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South Carolina 400 a big unknown for everyone involved

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The biggest change for Dale Earnhardt Jr. upon leaving practice day for the South Carolina 400 at Florence Motor Speedway on Friday night was the amount of unofficial merchandise tents that have been set-up outside of the facility.

He compared it to the roads surrounding Michigan International Speedway, where mom and pop operations set up booths to sell diecasts and other assorted memorabilia. That’s new for this year and a sign, according to Earnhardt, that this event is becoming a destination event.

“It sounds trivial but those things are signs of growth to me,” Earnhardt told Short Track Scene on Friday night.

The South Carolina 400, now in its fourth year, is the spiritual successor to the old Myrtle Beach 400 held at the eponymous speedway on the Grand Strand. Defending winner Brenden Queen, who joined two-time winner Ty Majeski, says it basically holds the same place in everyone’s heart.

“It isn’t going to replace Myrtle Beach but it races like the beach and there’s the same kind of tire conservation and all the big teams show up,” Queen said. “It was a major the moment they moved it here.

“Same date, same promoters.”

Earnhardt has heaped a lot of praise upon promoter Steve Zacharias for what he continues to invest into this facility, especially as he puts it, the fact that they didn’t receive the same kind of government money that North Carolina tracks did last year.

“I talk to Steve a lot,” Earnhardt said. “He works hard. We’ve seen Florence get revitalized more and more each time we show up. There’s some tracks in North Carolina investing too. Tri-County.

“I know how hard it is, and how hard he works, and I really want to support that. It’s a fun little track. Hard to race.”

To that last point, no one really knows what they have for tomorrow.

Both Earnhardt and Queen said they experimented with their packages on practice day and have basically decided to come back with what they used before at the South Carolina bullring.

Earnhardt, who has veteran short tracker and Xfinity Series crew chief Mardy Lindley calling the shots this weekend, is kind of scratching his head about Florence right now. They were very good in this race last November but were objectively awful in February for the Icebreaker and pretty good again in August for the Locked In 200.

Making matters more complicated is that Earnhardt and teammate Carson Kvapil had the same setup in February but one car built plowing tight and the other build wicked free. Kvapil then took that same setup to the CARS Tour race and dominated.

Go figure.

“We scrambled all day,” Earnhardt said. “But we’re having fun. Carson is decent, kind of decent. There are about 15 cars faster than us. I don’t think we’re going to lock in on time and I think Carson should qualifying in that six to 12 range.”

But that’s the thing for everyone. This place changes so much from race to race, and from day to day, and there’s no real way to chase after it.

“It makes you think the sky is falling,” Earnhardt said.

The challenge, Queen said, is that a car needs to be really tight early in a run and in qualifying because it will build free as tires fade.

“If you’re loose now, it doesn’t get any better,” Queen said. “We want turn but without losing forward drive.”

Like Earnhardt, Queen and crew chief Doug Powers aborted their experiment package too.

“We went to what we had last year and we feel good about the race trim,” he said. “We’re going to skate the bubble of the top-20 but it’s going to race good.”

Icebreaker winner Doug Barnes Jr. was fastest in practice once everyone mocked up. To wit, he’s the only guy really confident in their qualifying package in terms of how he expects to run his two laps.

“We’re not worried about qualifying but we focused on it today,” Barnes said. “We just want to make sure we get that right. I don’t want to be in a heat race. Really, it’s just going to come down to luck, last year.”

Queen echoed that sentiment too.

“We caught some lucky breaks with how the timing of our cautions and restarts,” Queen said. “But really, you can’t be lucky if you’re not good first and I think we’re going to be plenty good.”

Pre-race festivities for the South Carolina start at 6 p.m. ET. Qualifying will lock in 20 drivers. Sam Yarbrough is already on the pole by virtue of winning the Locked In 200 in September prior to Southern 500 weekend.

“You still have to go through the motions and be the best you can be,” Yarbrough told this week. “It’s certainly nice to know where I’m starting, but it doesn’t make the task any easier when it comes to making sure the car is good enough to win the race.”

There will be two 25-lap heats, feature races for the Street Stocks and Mini Stocks, and then the 250 lap Late Model Stock feature to close out the night. The festivities air on FloRacing.

Matt Weaver is the owner and founder of Short Track Scene. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He also has extensive experience covering NASCAR, IndyCar and Dirt Sprint Cars.

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