Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Rock Is Back

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View of pit lane at Rockingham Speedway on March 12, 2008 during a two-day test that attracted 39 drivers to "The Rock" in preparation for the Carolina 500 (photo by Josh Rogan)

When the ARCA RE/MAX Series takes to the track on May 4 for the inaugural Carolina 500 under ARCA sanctioning, fans and race teams should pay close attention, as this is both a re-birth of North Carolina's Rockingham Speedway and a move that brings stock car racing a bit more back to its roots.
The inaugural Carolina 500 will be broadcast live on Speed TV at noon EDT on Sunday, May 4. The event is spread over three days, with practice on Friday and Saturday. Qualifying for Sunday's 312-lap race rolls off at 10:00 a.m. Saturday, with second-round qualifying to follow at 2:30 p.m.
A two-day test in March attracted 39 drivers to "The Rock" in preparation for the May 4 event. Scott Speed, who made a name for himself by winning the Red Bull driver search competition and then running in Formula 1, was fastest in the Eddie Sharp Racing Red Bull Toyota. He lapped the historic, high-banked oval in 24.94 seconds for an average speed of 144.33 mph.
"It's definitely a cool track," said Speed. "And I think they'll be two good grooves come race day. The tires go away in a hurry; they lose grip right away, so the drivers who manage their tires the most effectively will be the guys you'll see up front."
Sounds just like the old Rockingham, where this writer saw his first NASCAR Cup race back in 1969.
"We actually tested here in November," Speed said, "and the track has lost some grip since then. We were not good yesterday, and we threw everything at it except the clipboard, but fortunately we were able to learn a lot over the course of two days. We made qualifying runs all day today, so now I think I know what the car should feel like for qualifying.
"Again, the key during the race will be tire management," Sharp said. "You've got to slow yourself down as the tires lose grip. Otherwise you just slide around out there and hurt your tires even more."
Daytona winner Michael Annett, in the Bill Davis Racing Pilot Travel Centers Toyota, was second quickest overall at 144.28 mph. Justin Marks, in the Germain Racing Voodoo Ride Toyota, was third at 143.47 mph.
"This race will we be won or lost at the end of a tire run," said Marks. "It's definitely a tough track, so you've got to get yourself as comfortable as possible."
Despite making contact with the wall off Turn 2, Justin Allgaier posted the fourth quickest time at 142.99 mph, with Joe Gibbs development driver Joey Logano fifth quickest overall in the Venturini Motorsports Chevrolet.
Some of the other drivers who participated in the open test included Dexter Bean, Matt Carter, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ken Butler III, Chad McCumbee, Tom Hessert and Bobby Gerhart.
Personally, I can't think of anything better for Rockingham than what is going to take place on May 4. "The Rock" is back, thanks to ARCA and track owner Andy Hillenburg. NASCAR last raced at Rockingham in 2004.
Who knows, maybe one day NASCAR will see fit to bring the Southern 500 back to Darlington, S.C., over the Labor Day weekend.

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