DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Under caution with less than 25 laps remaining in Friday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Darlington Raceway, crew chief Adam Stevens punched the radio button and told Kyle Busch he wanted to stay out. His driver's response was immediate and contradictory.
"Dude," Busch said, "there ain't no way."
So Busch came in, got tires and an adjustment that tightened up his No. 54 car, and muscled his way past Joey Logano to win the Nationwide event on the 1.366-mile track. Logano had stayed out, and while the move netted the Penske Racing driver a fourth-place finish, Busch's fresher tires proved the difference in the end.
In the bigger picture, though, it was a glimpse at the future of NASCAR racing at Darlington -- which may look a lot like its past. For years tire management was everything on this cranky old oval, the abraded surface chewing up rubber and forcing teams to take fresh Goodyears at every opportunity. There was no such thing as a two-tire call or a gas-only call. It was four tires all the time, as much a constant in this region as the tobacco barns or the pulled-pork barbecue.
Everything changed in a resurfacing of the track prior to the 2008 race, which made the layout much faster but added plenty of strategy options that had been unthinkable just a year earlier. Nothing was more emblematic of that transformation than the Southern 500 in 2011, when Regan Smith stayed out of the pits under a final caution, and outran Carl Edwards and his four new tires to claim a victory that stood in stark contrast to tradition.
Two years later, conditions in this region are taking their toll, resulting in a surface that gets more and more gray with every passing season. Slowly, Darlington is returning to its former self. It may never be exactly like it once was -- odds are it won't, given the type of aggregate used in its most recent resurfacing -- but Friday night's Nationwide event was something of a blast from the past, with the differences between old and new tires here once again as absolute as daylight and dark.
"It's always been a great race track, but it's really kind of coming back into its own, I feel like," said Brian Vickers, who has plenty of experience at Darlington in both Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars.
"They used the synthetic pavement this time and it's taking longer, but it is getting there. You can feel some of that old pavement. You can tell there's a huge difference in speed between old tires and new tires. Not as much as there was with the old track, but a lot more than there was. It may seem like a bigger jump to me, because I wasn't here last year. But last time I was here, you could stay out on old tires and win the race."
Now? Logano and Austin Dillon tried that Friday night, and wound up fourth and 11th, respectively. "You may stay out on a few-lap tires, like those guys did," Vickers added, "But they didn't have a shot at winning. They held on to whatever position, but you're not going to stay out and win the race on old tires."
It's reached the point where Smith doesn't think he could repeat his feat from two years ago, winning by staying out of the pits and holding off another driver on four tires over a final restart.
"If we're not there, we're very close," said Smith, the points leader on the Nationwide tour. "I would say we're at that point right now. I think Carl was on four behind me, and you figure he's on the bumper with two to go basically, on a restart. I don't see a situation right now where that would have been capable, where we could have held him off. The track's just starting to weather. The sand takes its toll down here. It doesn't matter what kind of asphalt they put down here, the sand takes its toll."
He saw as much Friday night, when he said Logano was "holding on for dear life" on old tires to maintain his position near the front. Busch, on fresh rubber, had no trouble overtaking his former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate for the lead in the final laps. On the race track, Busch noticed that while the track is considerably more gray than it was immediately after the resurfacing, it's not quite abrading tires the same way as it once did.
"I don't know what it is," Busch said. "As you run, like the first lap you feel amazing on tires. The second lap, it deteriorates a little bit, and third lap you are starting to feel it, and fourth lap (you're saying), 'Oh dude, you guys did not make near enough adjustments for me.' It's getting back to the old ways. You're not as sideways as you used to be yet. You're not wearing through the tire, I think. Not from a tire-wear perspective, but the falloff is certainly there."
Busch thinks that's because the tire is sliding on the surface rather than wearing out -- his crew chief Stevens said he didn't notice any unusually high wear on tires after pit stops. "It's kind of fun," Busch added, "but it's kind of nerve-wracking too, because you're trying to push it to the limit as much as you can, and any moment you can bust loose and you're inches from the fence, so anything can happen."
That's Darlington, which by all indications appears to be returning to its natural state, even if the reasons behind it are a little different than before. Regardless, the end result is the same -- drivers who take a big risk when they stay out on older tires, drivers who feel the familiar old bumps returning in Turn 2, races that are beginning to hinge on tire management as they always once did.
"It's definitely getting older, it's getting a little bumpy in Turn 2, and if you don't hit those right it will throw your car around," said Elliott Sadler, with plenty of experience at Darlington in both Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars. "So it's becoming the old 'Lady in Black' like we're used to racing at, which I think gives it a lot of character and makes it a lot of fun to drive."
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