Drivers Seeking Grip Like Never Before at South Carolina 400
Nov 18, 2022
At least for a moment, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled out onto the race track, drove under the flag stand in his No. 3 and barreled into Turn 1 at Florence Motor Speedway and felt like he was 17 again.
That was his age the last time the two-time Daytona 500 winner and two-time Busch Grand National champion raced at the South Carolina bullring and it already means a great deal for the 48-year-old to come back for the South Carolina 400.
Earnhardt was fast too, posting the tenth fastest speed out of the 53 cars that showed up for the spiritual successor to the Myrtle Beach 400, but still looking for the same speed as teammate Carson Kvapil.
"Things have gone alright but we’d like to be a little faster rolling off," Earnhardt told Racing America after practice. "We’re fighting tight. We want to get off the corner better in Turn 4. You have to be patient to roll the bottom around this place. Trying to hustle and trying to get more out of it here ain’t ever going to work out.
"We got to get a little more out of it. We’re about a tenth to half a tenth off Carson."
Earnhardt made a majority of his starts as a teenager at Florence and Myrtle Beach and he admits it brought out goosebumps to drive down the dirt road that leads to the property again. With that said, he also says third-year track operator Steve Zacharias has already made a difference in improving the facilities since his last visit here in 2020.
"It was really cool pulling in and driving down the dirt road but seeing what Zacharias and his whole group has done to improve it, and it’s really in better shape now than when I was racing here back in the 90s," Earnhardt said. "They’ve made some gains.
"Overall, this track is just fun. It’s slick, wore out and perfect. I’ve wanted to come back here for a long time."
The racing will be as unfamiliar to him as the facilities as the track hasn’t been paved at all since his days racing here on a weekly basis. For long races at Florence, and the 400 is a 200-lap race, driver will back up the pace over three seconds off their qualifying speeds before turning even a single lap at speed.
As a result, the field will be in one giant pack, conserving their tires until the final 40 laps or so. The race will be broken up into three segments, allowing teams three chances to choose tires or track position, and it’s a kind of racing Earnhardt has watched over the internet but never experienced behind the wheel.
"We’ve talked about it this week, and no one is really sure if it’s going to play out that way," Earnhardt said of the immediate three second slower laps upon taking the green flag. "The last 50 laps, you’re going to want the track position, you’re not going to want to have to find it.
"You want to have it to start the final segment, which means you might have to work harder to get it in the second segment, that 75 lapper. I think you’ll see guys riding in that first segment, not trying to lose track position, get what they can before the last segment.
"The pace last year dropped off two to three seconds, and I don’t know if we’ll do that this year."
Lastly, Earnhardt is driving a throwback wrap that pays tribute to the Bass Pro Shops scheme his father ran in the 1998 Winston, that also gave him a lot of feelings upon climbing in to turn his first laps on Friday.
"It looks really good doesn’t it," Earnhardt said. "It’s exciting for Bass Pro Shops. We changed our program from this year a little bit with Noah (Gragson) moving on. They’re going to be really supportive of Josh Berry next year in the Xfinity Series so we’re trying to connect that with a few other areas of our business to give them to get excited about.
"So I thought coming here and running that scheme would give Johnny Morris something to get excited about and he’s thrilled. Now it’s up to me to give it a good run tomorrow."