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Gong Show Winner Darnell Answers The Big Bell

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
Erik Darnell hopes his winning ways in the CWTS translate to the Sprint Cup Series.   (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Erik Darnell hopes his winning ways in the CWTS translate to the Sprint Cup Series. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

One of the winners of the old Roush Racing “Gong Show” tryouts is finally getting his chance to prove himself in a Sprint Cup car.

Erik Darnell, the 2005 winner of the contest that won him a ride in a Roush truck, is running the first of seven races this season in the No. 96 Academy Outdoor Sports Ford driven up until this week by Bobby Labonte.

Darnell, who won two truck races in two years, at Kansas in 2007 and at Michigan in 2008, has spent this season sharing the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford with Cup driver David Ragan. He’s been impressive, winning a pole, at Milwaukee, and scoring two top-five and eight top-12 finishes in 12 starts. His best run was at Darlington, where he contended for the win before fading to fourth at the finish.

The decision to put Darnell, 26, in the Cup car, like many decisions in the world today, was based on finances. Darnell was able to attract the sponsor money needed to run the races.

For him, that’s sort of beside the point. He knows that if he’s going to have a career in NASCAR’s elite division, he needs to make the most of his seven starts this fall.

“Obviously, I have to show that I’m able to do this and I’m capable of doing this in a Sprint Cup car because this is where I want to be down the line,” he said during an early morning session with the media at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “To tell you the honest truth, I don’t know that I have anything lined up next year yet on the Nationwide side or the Cup side or anything like that, so I think this is kind of my opportunity to go out there and show that I can run in these cars… I’d like to earn a chance to race one of these things next year and this is my opportunity to do it with these seven races right here, so I’ve just got to go out and be solid and, hopefully, everything will kind of fall into place.”

Darnell is at a disadvantage because he has very little experience in the Car of Tomorrow, which has been difficult for even the most talented of drivers to master.

“It’s definitely going to be tough,” he said. “There’s a lot on my plate, not only for this weekend, but the six races following this. “I haven’t really tested one of these things very much, but in the little bit of testing that I’ve done, they’re way different than a Nationwide car, they’re way different than a truck.

“They’re harder to drive. They’ve got more horsepower, but I almost feel that benefits me as a driver.”

He’s basing that on his experience in the trucks, before horsepower-killing carburetor spacers were put in place.

“I don’t know why, but for whatever reason a couple years ago when we had more horsepower, I seemed to do better with those things, when you actually had a little bit of throttle to control the car,” he said.

But racing a truck and racing a car is very different, and he knows that. Still, it’s a challenge he’s more than ready for.

“At one point you’re going to have to make this step and do it and this is it for me,” he said.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 6 2009
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