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Mother Nature and Joey Logano reign in Texas, while 'lady in black' awaits

Highlights of the Texas Motor Speedway-slide0
Photo by Chris Graythen

On Monday, April 7, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visited Texas for the seventh race of the 2014 season. The race had originally been scheduled to be run on Sunday, April 6, but race day would simply turn into nothing more than a long day after heavy rain blanketed the Fort Worth area. After exhaustive attempts at drying the racetrack, NASCAR postponed Sunday's running of the 500-mile event until Monday morning at noon (ET).

The long weekend began Friday, when Casey Mears and his No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS started out strong in the Lone Star State, landing 13th on the speed chart in the weekend's first practice session on Friday. On Saturday, they advanced to the second round of Sprint Cup qualifying and finished up in the 20th position, leaving the team optimistic as they approached race day.

On Monday, the radar was clear and racing finally got underway. In order to ensure that the track was safe, the first nine laps of the race were run under caution after green/yellow flags waved simultaneously to indicate the official start of the 334-lap event. On lap 13, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. found himself hard against the outside wall in turn one after getting into the grass and shooting up the racetrack, bringing out the caution just four laps after going green. While Jimmie Johnson absorbed the brunt of the mud and debris that Earnhardt's car spit up, Casey was behind the Johnson's No. 48 car and also took on a grill full of mud.

The race was marred by only seven caution flags, and ended with Penske Racing's Joey Logano taking the checkered flag. Casey Mears would remain at odds with his #13 Chevy and when the checkered flag closed out the Duck Commander 500, the team was credited with a 28th place finish.

"It was a long day for sure, and the changing track conditions didn't help us any, but the guys kept working hard all afternoon," Mears said at his hauler after the race. "We tested Darlington last week and were really fast, so I'm focusing on the good things and thinking positive as we head there in a few days. Darlington is one of my favorite places to race and I'm excited to get the #13 GEICO Chevy on-track Friday."

Darlington Raceway hosted the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first on asphalt on Sept. 4, 1950. – won by Johnny Mantz. There were 75 cars that started that first 500 mile race, opposed to a max of 43 cars that will start the Bojangles Southern 500 this week. In 1950 the pole winning speed was 82.034 mph, the track qualifying record set in May 2013 was nearly 100 mph faster at 181.918 mph. The average race winning speed in 1950 was just 75.250 mph, Matt Kenseth’s race winning pace in 2013 was 141.383 mph.

Heading into the “Bojangles Southern 500” race weekend at Darlington Raceway, Germain Racing announced that North Carolina ’s Thomas Tire & Automotive will join the team as an associate sponsor on the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS driven by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner Casey Mears. Thomas Tire & Automotive will be on board for Saturday’s 501.3-mile race to be held in Darlington , SC , at the 1.366-mile race track located just an hour from two Thomas Tire & Automotive locations in Aberdeen , NC .

In addition to his racing duties in Darlington, Mears will also be making a personal appearance at the GEICO display at Darlington Raceway on Saturday afternoon from 3:00 PM - 3:20 PM (EDT). He will be talking to fans and will be available for autographs and photos.

Last season, Marcos Ambrose and the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) team didn't score a top-five finish. In the first seven races this year, the team has earned two and have been in position to make the "Chase". The improvement has the team looking to avenge a difficult race last year at Darlington where they finished 34th.

"We probably left Darlington last year as disappointed as we could be," stated Ambrose. "We just didn't know what was wrong with the car and had a terrible night. When you have races like that, you just want to go back and get better. Now is our time, and our race team is better than ever and we also have a history of running in the top-10 at Darlington. This weekend is a little about avenging last year's race."

Ambrose has five previous NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts at Darlington Raceway and knows how to race up front at NASCAR's hardest track. He has tallied two top-10 finishes, including a ninth-place finish with RPM in 2012. He will carry the DEWALT logo with him on the hood this weekend.

"Darlington is so different," continued Ambrose. "It's egg-shaped, and you're just working on the car the whole race. It's 500 miles, and that's a long night at Darlington. The legends of NASCAR defined this track, this race, and it's a 'Crown Jewel' event. With our improvements, I believe we can avenge last year and compete for a win."

Ambrose's teammates in the No. 43 want to win every week, but this week, they have an additional incentive. Crew Chief Trent Owens grew up just a few miles from Darlington Raceway and says a win at the track "Too Tough To Tame" would rank up with a Daytona 500 win.

"The Cup series is the top level of our sport," added Owens. "To be able to go to your hometown, where you graduated high school, and actually perform in front of family and friends is huge. I lived 7 or 8 miles from the track, and my family still lives there. Having my family and friends there to see the race means the most. Our schedule is so busy and so grueling that being able to see everyone and perform in front of them means a lot. It's important to run well there because I'll catch a lot of grief if I don't, but certainly a win at Darlington will be pretty high up on my list."

Aric Almirola will look to continue Owens' success at the track. With consecutive top-10 finishes in the last five seasons as crew chief, Almirola would like to add a Sprint Cup Series top-10 to the list. He has five starts at the 1.36-mile track in all three NASCAR series and just two in the Sprint Cup Series. He tallied his best finish of ninth in the 2010 truck series race.

"Darlington is not my best track, so I'm hoping Trent (Owens) can bring his success with him,"Almirola stated. "It's his home track, so we really want to run well there. They call Darlington the track 'Too Tough To Tame,' and it really lives up to that name. This season, we have really shown strength in our short track program, and I think we will continue that here. We really need to focus on racing the racetrack. I say it every week, but it is especially true here. We get so close to the wall that at any minute it could jump out at you. It's important to stay focused on your race and not let the cars around you change your focus or strategy."

This weekend, the Fresh From Florida campaign will makes its debut on the famed No. 43. The campaign, led by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is focused on building awareness and sales of fresh seafood, produce and other Florida products.

"It's always fun to represent new sponsors in the sport," continued Almirola. "Our sponsor this week is particularly fitting since I too am Fresh From Florida. Growing up in Tampa, I was spoiled with all the good seafood and produce that was grown locally. We had fresh, good food right in our home state. Traveling all the places we do, I have come to appreciate Florida produce. Hopefully, we can take them to victory lane in their first Cup race."

David Ragan, driver of the No. 34 CSX "Play It Safe" Ford, has seven Sprint Cup career starts at Darlington Raceway. He has one top-five and two top-15 finishes at the 1.366-mile oval, with his best finish coming in 2008.

"I think Darlington is one of the tougher racetracks for sure," stated Ragan. "Five hundred miles at Darlington, for me, seems like forever. Your Bristol races are long, your Martinsville races are long, the Coke 600 is a long race, but for me Darlington is the longest night of the year. You are on the verge of wrecking your car every lap it seems like. And it's warm and humid down in South Carolina. So, moving the race up a couple weeks like they did this year might help make it a little cooler for the fans and for the drivers. But mentally it's still going to be tough. But, it's a great racetrack with a lot of history and we look forward to it every year."

David Ragan's teammate, David Reutimann, driver of the No. 35 MDS Transport Ford, David Reutimann, driver of the No. 35 MDS Transport Ford, has 7 Sprint Cup career starts at Darlington Raceway, with his best finish at the track of 11th coming in 2010.

"I'm not sure that I've ever gotten the hang of that place, added Reutimann. "You hear the phrase 'you have to race the racetrack' at some places. I think they came up with that phrase after somebody raced Darlington, because that's just how that place is. You've got to forget about racing other guys and concentrate on the racetrack and not tearing the thing up."

The other guy named David on the team, David Gilliland, driver of the No. 38 A&W All American Food Ford, has seven Sprint Cup career starts at Darlington Raceway, with his top finish at the 1.366-mile oval of 20th coming in 2008.

"Darlington is very, very tough," added a heartened Gilliland. "I enjoy it and always look forward to going there, but it hasn't been one of my better racetracks. The 'Lady in Black' is very, very difficult. On a scale of one to 10 of difficult tracks, it's a 10. We've run really well there before, but just haven't been able to finish it off. That wall just sneaks up and bites me. I'm going to try to give it a little more room this time."

The NASCAR Sprint Cup cars begin the race weekend at the “Track Too Tough Too Tame” for two practice sessions on Friday, April 11th at 11:30 AM and 2:00 PM ET. Qualifying follows Friday night at 6:10 PM (ET). Saturday’s 367-lap Bojangles Southern 500 will be broadcast FOX beginning at 6:30 PM (ET). MRN and Sirius XM Ch. 90 will carry the radio coverage of the event. On Saturday night, April 12, RacingLive! will coincide with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway, where fans can join’s NASCAR experts in dissecting every aspect of the race.

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