The track "Too Tough to Tame" is the next stop on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval, and is really unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a short track, but somewhere in between. The course has two distinctly different sets of turns. Turns 3 and 4 are much narrower than turns 1 and 2. This is a challenging aspect for crew chiefs as the handling setup for the stock cars is a bit more complex. You have to find a happy "middle ground" for your handling set up so that one set of turns doesn't upset the car. All this combined with the 23 – 25 degree banking, and wide racing grooves makes for some of the most exciting, side-by-side racing that NASCAR has to offer. The first thing that the casual fan notices when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the corners. On most tracks, the preferred line is low and tight to the inside lines, but Darlington is a very unique facility. Most drivers prefer to run the high line right out next to the wall and carry that momentum into the straight-aways as they accelerate coming out of the turns. This historic oval's unique configuration almost always makes the high groove the fastest way around the race track.
Nearly all the tracks that the Sprint Cup Series has visited to this point will not be of much, if any help in figuring out Darlington this weekend. While Darlington is a super speedway, the racing is not like any other super speedway on the circuit. So this weekend, the loop data from Darlington Raceway will be an extremely important tool to develop a list of fantasy racing drivers. There is small group of drivers that outperform at the South Carolina oval, and as you will see in the table below, they're quite easy to identify. The loop stats in the table below cover the last six years or six races at Darlington Raceway.
# of FASTEST LAPS
LAPS IN TOP 15
Martin Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When examining the loop stats in the table above, we immediately notice that there is quite a bit of parity between the different manufacturers and super stables in the Sprint Cup Series at Darlington. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last six years at the South Carolina oval. Hendrick Motorsports drivers have had the most success at the facility in the last few seasons. Between Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, this stable has racked up four of the last eight victories at the 1.366-mile oval. Lately, Hendrick dominance at Darlington has come under fire from the Toyota camp of Joe Gibbs Racing. The JGR Toyotas of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have taken two of the last four wins and are mounting a major challenge to the Hendrick Chevrolets. The Roush Ford teams are very competitive this season and could make some noise in the Showtime Southern 500 this weekend. Ford is looking to snap a four-year winless drought at the speedway. Greg Biffle leads the way for this camp, with two career Darlington victories, but we believe Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth could be just as dangerous in this event. Assuming this trio and the other drivers can avoid the "Darlington Stripe," which often happens coming out of turn 4 as the drivers ride out close to the wall and carry too much momentum out of the turn, then anything could happen in this 500-mile event. Here are the fantasy racing drivers you need to deploy in Saturday night's Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Kyle Busch – While Busch may not have the most impressive stats at Darlington Raceway, we have to overlook that this weekend. The surging driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has flexed his muscles at times this season, and has already one victory to his credit. Busch won this event three years ago, and he's led over 200 laps in his last three trips to Darlington's oval. The timing could be right for another visit to victory lane at the historic super speedway.
Jeff Gordon – The No. 24 team has been trying to get back on top of their game on the larger speedways this season. Gordon won at Phoenix earlier this year, but has been trying to find that same chemistry on the larger ovals with limited success. The veteran driver is a seven-time Darlington Raceway winner, and as recently as 2007. Gordon is riding a seven-race Top 5 streak at the oval into this weekend's event, and that includes that win in '07. In this event one year ago, the Hendrick Motorsports icon qualified on the outside pole and led 110 laps before finishing fourth.
Jimmie Johnson – The defending Sprint Cup champion brings a good racing resume with him to Darlington this Saturday night. Johnson is a two-time winner at the egg-shaped oval, and he has a 75 percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at DARLINGTON. Johnson hasn't won at the track since 2004, but don't let that concern you. He finished runner-up in this event two years ago, and considering the momentum he rides into Darlington this weekend, we could easily see the No. 48 Chevrolet pull into victory lane on Saturday night.
Greg Biffle – If you're going to roll with Roush Fenway Racing this weekend, Biffle makes the most reliable choice. As the loop stats show, he has led 25 percent of the laps at Darlington Raceway in the last six years. That's an amazing number, and almost doubles the next nearest competitor. Biffle has been finding his rhythm the last several weeks, so the Darlington event is well timed in the schedule. If an upset win happens on Saturday night, it will no doubt be this veteran driver.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning
Carl Edwards – This is more of a trend pick for Darlington than a historical performance pick. Sure, Edwards does have four Top 10's in seven career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, but his last couple trips to the track have been forgettable. That will change this weekend since we expect the driver of the No. 99 Ford to bring his current momentum to South Carolina. Edwards posted Top-5 finishes at Darlington Raceway in 2007 and 2008, so he knows how to navigate this unusual oval.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Now that Earnhardt has finally thrust himself into this season's championship picture, we have to take him dead serious in our weekly driver evaluations. He enters this weekend's race with four Top 10's in his last six starts at the track too tough to tame. Earnhardt really likes the high-groove racing style that Darlington demands, so this is an oval that plays to his strengths as a driver. He enters this race ranked in the Top 5 in the standings, so it's not too ambitious to expect a Top-10 finish out of the No. 88 team this Saturday night.
Ryan Newman – Newman has actually been performing better than his boss Tony Stewart this season. Heading to Darlington this weekend, that's an important fact to keep in the back of our minds. Newman's recent history at the 1.366-mile oval has been pretty spotless. He's led 136 laps and finished in the Top 10 in five of the last six races at the facility. The team's little black note book should come in handy this weekend at Darlington Raceway. Considering the momentum the No. 39 team is riding, Newman should backup that impressive 67 percent career Top 10 rate at Darlington.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin stopped the bleeding at Richmond last weekend with his runner-up finish. That should boost the JGR star back into viable fantasy racing deployment for this week's event. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has a great diver rating in five starts at Darlington Raceway, with four Top 10's and a victory in this race one year ago. Hamlin led 104 of the 367 laps raced in last season's Southern 500 and won from eighth staring spot. We can't think of a better time to get Hamlin off your bench than now.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Darlington who can provide a solid finish
Kasey Kahne – The Red Bull Racing star is surging coming to Darlington Raceway this week. He's fresh off a Top 5 run at Richmond and running with the best in the series right now. Kahne put up some noteworthy numbers earlier in his NASCAR career at the South Carolina super speedway, and he should revert to that form this weekend. In his first four starts at Darlington, the driver of the No. 4 Toyota posted three poles and two Top-5 finishes. We should see that kind of speed out of Kahne this Saturday night.
Matt Kenseth – Kenseth is searching for a good finish to stop the short, two-race skid that he is on. Darlington Raceway should provide the No. 17 team with a great opportunity. Kenseth enters this event with four Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to the South Carolina raceway. He won the pole for this event two years ago and finished a respectable 10th in the Southern 500. Roush Fenway teams have always fared well at Darlington, and Kenseth should be no exception this time around.
Martin Truex Jr. – The Michael Waltrip Racing star enters this event looking for a Top-10 finish. He was just denied that at Richmond this past weekend after a critical pit road error late in the race. Crew Chief Pat Tryson should give Truex a very good car for this Saturday night's race. Truex has led 72 laps for his career at the oval in Darlington and he's posted four Top-15 finishes in five career starts. We expect to see a steady performance from the No. 56 Toyota team in the Showtime Southern 500.
Brad Keselowski – Keselowski has only two career starts at Darlington Raceway, but both were very respectable finishes (7th and 12th) and for two different race teams. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge will look to keep his spotless record at Darlington Raceway intact and break out of a bit of a slump this weekend. Keselowski showed some speed by leading several laps and cracking the Top 20 at Fort Worth a few weeks ago, so we know what the team is capable of in this event.
David Ragan – With Ragan fresh off a Top-5 finish at Richmond, we have to pay close attention for this week's race at Darlington. The No. 6 team used some really smart pit strategy and Ragan used some great moves to forge that Top 5 run. When you're hot you're hot as the old saying goes, and this young Roush Fenway Racing youngster is indeed hot coming into this event. Ragan has one Top-5 and one Top-15 finish in his last three trips to this 1.366-mile oval, so you know he's looking forward to this race.
Paul Menard – Menard is the "hot play" in the Yahoo! Fantasy Racing "C" group right now, and he's a great play in deeper draft leagues and salary cap leagues. Menard has shown in just nine races this season that he's capable of running with the stars in Sprint Cup racing. That's pretty exciting considering that he wasn't on many people's draft lists prior to the season. Menard has been very good at the larger ovals this season, and that trend should continue on Saturday night.
Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs
Clint Bowyer – While the No. 33 team have gotten off to a great start this season and are very visible in the championship hunt, we have to buck the trend and slide Bowyer to flops list this week. This weekend the Richard Childress Racing driver comes to one of his tougher venues in recent seasons. Bowyer has one Top 10 in his five career Darlington outings, and his last two starts have netted finishes outside the Top 30. Keep Bowyer on the bench, at least for this week.
Brian Vickers – Darlington Raceway is not for the timid and certainly not easy on struggling drivers. Vickers is off to a rough start in 2011. He enters this race ranked outside the Top 25 through nine events. Trying to get things back on track at Darlington is a tall task for the No. 83 Red Bull Racing team. In Vickers' eight career starts at the South Carolina oval he has only one Top-10 finish and a bloated 26.2 average finish.
A.J. Allmendinger – After the Top 10 run at Richmond last week, it's difficult to put Allmendinger and the Richard Petty Motorsports team in the flops list for Darlington. After looking at the numbers, we have to give the downgrade for this week. Allmendinger has four career starts at Darlington Raceway and only one Top-20 finish to his credit. The other three starts have seen him finish well off the lead lap and with one DNF. Allmendinger has the current momentum to break this Darlington slump, but it's a risky call given his record at this intermediate oval.
Tony Stewart – The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet broke out of his slump with a Top 10 at Richmond last Saturday night. After starting the season hot, Stewart has been on a major skid the last two months. He owns only modest numbers at the egg-shaped oval with no career wins, and nine Top 10's in 18 starts. Stewart's visit to Darlington Raceway last season was quite forgettable as he started 24th and finished 23rd in the Southern 500. Indicators point to a similar performance this Saturday night.