Darlington Raceway has always been one of the toughest tracks to solve in NASCAR.
Now, for Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), a new variable will be part of the equation.
Last month, Darlington track president Kerry Tharp revealed that Turn 2 had been repaved after years of patching underlying cracks that allowed water to seep in.
With no practice or qualifying this weekend, drivers and teams will run the repaved Turn 2 for the first time just after the race goes green.
Martin Truex Jr. was dominant in his win there on Mother’s Day weekend, leading 248 of 293 laps and keeping eventual regular season champion Kyle Larson at bay in the end.
But in Tuesday’s Cup playoff media day activities, the 2017 Cup champion admitted some worry over the repaved Turn 2.
“Turn 2 was so difficult before with how the bumps had come back with the lack of grip and the high-speed section of that corner,” Truex said. “That was really tough to make our car work good there. That was one of our strengths last time, and we were able to win.”
“(I’m) a little concerned how it’s going to change and whether we can make the right adjustments to get through there and not lose anything in (Turns) 3 and 4. We’ll see.”
Ryan Blaney, who closed the regular season with back-to-back wins at Michigan and Daytona, said he and his No. 12 Team Penske crew tried to figure it out on Ford’s simulator this week.
“That patch is long – 600 foot,” Blaney said. “Starts where you turn off the wall to come back down off (Turn) 2. That used to be one of the roughest parts of the racetrack, that area off (Turn) 2, and now it’s going to be really smooth from what we can tell in pictures.”
Blaney pointed out an important effect of the repave. With fresh asphalt creating a faster Turn 2, drivers also will have a faster entry speed into Turn 3.
“That will change up how you race (Turns) 1 and 2 and how you enter (Turn) 3,” he said. “I’ll be curious to see it.”
Kurt Busch wondered if the faster speeds could lead to teams missing on gear set-ups for their cars.
“The gearing might be incorrect with more RPM and then you might have to lift off the gas to not keep the car on the rev chip for too long,” he said.
“It’s going to be a balance of speed and aggression … Can the motors still do the same job for that 500 miles? Because Darlington is the second longest race of the year and you’ve got to protect the tires and engine now with this asphalt change.”
Cup drivers can get a glimpse of how the repaved Turn 2 could work out for them, as the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series will both run races before Sunday night’s Southern 500.
The Xfinity race is scheduled for Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), while the Truck race (the second race of their playoffs) is scheduled for Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1).
Blaney plans to watch both races and speak to Team Penske Xfinity driver Austin Cindric about what the new pavement like.
However, Kyle Busch says he’ll rely on his team members to inform him on what to expect.
“I probably won’t watch the Xfinity race,” he said. “I’ll be doing some (son) Brexton Busch racing on Saturday. (For) the Truck race, we’ll be driving on our way to Darlington, just listening on the radio, so probably won’t be watching a whole lot of it.
“But I’ll get pre-briefed on it beforehand enough to know what it looks like, what the races look like, with my team guys when we have our pre-meeting.”