Darlington Raceway, a six-decade-old race track, has witnessed an increase in speed of NASCAR drivers’ cars since a multimillion dollar repaving project smoothed out the rough edges of the oval shaped superspeedway. At qualifying on Friday for the Southern 500, speeds continued to increase as three drivers surpassed the record set by Matt Kenseth a year ago.
Jamie McMurray, this year’s Daytona 500 champion, came away smiling with his record setting 180.370 mph and will take the pole for Saturday night’s race. This is his second pole of the season and the fifth of his career.
“I was like grinning in the car because you just don’t get to have this kind of lap very often,” McMurray said.
Jeff Gordon, who is a seven-time winner at Darlington, finished second and is looking for his first win in 38 races. The track known as “Too Tough To Tame” presented problems for drivers in qualifying and made it difficult for some to stay on course. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who wrecked and had to move to a back up car after wrecking on his second lap of practice, finished 19th. In the past, the choppy surface gave NASCAR drivers time to correct and yield a gentle “Darlington Stripe”. But now, bigger problems occur as drivers edge harder into the wall.
“It makes it pretty hairy,” said Gordon.
Kyle Busch, last week’s winner at Richmond, had his share of problems and scraped the wall on his qualifying run and will start 39th on Saturday night. Brian Vickers finished third in qualifying with a speed of 179.987. Carl Edwards, winner of last year’s race, will start 41st and needed to use his top 35 position in owners points to make the field after not getting in on time.
McMurray, who has qualified inside the top 10 just once at Darlington in his nine previous races, has only finished in the top 15 just once in his last four events. He has his betting line set at +2000 to win Saturday according to NASCAR sportsbooks. McMurray gives credit to his No.26 Chevrolet for getting the top spot.
“When you come somewhere like here, when your car doesn’t stick, you hit the wall,” he said. “You just hope it sticks. And if it does, you run a good lap.”
Gordon will enter the race as the favorite with his line set at +300. He will be followed by Denny Hamlin at +500 and Jimmie Johnson, who is currently in second in the Sprint Cup points standings, at +600.