This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
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 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. Considering that we just came from three and four-wide racing at Michigan, we're in for a
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 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. Considering that we just came from three and four-wide racing at Michigan, we're in for a big change this weekend. The rim-riding action under the lights of Darlington on Sunday night can be as entertaining as any event in the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
Nearly all the tracks that the Sprint Cup Series has visited to this point will not be of much help in figuring out Darlington Raceway this weekend. While Darlington is 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, 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 11 years or 11 races at Darlington Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||10.9||352||112||41||2,916||94.0|
|Martin Truex Jr.||12.7||325||129||98||2,520||93.6|
When we 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 Sprint Cup Series at Darlington. Chevrolet and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last nine races at the South Carolina oval. Ford has been shut out since 2005-06 when Greg Biffle took the Southern 500 two seasons in a row. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have had the most success at the facility in the last few seasons. Between Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, this stable has racked up four of the last eight victories at the 1.366-mile oval.
The last five seasons, JGR dominance at Darlington came under fire from the Chevrolet teams. Surprising Chevrolet driver Regan Smith outsmarted the field and took his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team to victory lane for the first time in NASCAR's top division in the 2011 installment of this event. In 2012 it was six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his No. 48 Chevrolet claiming his third Darlington trophy and first since the 2004 season. Two seasons ago we saw Kevin Harvick finally break through to victory lane at the Track Too Tough to Tame with a dominant victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ford is looking to snap a nine-year winless drought at the speedway. Biffle leads the way for this camp, with two career Darlington victories, but we believe Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski could be more dangerous in this event as Biffle's No. 16 team is not currently in race-winning form.
Considering how well the teams of Penske Racing are performing, we wouldn't rule either of them out in vying for the victory this weekend. Assuming this duo of Ford drivers and the other contenders can avoid the "Darlington Stripe," a NASCAR term for scraping the outside wall at this historic oval, then anything could happen in this 500-mile event. Here are the fantasy racing drivers you need to put in your lineups for Sunday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Kyle Busch - Busch's career stats at the Darlington oval may not be the greatest, but it's his most recent work at this oval that we need to pay attention to this weekend. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been slumping the last couple races, but he's sure to rebound in a big way at Darlington Raceway. Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led close to 600 laps in his last eight trips to Darlington Raceway. Considering that he's riding a four-race Darlington Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, Busch and his team have this oval dialed-in on the setup. The driver that we saw win at Indianapolis a month ago will likely show up again this Sunday night.
Brad Keselowski - The Penske Racing star has only seven-career starts at Darlington Raceway, and the results have been more down than up. The driver of the No. 2 Ford will look to up his game considerably in Sunday night's Bojangles' Southern 500. Right now, he's one of the hottest drivers in the series on these larger ovals. With 113-laps led, one victory and three Top-5 finishes in the last five events, Keselowski rides a torrid hot streak into Darlington. In this event one year ago, the veteran driver had a stellar performance with 196 laps led from the pole and runner-up finish. With a strong third-place finish this past weekend at Michigan, there is good reason to believe he'll be in the mix for the win at this historic South Carolina oval.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin is the x-factor in fantasy racing leagues this week. After an up-and-down performance for most of the season, the last few weeks have seen this veteran driver get it together. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one victory and six Top-10 finishes in the six races prior to this weekend, so he's riding the hot hand coming into Sunday night. Hamlin has a victory and two runner-up finishes in his last six trips to Darlington. With 414 laps led in 10-career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race this tricky oval. Sunday night's 500-mile race could be where the season continues to turn positive heading into the Chase for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota.
Kevin Harvick - It took the Stewart Haas Racing star several years to finally nab his first Darlington victory, but Harvick finally got that monkey off his back in this event two years ago. He won the pole position, led 238 laps and made the field look helpless in dominating his way to that win. For what Harvick lacked in excellence earlier in his career at this oval, he's very quickly making up for in the present. The veteran driver now rides a three-race Top-5 streak at the South Carolina oval into this weekend. Given that Harvick is coming off a win and pair of Top-5 finishes the last two races, the No. 4 team is firing on all cylinders right now.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Jimmie Johnson - The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion brings a good racing resume with him to Darlington this Sunday night. Johnson is a three-time winner at the egg-shaped oval, and he has an impressive 71-percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at Darlington Raceway. In the 2012 installment of this event at the South Carolina speedway, it was the No. 48 Chevrolet team that led 134 laps and held off Denny Hamlin to win the Bojangles' Southern 500. Johnson has been turning his season around the last couple races, with much better performances than most of the summer. He should keep that momentum rolling in this visit to the Lady in Black.
Joey Logano - The Penske Racing driver is riding a three-race Top-10 streak coming into this Sunday evening. We have good reason to believe the No. 22 Ford team will be a desirable fantasy racing play at Darlington Raceway this weekend. He represents one of Ford's best chances at breaking the long dry spell at this oval. Logano has only seven-career starts at the South Carolina speedway, but three of those efforts have netted Top-10 finishes. He won the outside pole and led 37 laps in this event two years ago, and he returned last season to lead 29 laps and post a career-best Darlington finish of fourth-place. Logano still has a lot to prove at this particular oval, but he comes to Darlington one of the most consistent drivers in the series right now.
Kyle Larson - The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver continues to race like a veteran 10-years his senior. Larson is fresh off his first-career win at Michigan this past week, and he rides the tidal wave of momentum from that into South Carolina this weekend. He has three Top-10 finishes in his last three starts on ovals larger than one-mile. That bodes well for the CGR No. 42 team coming into the Bojangles' Southern 500. Larson is armed with a pair of Darlington Top-10 finishes in his two-career starts here, so the experience we tend to look for is clearly there. We expect the young driver to stay on a roll this weekend in South Carolina.
Carl Edwards - The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a great historical play at Darlington Raceway and he's riding some decent momentum as he rolls into the South Carolina oval with three Top 10s in the last four races entering the weekend. Edwards has eight Top 10s in 12-career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, and that includes four Top 10s in the last five starts at the South Carolina raceway. We expect the driver of the No. 19 Toyota to stay on a roll at the Track Too Tough to Tame this weekend. Edwards comes to Darlington climbing the championship standings, and with a lot to race for in this 500-mile battle with the Lady in Black.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Darlington who can provide a solid finish
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth has been in a bit of a slump for the last month or so. He has only one Top-10 finish in his last four starts, and he dialed up a shocking 13th-place finish at one of his better ovals (Michigan) last weekend. Darlington Raceway should provide the No. 20 Toyota team with an opportunity to get back in shape and tuned-up for the Chase. Kenseth enters this event with a strong 91.4 driver rating at the historic raceway, but those numbers are sure to improve after Sunday night. Joe Gibbs Racing teams have always fared well at Darlington, and that should bode well for the veteran driver this week. He won this event in 2013, and should have less trouble getting back in the groove at this oval as opposed to some others.
Chase Elliott - The dynamic rookie is getting his season back on track with his runner-up finish and challenge for the win late at Michigan last week. Elliott is very tough on himself, but that only pushes him to exceed the high level racing that the 20-year-old already possesses. With the Chase for the Cup fast-approaching, the pressure to win and lock up a spot is pretty high. But we believe this kind of motivation will be good for Elliott and the No. 24 team. He has only one-career start at Darlington Speedway, and it was a poor finish in this event one year ago. We can write that off to a great extent. What's more interesting is the victory he claimed at this oval in his rookie Xfinity Series campaign of 2014. Elliott surely hasn't forgotten that performance, and what it took to make it happen.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon will resume driving duties in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Darlington Raceway ranks as one of his most successful ovals on the Sprint Cup Series circuit. Gordon owns seven-career wins and a staggering 19 Top-5 finishes at this historic facility. He hasn't won here since 2007, but still managed to maintain a high level of performance in his final seasons as a Sprint Cup Series driver. That includes nine Top-10 finishes in his last 12 appearances at the Lady in Black. While we don't expect to see Gordon among the leaders, there's good reason to believe he'll sneak into the Top 15 in Sunday's 500-mile race.
Jamie McMurray - Chip Ganassi Racing has been surging in recent weeks. Kyle Larson's win at Michigan this past week is proof of that, as well as McMurray's five Top 10s in the last seven events. The No. 1 Chevrolet team should stay hot at Darlington Raceway. It's not a track of any dramatic accomplishments for McMurray. In fact, he only has five Top-10 finishes in 15-career starts. The veteran driver's body of work at the oval in South Carolina since the 2010 season has been reasonably good. McMurray has one pole, one runner-up finish and three Top-15 finishes in those six events. The momentum that this CGR driver brings into the Bojangles Southern 500 is so strong that he should grab a rare Darlington Top 10 this weekend.
Tony Stewart - With a 21st-place finish at Michigan this past week, it seemed that Stewart has finally cooled off from his summer hot streak. We're willing to bet he hasn't shot all the bullets in his gun just yet. With his final race as a Sprint Cup Series driver fast-approaching, the motivation to race well each week is pretty high. After all, he'll be hanging his fire suit up for good come November. Smoke has a good history of performance at Darlington Raceway. Although he's never won at the Track Too Tough to Tame, he's grabbed a dozen Top-10 finishes here over the years. That checks in at a respectable 52-percent rate. Three of his last five visits to the South Carolina oval have yielded Top-10 finishes. That bodes well for this Sunday night.
Greg Biffle - The Roush Fenway Racing driver has been very difficult to forecast week-to-week this season. Just when you think he's on the ropes, he'll bounce back with a surprising effort like he did at Michigan last week when he registered a solid 11th-place. We're finding his historically good ovals are high points for the most part. Darlington Raceway would qualify given his career numbers here. Biffle is a two-time winner at the Lady in Black, and he has six Top-10 finishes at this egg-shaped oval. Two of those have come in just his last five starts alone. While a Top-10 finish may not be in the offing this week, Biffle has Top-15 potential in the Bojangles' Southern 500.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Martin Truex Jr. - The Furniture Row Racing veteran has run into some tough times of late. Finishes outside of the Top 20 in three of the last four events have put the No. 78 team into a bit of a rut coming to Darlington Raceway. Truex's Darlington history shows four Top 10s in 10-career starts or a less-than-impressive 40-percent rate. However, his career average finish is a more respectable 12.7, and that's the number to keep in mind this weekend. Truex is not a fantasy racing driver deployed to fetch a Top-15 finish. He's the bullet in your belt to contend for wins and collect Top 5s on intermediate ovals. Keep him benched for this one.
Kurt Busch - After tearing up the place for most of the season, it was finally time for the No. 41 team to have a soft patch. Busch set a new record for consecutive races finishing on the lead lap, and once that accomplishment was complete, he began to fade a bit. With only one Top-10 finish in the last six events, he's dropped from second- to fourth-place in the championship standings. Qualifying has been a bit of a problem, as Busch hasn't qualified well in the last five events. Darlington has been a challenging track for the Stewart Haas Racing star over the years. Busch has never won here, and has only six Top 10s in 19-career starts (32-percent). While he had a good finish in this event one year ago, his current level of performance doesn't suggest there will be a follow up this Sunday evening.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt will miss his seventh-straight event this weekend as he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms. He hasn't raced since Kentucky weekend as has not received medical clearance to resume racing. Earnhardt's last checkup with the doctors was encouraging and he has made progress in his balance and nausea issues. However, it will be at least one more week on the sidelines for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Only time will tell if he'll be ready to resume action in time for the Chase for the Cup.
Danica Patrick - The driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet has shown some marked improvement on several of the Sprint Cup Series tracks, but some are proving more challenging than others when it comes to improvement. Darlington Raceway would qualify as that for Patrick. She has four-career starts at the South Carolina Raceway, and only has one Top-25 finish to her credit across those starts. Two of her finishes are outside the Top 30, including her crash and DNF in this event one year ago. The rim-riding action out close to the wall at Darlington just doesn't fit this Stewart Haas Racing driver, and a finish outside the Top 25 seems the most likely outcome in this weekend's 500-mile battle.