Jr.: "We ran really good at the beginning. I don't know, he'll go home, he'll fuckin' look at what he can..."
McGrew: "I think the best thing right now is we have a notebook. We didn't have that..."
Earnhardt Jr.: "We never ran together here, so..."
McGrew: "...and now we can go back and we can look and we can see..."
Earnhardt Jr.: "...we definitely ran better here this time than last year here. I think this is one of the worst races I had last year..."
McGrew: "Yeah, it was horrible..."
Earnhardt Jr.: "...I mean, we were moving forward, we see we can do it. We just got to be able to finish. We got..."
McGrew: "We overcame a cut right-rear tire."
Earnhardt Jr.: "We did."
McGrew: "That was good."
Earnhardt Jr.: "Yeah. I was wishing I'd have cut one there with 40 to go so I could have come in and get some stickers (tires). That'd have been nice. It'll be alright. I mean, I enjoy working with him every week still."
The conversation wound down again, and McGrew suddenly had a facial expression that indicated he was about to say something important, something earth-shattering, something profound.
"Can I get y'all off the lift gate so we can, like, load the car?" he said.
The encore performance of the comedy tour, we can only assume, will be next week at Dover.
It’s the Lady In Black’s world, and the rest of us just live in it.
The drivers had better treat Darlington with that kind of reverence and respect tonight, or else they could be the subject for comments like, “OUCH! Did you see that wreck?” in the chat below.
This is your spot to chat with other race fans and compare notes. Who wins tonight? Who wrecks first?
Let us know here and start your chatting.
Jamie McMurray has captured the pole for the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, setting a new track record in the process.
McMurray's second pole of the season was a result of his record-setting lap of more than 180.370 mph, edging out Jeff Gordon for the top spot.
Matt Kenseth held the previous record, set last year.
"I was grinning in the car because you just don't get to have this kind of a lap very often," McMurray said. "So I knew it was going to be a good lap."
McMurray had three career poles entering 2010, but now has two this year. He cited an emphasis on qualifying setup at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing as the reason for his improved qualifying efforts (he's currently averaging better than a 15th-place starting spot, a career best).
"We had a really good car in practice, and I think that almost puts more pressure on you, to go out and back that up," McMurray said. "I was pretty impressed with the amount of grip that the car had between turns 1 and 2."
Gordon missed the top spot by less than one-hundreth of a second and said he wondered what else he could have done to improve his lap. But the seven-time Darlington winner said he was still pleased with the car.
Brian Vickers will start third, followed by David Reutimann and Mark Martin.
Three drivers failed to qualify: Joe Nemechek, Casey Mears and Mike Bliss.
STARTING LINEUP: Showtime Southern 500
As Kyle Busch walked up to a crowd of media awaiting his top 12 interview, he looked at reporters and puffed his cheeks.
"Oh, come on, it's exciting," I said to the clearly unenthusiastic Busch.
"What's there to be excited about?" Busch retorted. "I've got a fucking wrecked piece of shit."
Clearly, the "new" Kyle Busch everyone was talking about is indeed a myth, as Denny Hamlin said.
But that's OK. Most people don't want a politically correct, toned-down Busch anyway. Fans seem to appreciate the drivers who say what's on their mind (though it's still aggravating when Busch storms off without any comment at all).
And Busch was understandably frustrated on a hot, humid South Carolina day on which he nailed the wall toward the end of practice.
The best part of the interview? In a classic moment, ESPN's Marty Smith followed up Busch's comment by asking about the "new" Kyle.
Marty Smith: The new and improved Kyle Busch. You discussed last weekend how you've matured. Why do you feel that way now? What's changed?
Kyle Busch: I got a lot of stories this week out of that remark. So my job's done.
Marty Smith: Denny Hamlin says there is no new Kyle Busch.
Kyle Busch: There you have it. I think I proved my point walking up to you.
So perhaps that's the end of that debate.
Anyway, Busch said he didn't plan to go to a backup despite his brush with the wall (he later hit it again during qualifying).
"We don't see any suspension damage," he said. "There's no point in pulling out the backup and tearing up another one, because you know it's inevitable here tomorrow night to get in the wall again. So better have one than two tore up cars."
But didn't Busch win at Darlington after nailing the wall a half-dozen times a couple years ago?
"Yeah, but the competition's a little different now than what it was then," he said.
Suddenly, his tone and facial expression softened.
"I mean, we'll get it back," he said. "We'll be fine. It's just frustrating because I didn't do anything wrong and the guys didn't do anything wrong. I went out there for our first qualifying run and...we dragged the splitter, and it just went straight. It didn't turn at all, it just went straight into the fence like two skis."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a fan of old-time NASCAR racing, spending his free time by watching hours of historic race tapes.
But he is not a fan of racing at NASCAR's most historic track, Darlington Raceway.
"I don't know man, this place is probably the catalyst for my retirement one day," Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. "I'll probably come here when I'm 45 and run a race and say, 'The hell with it.'"
Earnhardt Jr. has reason to be frustrated. He hit the wall on the second lap of practice on Friday morning, which caused his No. 88 team to go to a backup car.
"We came here with a real loose setup and it got out from under me," he said. "I wasn't even going fast, I was still a second off from what we're running now. Just got loose and hit the wall."
The damage wasn't severe, but crew chief Lance McGrew worried that there could be some problem with the car (like a bent frame) that the crew couldn't see. So to save practice time and to play on the safe side, McGrew called for the backup.
Earnhardt Jr. scraped the wall again with the backup car, but he shrugged off the incident and said the car was fine.
"I'll probably hit it a bunch more before the weekend is over with," he said, chuckling.
The 88 didn't run well at Darlington last year and this is Earnhardt Jr.'s first visit to Darlington with McGrew, so the team came to the track with something "totally different," the driver said.
Said McGrew: "I think that's a big deal today. We unloaded and we couldn't go off any history here at all, so we threw something together based on what our teammates have done or have been doing here, and it was just too loose. It was just a situation where he got a little bit high, and as soon he tried to pull it down, it snapped loose. It happens.
"I wish I had a notebook and could say 'I was here with Junior and we were really good in practice and got loose in the race.' We don't have that notebook, here.''
Earnhardt Jr. didn't want to talk too much about his struggles at Richmond last week, answering a question about the car by saying, "I don't know. I'm just the driver. Go in there and talk to Lance."
Looking back, McGrew said he made the wrong call at Richmond by opting to pit rather than accept the wave-around (twice). He felt the car needed adjustments, and Earnhardt Jr. could race for the free pass and catch a caution.
But while racing Bobby Labonte for the free pass, Earnhardt Jr. cut a tire, and the race was effectively over.
"Normally we have 11 or 12 cautions at Richmond and we had like, five or six, so it's a big difference," McGrew said. "You've got to go with history there. ... We figured this will be a short run and we'll get the lucky dog and we'll be good. It just didn't work out.'
"I thought it was (right call) at that point in time. But hindsight 20-20, no, it wasn't.''
Practices haven't gone very well for Sprint Cup drivers today at Darlington.
At least seven drivers have gone to backup cars (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Scott Speed, Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears and Joe Nemechek) and several others have made contact with the wall, including Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.
"She's being tough today, I can tell you that," Biffle said prior to his wreck. "It's very, very challenging. That's what makes it fun, it's a challenging place.
"You're running eight-to-10 inches off the wall and the thing is unforgiving as hell. It'll eat you alive in a second."
AJ Allmendinger was fastest in the first practice session (though Busch and Denny Hamlin were on top for most of it). Jamie McMurray led final practice (Hamlin was second).
All the talk about a "new" Kyle Busch? Don't believe it, according to Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.
Moments after saying Busch has "gotten better at getting decent finishes when he doesn't have the best car," Hamlin was asked about the "new Kyle" that Busch mentioned after winning Richmond last week.
"There is no new Kyle," Hamlin said firmly. "That's just a complete myth. I think y'all need to look back at your stories over the last two years, and everytime he wins, y'all say it's the 'new Kyle.' And whenever he loses, you say it's the 'same old Kyle.'
"I think we only hear about it when he wins."
Hamlin seems to be the one driver who isn't afraid to take jabs at Busch publicly, perhaps because of their relationship as teammates. During an online chat last week, Hamlin said as much to Busch's face and teased that his favorite races were the Nationwide events when Busch leads the most laps and then loses both the race and his temper.
"Half of my entertainment in this sport comes from Kyle Busch," Hamlin said, grinning. "I love having him as a teammate."
Other topics Hamlin addressed on Friday:
• The quality of racing in the Sprint Cup Series. "This is the best racing we've had in any season," he said. "If ratings are down or anything, we need to work on the marketing side of the sport because the racing itself can't get any better."
• The physical hardship endured by drivers at Darlington. Hamlin said after the Darlington race last season, he passed out in the shower. "This is the most physical, demanding race that we go to all year," he said.
• Hamlin said his poor run at Richmond may have been due to overuse of a particular race car. Hamlin said the Richmond car was used effectively last season during several events but did not perform well in two races this year. "That was the most races we've ever put on a car, so there was something to that, possibly," he said.
Too Tough To Tame?
NASCAR drivers hope Darlington's claim isn't quite true, as they'll test the theory at the legendary South Carolina track.
Darlington is NASCAR's version of Wrigley Field, where history drips from the grandstand and drivers refer to the "Lady in Black" with reverence.
But they also know the Showtime Southern 500 will bring plenty of close encounters with the wall – the famous Darlington stripe.
Only the best drivers win at Darlington. Who will it be on Saturday night?
Keep checking back here for news, updates and analysis (and of course, the live chat where you can compare notes with other race fans).
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