Goodyear 400 Preview: Track Too Tough to Tame

Goodyear 400 Preview: Track Too Tough to Tame

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The Track Too Tough to Tame is the next stop on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile oval unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway, but somewhere between. 

The course has two distinct 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- to 25-degree variable 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 will notice when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the turns. On most ovals, 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 straightaways 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. Considering that we just came from the two-groove racing at Dover, we're in for a big change this weekend. The rim-riding action

The Track Too Tough to Tame is the next stop on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile oval unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway, but somewhere between. 

The course has two distinct 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- to 25-degree variable 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 will notice when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the turns. On most ovals, 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 straightaways 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. Considering that we just came from the two-groove racing at Dover, we're in for a big change this weekend. The rim-riding action of Darlington this Sunday afternoon can be as entertaining as any event in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

Nearly all the tracks that the NASCAR Cup Series has visited to this point will not be of much help in figuring out Darlington Raceway this weekend. While Darlington is considered a super speedway, the racing is not like any other super speedway on the circuit. So this for this race, the loop data from Darlington Raceway will be an extremely important component in developing a list of fantasy racing drivers. The recent hot streaks coming into the weekend will prove to be a bit of a wrinkle as well, but historical trends should run pretty true. There is small group of drivers that perform well 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 16 years or 20 races at Darlington Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Larson5.52973096562,546114.5
Denny Hamlin7.16853917446,029108.9
Kevin Harvick10.26814117985,765104.7
Martin Truex Jr.10.86384656934,963103.8
Kyle Busch12.07073537255,776100.6
Greg Biffle15.23583126372,79798.8
Brad Keselowski11.14292253843,80195.4
Erik Jones10.12841071081,93993.1
Joey Logano14.35511031224,16491.9
Chase Elliott 18.64171281512,55689.1
Kurt Busch15.86712901965,08887.8
William Byron20.92382831,51683.5
Tyler Reddick14.618532299681.6
Austin Dillon12.22362401,51276.4
Alex Bowman18.1234131421,32776.3
Ryan Blaney19.318866171,12175.8
Aric Almirola18.32801801,45670.5
Christopher Bell20.6130311358169.3
Chris Buescher17.61842711,22468.6
Chase Briscoe15.0380019365.6

When we take a look at 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 NASCAR Cup Series at Darlington. Ford and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last 10 races at the South Carolina oval. Chevrolet has been shut out since 2014, but that could change as soon as this weekend. Drivers like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain and William Byron will all try to up their game to get the bowtie brand back into victory lane at Darlington. Toyota had the most success here in the 2021 season with Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin taking both Darlington victories. That gives Joe Gibbs Racing drivers three of the last four victories at the Track Too Tough to Tame.

If Ford hopes to get back to their winning ways at this tough oval, those hopes will largely ride with Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. The Penske Racing duo have yet to scratch the win column this season, but they've been painfully close on more than one occasion. Blaney and Logano are performing the best of the Ford camp right now and are really best-positioned to challenge the Toyota and Chevrolet drivers for Darlington supremacy this Sunday afternoon. The picks below are our best bets for fantasy racing success at Darlington Raceway.   

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

William Byron – The most consistent and sharp driver on the intermediate ovals this season has not been Chase Elliott or Martin Truex Jr., but Byron and his No. 24 team. The Hendrick Motorsports youngster has dazzling finishes of first- and fifth-place on the mid-sized tracks in 2022. While Darlington is a lot different than the cookie cutter ovals, the speed to succeed should be the same. Byron now has seven-career starts at this track, and he's starting to get the drift of high-groove racing that is the trademark of Darlington. His pair of Top-5 finishes in his last three Darlington Raceway starts are an indicator that he's ready to challenge for wins here. 

Kyle Larson – Larson has never won at the Track Too Tough to Tame, but he's been painfully close in recent starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star has three-consecutive runner-up finishes and a third-place finish in his last four efforts at the South Carolina oval. During that four-race span Larson has led 484-combined laps of the tough intermediate track. These recent performances have lowered his career average finish at Darlington to a sparkling 5.5 average. Winning here just seems to be a matter of time for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson seems to be turning a corner in terms of performance with the new Next-Gen car, and his runner-up finish earlier this season at similar-sized Las Vegas is a good indicator of potential. He loves high-line oval racing, and this track plays to that strength.     

Kyle Busch – Busch's recent work has been pretty impressive. He won on the Bristol dirt a few weeks ago, finished a strong third at Talladega and rides a five-race Top-10 streak into Darlington. This oval has not been his best over the years, but recent visits have been attention-getting. Busch has a pair of runner-up finishes and four Top-3 finishes at the Track Too Tough to Tame since the 2017 season. Those efforts have lowered his career average finish at Darlington to a sharper 12.0 average. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led a combined 70 laps in the two intermediate oval races of this season and collected one Top-5 finish in those efforts. He seems to be increasingly getting a handle on this new generation stock car on the intermediate tracks. We have a lot of expectations for Busch and the No. 18 team this Sunday afternoon.

Alex Bowman – The veteran Hendrick Motorsports driver has been one of those drivers who can pop up and win at these intermediate sized tracks in recent seasons. To illustrate that point, Bowman surged late and captured the win earlier this season at Las Vegas. He could pull that same feat Sunday at Darlington Raceway. Bowman has not had a tremendous amount of success at this oval, but he did lead 41 laps and finish runner-up here in 2020. The right setup and right car could produce similar results this Sunday. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet enters the weekend with Top 10's in five of his last six starts, and racing very consistently of late. If Bowman can use some good pit strategy and good racing, he could be an upset winner of the Goodyear 400.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Ross Chastain – The breakout driver of 2022 has been zeroed-in on these intermediate tracks this season. Chastain nabbed a strong third-place finish at Las Vegas and a very impressive runner-up finish at Atlanta. Between the two events he's led 125-combined laps. A good argument could be made for bumping Chastain from the solid plays to the contenders list this week, but we're going to play it a bit conservative. Another strong indicator for the Trackhouse Racing veteran was his last start at the egg-shaped Darlington oval. Chastain piloted his former No. 42 Chevrolet to a very strong third-place finish at Darlington Raceway last September. That was his career-best Darlington finish to this point.        

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex's Darlington history shows two wins and 10 Top 10's in 19-career starts or a steady 53-percent rate. He's led 693 laps at this South Carolina oval, including 248 in this event one year ago. Truex captured that win in the 2021 Goodyear 400 and will look to defend that win this Sunday. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota hasn't been a world-beater on these intermediate sized tracks in the new stock car. Truex has a pair of eighth-place finishes this season at Vegas and Atlanta. So we don't believe he'll be in contention for the win Sunday in South Carolina, but we strongly believe he'll be one of the faces making up the Top 10 by the checkered flag.     

Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports youngster is another driver who hasn't been dominant on these mid-sized tracks in 2022, but he's been pretty consistent finishing. Elliott nabbed a ninth-place finish at Las Vegas earlier this year and a more recent sixth-place finish on the high banks of Atlanta. That effort sets up pretty well heading to Darlington. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has just a pedestrian 40-percent career Top-10 rate at this track, but he did finish a solid seventh-place in this event one year ago. We don't expect Elliott to be a big lap leader or stage winner this Sunday afternoon, but he should have little trouble sticking inside the Top 10 and mixing it up among the lead pack.

Kurt Busch – Busch's name among the solid plays this week may be a bit surprising, but it's well warranted in 2022. The 23XI Racing veteran has been consistent on the intermediate ovals in the Next-Gen car with a 13th-place Las Vegas finish and strong third-place finish more recently at Atlanta. The high banks of the Atlanta oval really seemed to be to Busch's liking and we took notice. Busch has collected six Top-10 finishes in his last eight trips to Darlington Raceway and by doing so has boosted his career Top-10 rate here to 43-percent. This didn't used to be one of his better ovals, but Busch has picked it up here in a big way since 2017. His last effort at Darlington yielded a strong sixth-place finish last September.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Darlington & solid upside

Joey Logano – Logano has been a decent performer so far on the intermediate ovals, but not a world beater, so we've slid him into the sleepers list this week. The driver of the No. 22 Ford most recently forged a steady ninth-place finish at the Atlanta oval. Logano has eight Top 10's in 16-career starts at Darlington Raceway for a steady 50-percent rate and 14.3 average finish. The Penske Racing star has nabbed Top 10's in three of his last four starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame, so he's been a bit better here of late. Coming off disappointing Talladega and Dover finishes in back-to-back weeks, Logano has a lot to prove this weekend to get his season back on track.    

Chase Briscoe – The Stewart Haas Racing youngster racked up a decent 13th-place finish at the Monster Mile this past weekend, so he's looking forward to a follow up performance at Darlington. Briscoe's two starts at Darlington Raceway last season netted 11th- and 19th-place finishes. The driver of the No. 14 Ford has been much better this season in the new stock car and is racing with a lot more confidence. Briscoe should easily be a Top-15 finisher in the Goodyear 400 and quite possibly a Top-10 finisher. He and the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing team make a good weekly lineup or salary cap league play at the Darlington oval.

Christopher Bell – Bell comes to South Carolina this week with four Top-10 finishes in the last six events, and he's vaulted from 23rd- to 10th-place in the driver point standings during the streak. Bell is fresh off a strong fourth-place finish at the Monster Mile and carry a lot of momentum into Darlington Raceway. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota won the pole earlier this season at the mid-sized oval of Las Vegas and finished a strong 10th-place that afternoon. Bell has five-career Cup Series starts at Darlington Raceway with a pair of Top-15 finishes to his credit. We feel he has a really good shot at a career-best Darlington performance in Sunday's Goodyear 400.

Austin Dillon – The Richard Childress Racing veteran has always liked the high-groove racing style at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Dillon has four Top 10's and seven Top 15's in 11-career starts at Darlington Raceway. His 12.2-career average finish at this facility really tells the tale. Dillon has not been stellar on intermediate tracks in 2022, but he did post a respectable 11th-place at Las Vegas earlier in the year. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet boasts a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three Darlington starts. One of those was a brilliant runner-up performance in the fall of 2020. We believe Dillon and his team presents steady value and a lot of upside in this 400-mile battle in South Carolina.

Erik Jones – The Petty GMS Racing driver has always loved this oval. For his career, Jones has nabbed one victory and six Top-10 finishes in just eight starts at Darlington Raceway. The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet is riding a two-race Top-10 streak into this weekend's action after brilliant sixth- and 10th-place finishes at Talladega and Dover the last two weeks. Jones is racing as well has he has been at any point in the season right now. That combined with his visiting one of his favorite ovals makes him a strong fantasy racing consideration for the Goodyear 400.      

Chris Buescher – The Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing veteran is coming off a surprising pole position and eighth-place finish at the Monster Mile this past weekend. It was Buescher's third Top 10 of the 2022 season. He's having a pretty good year 11 races into the schedule. He's been a steady performer in the two intermediate oval races to-date. Finishes of 18th- and seventh-place at Las Vegas and Atlanta bode well coming to Darlington Raceway. Buescher nabbed a pair of ninth-place finishes at Darlington Raceway last season. Those were his first two Top 10's at this challenging track. We eagerly await his follow up performance in Sunday's Goodyear 400.   

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is a four-time Darlington winner and sports a strong 79-percent Top-10 rate at this track, so it's probably shocking to see his name in the slow down list this week. We're totally bucking history this weekend in favor of recent performance. Outside of Hamlin's shock-victory at Richmond, he's been lost in the high weeds this season in the new Next-Gen car. He has no finishes inside the Top 10 outside of the Richmond win. Hamlin enters Darlington race weekend a distant 24th-place in the points and searching for answers. His intermediate oval outings of 2022 have left a lot to be desired. Finishes of 32nd- and 29th-place were his Vegas and Atlanta results. Despite a stellar Darlington resume, we recommend benching Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team this week.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick hasn't gotten along so well with the new Next-Gen car. He has just four Top 10's to this point in the season, and none of those have come on the mid-sized ovals. Harvick enters Darlington race weekend a disappointing 11th-place in the championship standings. He'll attempt to reverse his fortunes in the Goodyear 400, but faces a tall task. Harvick was a 12th- and 21st-place finisher at Vegas and Atlanta and not really a factor in either of those events. Despite his three Darlington victories and 17 Top-10 finishes at this track, we have to recommend avoiding Harvick and the No. 4 team this weekend. He's largely in the same position as Hamlin, although not quite as bad. Harvick will likely slug it out mid-pack and have to settle for a mid-to-upper teens finish in the Goodyear 400.     

Ryan Blaney – Blaney is having a good season, but he's not been so sharp on the intermediate tracks. Finishes of 36th- and 17th-place at Vegas and Atlanta are a bit unsettling as we head to South Carolina. The Track Too Tough to Tame has been a real puzzle for the young Penske Racing driver. In 10-career starts Blaney has just one Top 10 at this oval. The 10-percent Top-10 rate and career average finish of 19.3 at Darlington are major caution flags for any fantasy racing aspirations this weekend. The high-groove racing style of Darlington just hasn't worked out so well for Blaney and the No. 12 Ford team. It's best to look elsewhere for your fantasy racing help this Sunday afternoon.                  

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The JTG-Daugherty Racing veteran limps into Darlington weekend with just one Top 10 on the season and a distant 31st-place ranking the driver points. Not much has gone right for the No. 47 team this season. Stenhouse grabbed 21st- and 31st-place Vegas and Atlanta finishes and that would seem to be a reasonable indicator of what to expect this weekend. We're not entirely sure he can crack the Top 25 at Darlington Raceway. Stenhouse has 12-career starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame, and he's never once visited the Top 10. He also sports an inflated 24.1 average finish at the South Carolina oval. This is a weekend to shelf Stenhouse and his No. 47 Chevrolet team.   

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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