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 the two-groove racing at the half-mile Bristol oval,
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 the two-groove racing at the half-mile Bristol oval, 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 Monster Energy Cup Series schedule.
Nearly all the tracks that the Monster Energy 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 12 years or 12 races at Darlington Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Martin Truex Jr.||11.6||356||172||126||2,883||96.5|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||10.9||352||112||41||2,916||94.0|
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 Monster Energy Cup Series at Darlington. Chevrolet and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last 10 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. Toyota drivers have had the most success at the facility in the last few seasons. Between Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. the trio has racked up three of the last four victories at the 1.366-mile oval. Three 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. That performance gave Chevrolet it's lone win at the facility in the last four seasons.
Now that Stewart Haas Racing is with Ford, there's at least some reasonable hope for that brand to break its long dry spell at Darlington. Ford is looking to snap a 10-year winless drought at the speedway. Harvick leads the way for this camp, with one-career Darlington victory, but we believe Brad Keselowski could be nearly as dangerous in this event as the No. 2 team has been coming on stronger in recent races. Considering how well the teams of Harvick and Keselowski are performing right now, 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 on fire the last few weeks, and that plays a major factor this weekend at Darlington Raceway. Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led close to 600 laps for his career at the Darlington track. Four of his last five trips to the South Carolina raceway have netted Top-10 finishes. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is fresh off a dominant performance at Bristol Motor Speedway before the off-weekend, and he's coming to this challenging track at the right time to challenge for the win.
Martin Truex Jr. - The intermediate and larger ovals have been this team's true strength throughout the season. The recent win at Kentucky and Top-3 finishes at Pocono and Michigan are not lost on us coming to Darlington Raceway. Truex's Darlington history shows one win and five Top 10s in 11-career starts or a less-than-impressive 45-percent rate. However, it's his strong performance and victory in this event one-year ago that grabs our attention. Truex took the lead late in the event from Kevin Harvick and out-lasted the Stewart Haas Racing star to pick up his first-career Darlington win. Never count out the No. 78 Furniture Row racing team on these intermediate ovals, and Truex now has the winning resume at Darlington Raceway.
Brad Keselowski - The Penske Racing star now has eight-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 hotter drivers in the series on these larger ovals. With 169-laps led, one pole position, one runner-up finish and two Top-5 finishes in the last five events raced on intermediate and larger ovals, Keselowski rides a strong streak into Darlington. He's qualified on the front row each of the last two seasons at Darlington Raceway. During this recent span the veteran driver has led 243 laps and claimed runner-up and ninth-place finishes. Right now Keselowski is racing as well as he ever has in his career at this particular oval.
Kyle Larson - The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver will look forward to a return to the larger tracks. Bristol was a bit of a frustrating experience, albeit a Top-10 finish for Larson. The off-weekend has surely helped him to refocus for the Chase. Larson has a victory and runner-up finish in two of his last four starts on ovals larger than 1.5-mile in size. That bodes well for the CGR No. 42 team coming into the Bojangles' Southern 500. Larson has three Top-10 finishes in his three-career starts at this facility, including his 45 laps led and career-best third-place finish in this event one year ago. We expect the young driver to stay on a roll this weekend in South Carolina.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning
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 three 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 four-race Top-5 streak at the South Carolina oval into this weekend. Harvick also has well over 500-laps led at Darlington in just his last three starts. The Bojangles' Southern 500 is a tremendous opportunity for this driver and team to challenge for a win.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin is the x-factor in fantasy racing leagues this week. After an up-and-down performance early in the season, the last few weeks have seen this veteran driver get it together in a big way. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one victory and five Top-5 finishes in the seven races prior to this weekend, so he's riding the hot hand coming into Sunday night. Hamlin has impeccable Darlington stats with one win and nine Top-10 finishes in 11-career starts. That works out to a stellar 81-percent Top-10 rate at this unique oval. With 427 laps led in 11-career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race the Track Too Tough to Tame. 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.
Erik Jones - The rookie Furniture Row Racing driver makes the solid plays list for the first time this weekend, and for good reason. Jones has gone from inconsistency earlier this season to predictable excellence on a near-weekly basis. This will be his first-career start at Darlington Raceway, but there's little cause for concern. Jones has been slicing and dicing his way through track debuts all summer. He now has nine Top-10 finishes for the season and rides a four-race Top-10 streak entering this weekend's action. That includes Jones' wonderful 260-lap led and runner-up finish at Bristol before the off-week. Four of his last five starts on ovals of 1.5-mile in size and larger have netted Top 10s. Yes, there's good reason to believe the No. 77 Toyota team will be very impressive this Sunday night.
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth has been racing hard the last several weeks trying to make a case for his continued employment as a NASCAR driver in 2019. The soon-to-be free agent driver has nabbed five Top-10 finishes in the last six races. Darlington Raceway should provide the No. 20 Toyota team with an opportunity to impress potential suitors for his services next season. Kenseth enters this event with a strong 92.9 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 he has four Top 10s in his last five starts at Darlington Raceway.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Darlington who can provide a solid finish
Chase Elliott - The budding Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to improve his consistency with the playoffs just around the corner. 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 two-career starts at Darlington Raceway. Elliott's rookie outing was a tough crash and DNF, however, he improved dramatically last season. In this event one year ago he cruised to a 10th-place finish. With Top-10 finishes recently at Pocono and Michigan, the high-end muscle and horsepower needed to succeed at Darlington is in place for this driver and team.
Kurt Busch - After enduring a spring and early-summer slump, it appears that the SHR No. 41 team is getting pointed back in the right direction and gearing up for the Chase. Busch has finishes of sixth-, 11th- and fifth-place in his last three starts leading up to this weekend. Darlington has been a real mixed bag for this driver in recent years. Busch has been very boom or bust. He's qualified in the first two rows (including one pole) over the last four Darlington events, so speed has not been a problem. The finishes leave something to be desired with one Top-10, two Top-15 and two DNF's in that four-race span. We have good reason to believe this weekend's effort will be in the upside portion of the ledger. Busch and the No. 41 team have endured their slump and are now racing very well. It all points to a potential Top-10 finish in this 367-lap battle under the lights.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer hit a bit of a skid the last couple races with poor outings at Michigan and Bristol. It wasn't for a lack of speed, but had more to do with bad luck than anything else. The driver of the No. 14 Ford will look to hit the reset button this Sunday night at an oval that favors veteran drivers over younger drivers. Bowyer has 11-career starts at Darlington Raceway, and that places him within the Top 10 among active drivers. That experience will come in handy in the Bojangles' Southern 500. Bowyer has three Top-15 finishes in his last five Darlington starts. While that's not world-beating figures, it is consistent and safe. Factor in that he'll be bringing his best car to Darlington in a number of years, and the high end potential becomes apparent.
Jamie McMurray - The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has been solid and consistent in recent races. Finishes of 14th-, ninth- and 12th-place have been his last three efforts at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol. 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 16-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 four Top-15 finishes in those seven 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.
Ryan Newman - The Richard Childress Racing veteran is riding a two-race Top-10 streak coming to South Carolina this weekend. In fact, Top-5 finishes recently at Indianapolis and Michigan signal that the No. 31 team is in great shape on the larger speedways right now. Newman has a great career history at the Track Too Tough to Tame. He's fetched seven Top-5 and 12 Top-10 finishes there in his 18 starts. That's a very respectable 39- and 67- percent Top-5 and -10 rate. In this event one year ago Rocket Man peddled his Chevrolet to a strong eighth-place finish in the Bojangles' Southern 500. The high-line, rim-riding style of racing at this facility plays to Newman's strengths.
Chris Buescher - The "reach in the hat" deep sleeper this weekend is Buescher and his JTG Daugherty Racing team. The driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet has had a strong second-half of the summer racing on these larger ovals. Finishes of 10th-, 16th-, ninth-, and sixth-place have been his body of work at Daytona, Kentucky, Indianapolis and Michigan since the start of July. The talented driver has really proven his worth for this new race team. Buescher has just one-career start at Darlington Raceway, but it was a very sound 17th-place finish in this event one year ago. He presents some real fantasy racing value at Darlington in weekly lineup and salary cap leagues.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Jimmie Johnson - The seven-time Monster Energy Cup Series champion is a hot mess right now. Johnson has only one Top 10 in his last eight starts, and he has three DNF's during the span. He's clearly reeling coming to Darlington. Johnson is a three-time winner at the egg-shaped oval, and he has an impressive 67-percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at Darlington Raceway. However, he's not challenged the Top 10 in his last two starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Those efforts have netted 19th- and 33rd-place finishes for Johnson and the No. 48 team. The indicators and recent history look very troubling for this star driver. It's best to keep Johnson benched for the time being.
Joey Logano - Speaking of troubled veteran drivers, we'd be irresponsible if we didn't mention Logano's name this weekend. The Penske Racing star is mired in a deep slump right now. He has only two Top 10s in his last eight starts, and rides a four-race Top-10 drought into South Carolina this Sunday night. Logano has been perplexingly bad at some of his better tracks recently. Mystifying power outages at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol bring the reeling Logano into Darlington weekend. Darlington Raceway has yielded four Top 10s to Logano in eight-career starts, so it's a respectable 50-percent track for him. However, given the current state of distress in the No. 22 Ford team, it's best to play it safe this weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt hasn't raced at the high banks of Darlington since the 2015 season. That long layoff certainly won't help this slumping driver this Sunday night. The Hendrick Motorsports star is coming off another disappointing finish (23rd) at Bristol Motor Speedway and he's watching his chances to win a race and qualify for the Chase for the Cup slowly disappear. Despite Earnhardt's 10-career Top-10 finishes at Darlington (48-percent) we have to recommend avoiding the No. 88 Chevrolet team this week. It's really unfortunate that he's had the struggles that he has had in his final season of racing, but we would not recommend pinning your fantasy racing hopes on this driver turning in a rebound performance at Darlington.
Kasey Kahne - The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet limps into Darlington weekend. Kahne surprised everyone at Indianapolis a few weeks ago with the big victory, but since then he's cooled rather dramatically. Finishes of 11th-, 16th-, 38th- and 24th-place have been his body of work since the win at the Brickyard. Kahne's Darlington stats have been hit or miss over the years. Early on he racked up three poles and a pair of Top-5 finishes while with owner Ray Evernham. More recently Kahne has been more off than on at this tough oval. One Top-10 finish in his last four trips to South Carolina have dropped his career average finish to 15.1. Given his recent struggles, we don't believe he'll be anywhere near that mark at the conclusion of 500-miles this Sunday night.