HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina -- This speedway this spring, Kevin Harvick whittled his way to his first top-ten of the season, taking away the third position. This go-around, things are a little different. The 2001 Busch Series Champion has all but dominated the latter-half season point standings and is chiseling his way toward a top-ten finish in the NASCAR Winston Cup Owners Point Standings. Having accumulated six top-tens in the last seven races, there's little that has derailed the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Service team.
The 1.366-mile Darlington (S.C.) Raceway presents tight racing conditions and is conceivably the hardest race to race, because it's not just the other 42 cars you need to worry about. Your toughest competitor is the racetrack itself.
The track known as "too tough to tame" conjures up fear for some drivers. The "Lady in Black," sends almost half of the 43-car race field home with bent fenders or blown motors. But, for Harvick, the tenacity of the track - its unrelenting viciousness - is something that sparks his animated nature. It is, perhaps, why the Southern 500 is one on a list of "Most Wanted Wins" by the whole NASCAR Winston Cup field.
Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Service Chevrolet Monte Carlo, speaks tradition, racing with a 44th competitor, and laps around the Darlington Raceway:
Who cares about the Lady in Red when you have one wearing Black. "I want to win Darlington because it's so hard to drive. It's so hard to get your car set up right. Any place that has a long list of the sport's greats winning or dominating there - you want to be added to the list.
"We're on this roll right now. These next races can make or break you, and a lot of it has to do with luck. We're short track racing for a while here. We came through Bristol extremely well, and now we have Darlington, Richmond, and New Hampshire. All of these are places where you can run really well and finish really bad because of someone else's mistake. This is where you'll see the shake up in points, and we're just trying to get on the good side of it all."
New Rule: 44 competitors instead of 43. "Your biggest competition is the track. You can't go too hard and you can't just ride around with the top down. You have to know your car and know whether it'll give in the turn or plow down the frontstretch. If you know how the track is going to behave with your car, you're golden. That's the biggest way you make it past the rest of the 42 guys out there.
"Goodyear has these tires now that last forever. But Darlington will still run them tougher than any other place. It's by far the hardest on them. I don't know if anyone could ever make a piece of rubber hard enough to take on Darlington. It used to be stickers (new tires) wouldn't last very long. But, if you had hit a late race caution right, the guy with the newer tires will win. He'd be that much faster."
The Harvick Driving Experience: Let's take a lap. "You take your laps with the pace car and you drive off past the start finish line into turn one. It's really narrow. Very narrow. You just let off (the gas) and then you need to get right back on it. You drive it up to the wall and ride it as close to the wall as you can. This would be where drivers get that famed 'Darlington Stripe.' While you're next to the wall, you ride three-quarters of the way through the corner. Then, you breathe out of the gas and get the car pointed to turn two. Coming off of turn two it's like shootin' the hole, riding up next to the wall down the back straight-away. Into turn three, you get back in it (the gas) and drive the car to the bottom. And then it slides all the way to the top. You get on the gas, come off of the corner of turn four. You're right up against the wall the whole way around. They must have to repaint that wall everyday we're there.
"It's about comfort I think. You ride up against the wall the whole time for 400 miles, That can be unnerving. It takes a lot of endurance - like any other track, but it also is constant concentration on not only what the field is doing, but how close you are to that wall. It's hard to do. With Darlington, the only paved surface you can drive on is two and a half cars wide. Everyone will hit the wall at least once or twice. It's just a matter of how hard and when you do it.
"A good handling racecar is the most important aspect. If you've got something that's loose or tight, you're not going to make it. You'll get into other people or the wall a bunch. Who ever drops off the least and runs the longest is going to be your race winner."