News from the track: Darlington Raceway

Jay Hart

That there is a Darlington stripe. All the cool kids got 'em, at least they will by the end of Friday's Happy Hour. This particular one is Kyle Busch's from last season. Stick around here and we'll let you know who's the first to get theirs this year -- the early money is on Sam Hornish Jr. -- and whatever else goes on at the track in preparation for Saturday night's [Showtime] Southern 500.

Here are a few notes to get us started:

• Qualifying begins at 5 p.m. ET

Jimmie Johnson's car will have a special paint scheme honoring the late Bill France Sr., while Jamie McMurray's car will honor Bill France Jr.

Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins at Darlington. The next closest is Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton each with two.

10:15 a.m. ET: Jeff Burton says the Southern 500 is the biggest race of the year for him.

10:28: Burton said he's embarrassed that he's not in the All-Star race, but he's not going "politicking" to get in. He says he has two races to win a race, which would get him in, but he's not going to use social media to ask fans to vote for him to get in.

10:34: Mark Martin said the repaving at Darlington and Charlotte is not the same as before. He says the tracks may look like they've aged, but they don't act like it, and as a result the tires don't wear out as fast. That means the handling doesn't go away as fast.

10:37: Martin on what an "old-school driver" means: "I wouldn't call Kyle Busch old school. Though he's a hell of a racer, but he's not old school. He's got some in him. ... I think the more old-school racer would be guys from my generation and back." It's more generational than anything, he said.

10:50: If you're wondering "what's up" with Jimmie Johnson -- he hasn't won in five races, after all -- it probably has something to do with the 48 team looking for more speed. Johnson admitted that while he was winning races early in the season, he didn't necessarily have the fastest car. So the last few weeks the team has been looking for that speed, and as they've experimented their performance has dropped off (relatively) a bit.

10:56: Johnson on his relationship with Jeff Gordon: "We've always walked that fine line as being respectful and teammates and challenging each other. We had a bump in the road. We're through that."

11:07: Morning press conferences are over. First practice begins at 11:30.

11:33: And the winner of the "First Darlington Stripe" contest is ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. Took him only two laps to acquire his. Earnhardt hit the wall hard enough that it looks like he will go to a backup car.

Also into the wall already is Joey Logano and Travis Kvapil.

11:43: Looks like Junior will stick with his primary car. The crew was already in the 88 hauler making preparations to unload the backup, but now they are working on getting the primary ready to go back racing.

11:55: OK, NOW Junior is going to a backup car. Crew chief Lance McGrew had been campaigning NASCAR officials, who have to give approval before teams can go to their backup cars, to allow the 88 to ditch the primary. They got what they want. That's the good news. The bad -- Junior is now without a backup, meaning if he wrecks this one there will be some scrambling back and forth between Darlington and Charlotte.

12:08 p.m.: When asked if last week's win showed a "new" Kyle Busch, Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin said, "There is no new Kyle. That's just a complete myth. I think you all need to look back in your stories over the last two years and every time he wins you all say, ‘It's the new Kyle' and whenever he loses you say it's the same, ‘It's the same ol' Kyle.' I think we only hear about it when he wins. Half of my entertainment in this sport comes from Kyle Busch so I love having him as a teammate."

By the way, Hamlin is leading the speed chart so far in the first practice.

12:30: Clint Bowyer is the latest to acquire a Darlington Stripe. That brings the count to five: Earnhardt, Logano, Kvapil, Juan Pablo Montoya (minor) and now Bowyer.

The damage to Bowyer's car is enough that he will have to go to a backup.

12:57: And now add Jamie McMurray to the Darlington Stripe list.

1:00: First practice is over, with AJ Allmendinger clocking the fastest lap (173.271 mph).

Denny Hamlin was fastest during most of the practice, but was topped late by Allmendinger, who was probably working a qualifying run.

Rounding out the top 10 were Dave Blaney, Mike Bliss, Michael McDowell, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer.

1:42: Greg Biffle has smacked the wall hard off Turn 4, where everyone is running out of room. The damage was enough to force Biffle to a backup.

1:55: Bad news for Joe Nemechek, who can't afford any bad news. He's spun out and gotten into the wall, pretty much destroying his car. And as an unsponsored owner-driver, that's going to cost him.

2:09: Casey Mears, driving for Tommy Baldwin, has destroyed his car, so much so the trunk was torn off. What’s happening is the spoiler, sticking out just a bit, is getting caught on the SAFER Barriers. That’s led to damage to a number of cars, including Greg Biffle’s. But Mears is the first one to actually have the trunk ripped off. He’s obviously going to a backup.

2:24: Kyle Busch has hit the wall hard. (Tired of that line yet?) Looking like he will go to a backup, which would make seven.

2:45: They have made some repairs to Kyle Busch's primary car, and now he's back on the track to see if said repairs are good enough to keep him from going to a backup.

2:57: And finally (if there isn't another one in the next three minutes) ... Marcos Ambrose has slapped the wall. He will be going to a backup.

3:00: The final practice before qualifying is over and Jamie McMurray clocked the fastest lap. He was followed by Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, AJ Allmendinger, Sam Hornish Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton.

Also, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has acquired a second Darlington Stripe on his backup car.

4:50: Here is the list of drivers who were forced to backups after the first two practices: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Casey Mears, Joe Nemechek, Marcos Ambrose, Scott Speed and Clint Bowyer.