Matt Kenseth is a Cheesehead, and proud of it.
The driver from Cambridge, Wis., loves most everything Wisconsin, including the Green Bay Packers.
So, when asked how he likes racing at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR’s oldest speedway, Kenseth used a Wisconsin reference to put his feelings into perspective.
“Darlington is kind of like our Lambeau Field,” he said, referring to the home of the Packers. “There’s a lot of history there and it’s one of the places everyone wants to win at before they retire.”
Not everyone likes racing on an egg-shaped oval that’s well known for leaving cars with long gouges on their quarterpanels from rubbing the walls in the narrow turns. But Kenseth is a fan of the South Carolina track.
“Personally, I think the track is pretty cool,” Kenseth said. “It’s definitely unique.”
And he likes Darlington, despite having a so-so record at the historic track heading into this weekend’s race.
In 12 starts on the 1.366-mile oval heading into this weekend, Kenseth had three top-10 finishes – sixth in the spring of 2000 and eighth in the April races of both 2002 and 2003. Otherwise, heading into Saturday night’s race, Kenseth had never finished better than 14th at Darlington.
“The track is so abrasive that your tires give up really fast, and Darlington definitely rewards those drivers who can take care of their equipment,” he added. “Fresh tires make a huge difference there. You saw that at the end of the Cup race last year when (Ryan) Newman was out front with worn tires on a green-white-checkered finish and the guys with fresh tires just blew right past him.”
Kenseth is off to a strong start this season, although a broken oil tank last Saturday in Richmond relegated him to a 38th-place finish – by far his worst of the season. That put Kenseth in third place in the Nextel Cup standings, trailing leader Jimmie Johnson by 99 points and Tony Stewart by 44 heading to Darlington.
“We’re bringing a car to Darlington that ran real good in Atlanta earlier this year,” said Robbie Reiser, Kenseth’s crew chief. “We’ll be looking to turn our Darlington luck around.”
When Jeff Burton watches film of the early races at Darlington, which opened in 1950, he always is impressed by how tough the track was.
“As tight as it is now, that’s nothing compared to how it used to be,” said Burton, a two-time winner at the track. “If you go back and watch some of the old races and see how narrow the groove really was back then, it’s amazing. It was a one-lane race track.
“Today, it’s a lane-and-a-half, maybe even two lanes in some places. We have a great big wide race track compared to what they had back in the day.”
The challenge for the modern racers, according to Burton, is the speeds they run at these days.
“The track is designed to run about half the speed we run on it,” he explained. “Our cars are going so fast anymore. They just make so much downforce, and our engineers and crew chiefs have done such a good job of getting so much out of these cars that they exceed the limit of what the racetrack was designed.
“The soft walls have made the track narrow again. Darlington is a very demanding race track and the new technology has made it even more demanding.”
David Pearson, known in his heyday as the Silver Fox, still holds the record at Darlington with 10 race victories. Most of those came in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21.
Jon Wood, son of Eddie Wood – the team’s second-generation co-owner – is racing in the Busch Series these days, but he got plenty of advice from Pearson before making his Darlington debut in a truck in 2002.
“He was there to help,” Jon Wood said. “Darlington is an intimidating place, especially if you have to go there and you don’t get any test time. And, that’s what happened to us. I didn’t get any test time at Darlington, so it was difficult. To have him there and learning from what he had already learned was a big help.”
Wood said Pearson taught him that the Darlington track is one “you never can walk away from saying you’ve done everything right and you had the best capable car you could have.”
Heading into Darlington, the heralded rookie class in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup was living up to expectations.
Clint Bowyer was eighth in the season points, while Denny Hamlin, coming off a career-best runner-up finish at Richmond, was 20th.
In the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race, though, it was Hamlin – with a season-high four top rookie finishes – leading Bowyer by five points.
Five of the seven first-year drivers were the highest-finishing rookie at least once in the first 10 events, and the top five in the rookie standings were separated by 24 points.
J.J. Yeley was third, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Reed Sorenson, David Stremme and Brent Sherman.
Stat of the week
Heading into the weekend, there had been nine different winners in the 10 races at Darlington since September 2000. Only Jimmie Johnson had been able to repeat, winning both races in 2004.