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Taming Darlington Raceway May Be Difficult

March 23, 1996

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Break out the chair, whip and pistol. It’s time to try and tame Darlington Raceway again.

A year ago, with a new paving job on the unique egg-shaped oval, the ``Track Too Tough To Tame″ provided a demolition derby, with 15 caution flags despite the fact that the spring race was cut for the first time from 500 miles to 400.

The Southern 500 in September was only marginally better, with 12 yellow flags waving over the 1.366-mile track.

So, what can be expected in Sunday’s TranSouth Financial 400?

``I hate to make predictions,″ said Ricky Rudd, who was among the victims last March, crashing out early and finishing 41st. ``This race a year ago, we had great tires, good race track surface, and they wrecked everything there was here. I never understood why.

``Goodyear’s got a good tire, and the race track’s in the best shape it’s been in in years. It should make for a good competitive race. But we’re at Darlington, and when you’re working race traffic here, the race track tightens up quite a bit.

``So the big question is: Does everybody use their heads?″

Ricky Craven, last year’s Rookie of the Year, who finished last in the spring race here because of a broken engine part, and 18th in September, said, ``There’s a certain line at Darlington, and if you cross it, you lose a race car. ... Once you get into traffic, you have to attack the track with controlled aggression.″

One factor that could make this race particularly treacherous is the escalation of speed, credited mainly to the new tire that Goodyear has brought to Darlington this year.

Ward Burton won the pole with a record-setting lap of 173.797 mph, nearly 3 mph faster than the previous Darlington mark. And he was one of 20 drivers who surpassed Jeff Gordon’s year-old record of 170.833. Gordon was second in qualifying at 173.613.

Dale Jarrett, the Winston Cup point leader, who will start third Sunday, said, ``I think we’ve got an exciting race ahead of us because we’re running a lot faster than this narrow race track needs to be run.″

``Goodyear’s brought a great tire here, one that doesn’t slow down much based on what we saw in our test last week,″ he added.

Burton, driving one of the new Pontiac Grand Prixs, wasn’t so sure about the tire wear.

``After 25 laps, you’re holding on,″ he said. ``That’s when you’ll see the chassis set-ups taking hold. If we have long green flag runs, handling is going to be a big problem for a lot of people.″

Bobby Hamilton, who will start 23rd in the 41-car field in another Pontiac, said, ``I think Ward’s the favorite. It’s getting slick and the Pontiacs have some good downforce in the rear. They don’t have enough on the front yet, but I think Ward’s team has that thought out a little. We felt we learned a lot about balancing the car in testing here, but Ward’s team must have learned more.″

After being told that 18 of 85 races on NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway have been won from the pole, Burton said, ``It’s definitely somewhat of an advantage starting in the top 10 at this race track. This is a tough place to pass. It’s just a tough race track. The key is to race this track and don’t race the competitors until you have to.″

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