|Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 4 Red Bull Toyota, gets into his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Kahne won the pole position for Saturday night's race. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images/AFP)
Although Jeff Gordon’s seven victories at Darlington Raceway are the most by any active NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, his mindset when the Showtime Southern 500 goes green Saturday night is to respect “the Lady in Black.”
Gordon said Darlington, with its unique egg-shaped oval, presents drivers with challenges that are not seen at other ovals on the Cup circuit.
“The thing about Darlington, it’s the 44th competitor out there,” said Gordon, who qualified fifth Friday in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “At Darlington, you can’t go out there and look at the competition. You can’t just think about your race car. This track can reach out and bite you in a hurry.”
Thus the famed Darlington stripe — the bruising a car takes when it hits the wall at the South Carolina 1.33-mile oval.
Gordon said the walls seem to come right out at you as you race through the corners and that it is a very intimidating feeling.
“If you have ever taken even a slow lap around this track in a street car, those entries where you come off the (turn), you slip to the apron and then head right back up to the wall,” he said. “It comes up fast. It is a big transition and it is very narrow. There is very little room for error ... and that is when you are by yourself.
“Then you put other race cars out there and the challenge goes up tenfold.”
The four-time Sprint Cup champion currently sits back in 16th place in the points parade — 95 points behind Carl Edwards — and he realizes that he must get a good finish at Darlington to just keep the leaders within reach as the second quarter of the 2011 season gets under way.
“We’ve had some struggles this year on the faster tracks,” Gordon said. “I consider this in that category of the mile-and-a-halfs that we have struggled at so .... We recognize that this is definitely an important track for us and it is a good one for us as well.”
Kasey Kahne will start on the pole Saturday with Ryan Newman second, Denny Hamlin third and Edwards fourth.
ON THE BUTTON
England’s Jenson Button posted the fastest time in practice for Sunday’s Turkish Grand Prix on Friday, but he didn’t have to deal with world champion Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull team.
Vettel crashed his car early in the first practice session and the team spent the rest of the day repairing the damage to the Red Bull Renault.
Button said that he was happy with the performance of his McLaren Mercedes.
“I’m pretty happy with how (practice) went,” he said. “The car’s been working reasonably well — there are always things you want to improve, but we’ve made some good progress.”
Button, however, did complain about the condition of the Istanbul circuit.
“Trying to get the car to ride the bumps well into Turn 12 has been difficult,” he said. “Turn 12 is really bumpy — it’s like they put a motocross jump in there.”
Button fastest lap was one minute, 26.456 seconds with Nico Rosberg second at 1:26.521 and Lewis Hamilton third at 1:27.033.
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