No Room For Paybacks Here

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The tempers have cooled, we hope, from the wild weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

They better have cooled, for the site of this weekend’s race is no place for retaliation. If anything, the track itself could retaliate.

Darlington Raceway, which hosts the Southern 500 for the 53rd time, has been known by several nicknames through the years. Its odd shape, aging asphalt and narrow grooves make it one of the toughest tracks to get around. And that’s for one lap, by yourself.

Add in 42 other cars, and trouble is bound to happen – even if you aren’t trying to deliver some payback.

Chances are the angriest drivers from Bristol – Rusty Wallace, Jimmie Johnson and Ward Burton – won’t try any retaliation. And that’s important.

“It’s real important,” said Johnson, who was so mad at Robby Gordon that he flashed his middle finger for all to see. “There are a lot of things that happen that frustrate you. If you don’t get over them and put them away and move on, there’s a lot on the line that they can affect. Mentally, if you have actions on the race track, NASCAR’s going to fine you, penalize you, take points away from you – something’s going to happen. So, yeah, it’s very important to get it behind you and move on. At the same time, it’s very difficult. Your livelihood is at stake. It’s a hard thing to do.”

It has become a big part of being a successful driver, being able to forget about things – good and bad – and move on to the next turn, the next lap, the next pit stop and even the next race.

Drivers go to Bristol knowing they may get knocked around, but the go to Darlington with a completely different outlook. Outsiders may not understand, but they are clearly two different tracks.

What’s fair at Bristol might not be fair at Darlington.

“Ken Schrader walked down pit road a couple years ago at Bristol and he apologized to everyone before the race for hitting them,” Jeff Burton said. “That’s pretty much the way it is. People do things at Bristol that they don’t do anywhere else, and they say, ‘Oh, it’s just Bristol.’ What I say is, it’s still a driver’s responsibility. Drivers don’t have to run into each other.

“When a wreck happens five cars ahead of you and then that accordion effect happens and you get in the back of somebody, that’s Bristol. It’s very hard to pass. You tend to push things a little harder because it’s harder to pass. There’s no room for error, so all those things do make any little mistake that a driver makes have bigger consequences, but I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that driver’s go into Bristol saying, ‘I can get by with stuff here that I can’t get by with anywhere else because I can blame it on the race track.’ I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”

That’s not the case at Darlington.

“At Darlington, you really have to race the race track,” Johnson said. “If you’re caught up and battling with someone and charging too hard, that track will bite you and destroy your race car in an instant. At either end, there’s something that can happen. Darlington is one of the few places where you really try to block out who is behind you or who is coming in your mirror or who is racing in front of you, and focus on your race car and racing that track for your condition.

“As soon as you relax, you’ll slip up a foot through (Turns) 1 and 2, and you’ll be running along the wall and brush the wall and knock yourself out of contention. You try to put emotions away and run your own independent race.”

Johnson even said that of Gordon was in front of him at any point during Sunday’s race, he wouldn’t even consider returning the Bristol favor.

And Jeff Gordon, who nudged Wallace out of the lead at Bristol, won’t be looking in his rear-view mirror this weekend, either.

“ I go to the next race, focus on what I’ve got to do, not taking guys out and doing paybacks,” Gordon said. “Rusty and I, we’ve been racing for a while. … He’s going to be upset. He lost the race, and he wanted it as bad as I did. I don’t expect him to be happy. We may talk, we may not talk. We’ll just kind of go to Darlington and see what happens. I’m not calling him. He didn’t call me (after an incident at Richmond a few years ago).

“But we’ve become much closer and better friends over the years. I think that he and I both have respect for one another and know how we can race with (each other).”

So if you’re looking for paybacks this weekend, forget about it. There’s no room for it at Darlington. There’s not much room for anything at Darlington.

But there might something else held over from Bristol: motivation.

“It’s over and done with,” said Bill Wilburn, Wallace’s crew chief. “There was a lot of good that came out of Bristol, and we’re using it all to focus on and get pumped up for Darlington this weekend and Richmond the next.”

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