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NASCAR drivers face unknowns at Darlington as playoffs begin

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NASCAR drivers face unknowns at Darlington as playoffs begin

Drivers try to prepare for everything when it comes to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. But they can only prepare so much. There are always unknown elements.

The first element is a potential race-changing one in the opener Sunday: the repaved section in Turn 2 at Darlington Raceway.

Because of water seeping up the track and causing cracks, track officials had been using patches amid the bumpy areas up by the wall. To fix the issue, they milled four inches deep and repaved an area 600-feet long and 32-feet wide against the wall in Turn 2.

“Beforehand, if you had a guy that was slow or ill-handling or whatever, and he would run the race track, you could go to the flat and you could utilize the flat of the race track to make the move or get the pass started,” said two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch

“Now there is no apron. You can’t use that. The grip of that fresh asphalt is going to be so much faster that you’re going to have to be in it. It’s going to be more challenging, more difficult to pass.”

Martin Truex Jr., who dominated the race in May at Darlington, said the repaved section might not make a huge difference, but it does mean everyone should be equal in that turn. 

“Turn 2 was a big challenge before with the bumps and the lack of grip,” Truex said. “It will take that whole turn out of the equation. Everybody will just be flat through there.”

Two playoff drivers — Denny Hamlin and Tyler Reddick — had already committed to running the Xfinity Series race Saturday, so they will get the benefit of having competed in a race prior to the playoff opener Sunday.

While the cars are different in that the Cup cars have about 100 more horsepower, the downforce levels are fairly similar, and that should give Hamlin and Reddick an idea of how they will handle. 

Because Cup teams won’t go through inspection until Sunday morning, there’s a possibility that Cup teams could make quick adjustments on the cars based on what the drivers learn Saturday.

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“That [Xfinity race] is a good thing. It will race different, probably,” Hamlin said. “For me to have the reps on that track with a car with a similar downforce level is going to be good practice.”

Reddick is known to push the limits at Darlington — he wrecked a Next Gen car against the Turn 2 wall earlier this year.

“Those bumps and the patches that they had to put in really added an extreme amount of character in the toughest corner in NASCAR,” Reddick said. “It’s a shame we couldn’t make it work. It’s going to change up the racing at Darlington a lot.

“A lot of pace fall-off comes from that area of the track.” 

The newly repaved surface is expected to be wicked fast. It could even impact how engine tuners formulate their initial settings, as drivers will carry much more speed into Turn 3 as they come off an area that will have maximum grip and no bumps.

The Darlington surface tends to eat tires; whether this newly paved area allows them to last a little bit longer remains to be seen.

“It’s massive,” Ryan Blaney, who has won the past two races, said of the surface change. “We’ve done our best to try and simulate it at the Ford rig, and it’s kind of hard to tell how much grip it is going to have. It was the roughest part of the race track.

“Now it’s gone. And how much speed are you going to be carrying into Turn 3?”

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TRAVEL & LIFESTYLE: NASCAR drivers face unknowns at Darlington as playoffs begin

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