Cook Out Southern 500 Preview: Championship Chase Begins

Cook Out Southern 500 Preview: Championship Chase Begins

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 and is really unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway but somewhere in between. The course has two distinctly different sets of turns, with turns three and four being much narrower than turns one and two. 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 variable banking of 23-to-25 degrees 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 three-wide racing action of Daytona, we're in for a

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 and is really unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway but somewhere in between. The course has two distinctly different sets of turns, with turns three and four being much narrower than turns one and two. 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 variable banking of 23-to-25 degrees 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 three-wide racing action of Daytona, 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 NASCAR Cup Series schedule.

This weekend's race will be the first race in the 2022 Chase for the Cup. NASCAR changed the schedule two seasons ago and moved the start of the Chase from Las Vegas to the unique oval in Darlington. The stars of NASCAR will head to the Track Too Tough to Tame to kick off this season's playoffs. We'll need to take into account several factors this weekend. Firstly, we'll need to examine the current hot streaks, as the trending drivers should carry their streaks of success or struggles into Darlington. Secondly, we'll need to take a look at how the drivers have performed on similar ovals this season. The intermediate oval is the most widely used track on the circuit, so we have plenty of data to examine. Lastly, we'll take an in-depth look at the race earlier this season at Darlington Raceway. That data will have some relevance for this weekend, even though that event was held way back in May. The crew chiefs' notes should be very helpful for the teams that finished well in that race as they look to repeat their success this weekend.

Figuring out our driver group this weekend won't be too much of a challenge. The recent hot streaks coming into the weekend will prove to be a bit of a wrinkle, but historical trends should run pretty true. We have already raced once at Darlington earlier this season, so we have very good and very recent data to examine. There's 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 17 years or 21 races at Darlington Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Larson8.93083276862,626109.0
Denny Hamlin7.87183987866,250107.6
Kevin Harvick9.97154127995,945103.7
Martin Truex Jr.11.56634777215,218103.6
Kyle Busch13.07263687445,943100.3
Joey Logano13.55821332294,45294.6
Erik Jones11.83241131092,19792.1
Brad Keselowski12.44322263843,80391.6
Chase Elliott 17.44611391512,74989.1
Kurt Busch16.37073091965,22786.8
William Byron19.926944271,80086.0
Tyler Reddick12.523255121,23385.7
Ryan Blaney19.122566171,31376.0
Austin Dillon11.92532601,61675.2
Christopher Bell18.2179391687074.7
Alex Bowman19.2247131421,36873.9
Aric Almirola17.83121801,63971.0
Ross Chastain22.2101473761667.3
Chris Buescher17.41902711,25267.1
Austin Cindric18.0261209966.2

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 11 races at the South Carolina oval. Chevrolet has been shut out since 2014 and is looking to end a long dry spell at the egg-shaped track. Toyota drivers have had the most success at the facility in the last few seasons. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have racked up seven of the last 11 victories at the 1.366-mile oval, with Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin sweeping both Darlington races last season.

The 2022 season and the launch of the new next generation stock car have led to a bit of a shakeup at all the tracks, and Darlington hasn't been immune to that phenomenon. Joey Logano returned Ford to victory lane here in May of this year for the first time since 2020. The race would feature a whopping 24 lead changes, but Logano would still manage to lead a race-high 107 laps and hold off Tyler Reddick for the win. It was the Penske Racing star's first career victory at the Track Too Tough to Tame, but likely not his last. Logano enters the Chase for the Cup on a pretty good streak of consistency and will be tasked with keeping Ford on top here at Darlington Raceway. Outlined below are the fantasy racing drivers you need to put in your lineups for Sunday night's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Larson – The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion comes to Darlington to kick off his title defense. Fortunately for Larson, this is one of his better ovals. He's never won at the Track Too Tough to Tame, but he's finished runner-up or third in five of his last seven starts at the South Carolina raceway. Larson has led close to 700-career laps at this facility and cracks the Top 5 at a surprising 56-percent rate. The high-line, wall-hugging racing of Darlington Raceway really suits Larson's driving skills well. He loves the rim-riding action of this track. You really couldn't have hand-picked a better race track for the Hendrick Motorsports star to kick off his championship defense. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet will be one of the top drivers to beat Sunday night.      

Joey Logano – The last several weeks have been a time of focus for Logano. An inconsistent season has seemingly been reversed in recent races and the Penske Racing star is ready for the playoffs. Logano has four Top 10s in the last five races and has 251 combined laps led during this span. He's coming off a respectable 12th-place finish in the Daytona demolition derby and is looking to challenge for a championship. Darlington Raceway has been a mediocre track over the years for the driver of the No. 22 Ford. Logano racked up his first win at the Track Too Tough to Tame earlier this season and now has a 53 percent Top-10 rate at the South Carolina oval. Over his last five starts at Darlington, he's grabbed four Top 10s for an 80 percent rate, which is above his career average here. Logano is a good bet to challenge for the win in the Cook Out Southern 500.   

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has had an inconsistent season, but he's still managed to scratch the win column a couple times in the regular season. He's always dangerous at his best tracks and we expect him to be in that kind of form at Darlington Raceway Sunday night. Hamlin has impeccable Darlington stats, with four wins and 15 Top-10 finishes in 20 career starts.  That works out to a stellar 75-percent Top-10 rate at this unique oval.  With close to 800 laps led in 20 career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race the Track Too Tough to Tame. He won this event one year ago in the old generation stock car, but he's far from finished collecting hardware at this oval. Hamlin is always a threat to win at Darlington Raceway. 

Chase Elliott – The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion will kick off his quest for a second championship Sunday at Darlington. Elliott has been turning up his performance of late with this in mind. He has four victories already this season, and three of those have come since the end of June. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has never won at the Track Too Tough to Tame, but Elliott has Top 10s in two of his last three visits to South Carolina, including his strong fifth-place finish there this spring. That has boosted his Top-10 rate at Darlington Raceway to a respectable 46-percent. It has taken Elliott some time to figure this track out (11 starts) but it's clear he's becoming more comfortable here. He knows the easiest path to advancing in the Chase is to snag a win Sunday night in this 500-mile battle.

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

Tyler Reddick – Reddick has raced well leading up to the Chase for the Cup. He's coming off seventh- and second-place finishes at Watkins Glen and Daytona. The Richard Childress Racing youngster has been steady on the intermediate ovals this season with a pair of Top 10s and 61 total laps led. Darlington Raceway in particular has offered up a couple Top 10s in six starts for Reddick. The most recent outing here netted a brilliant runner-up finish in May's Goodyear 400. That has been Reddick's best Darlington performance to date, and noteworthy from the standpoint that it came in the new generation stock car.   

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star was just edged from the playoffs by Ryan Blaney last weekend. A mere three points is all that stood between Truex and the Chase for the Cup. It wasn't for a lack of effort though. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota fetched three Top 10s in the four races leading up to the regular season finale at Daytona. The veteran driver will look to finish out the season and should be considered a fantasy racing asset down the stretch. Truex has been consistent this season on mid-sized ovals with three Top 10s and a respectable 9.0 average finish across five races. He also has had a lot of success at Darlington Raceway. Truex is a two-time victor here and sports a solid 50-percent Top-10 rate at the egg-shaped oval for his career.

Kevin Harvick – The good news for Harvick is that he made the playoff field with a couple late-season victories at Michigan and Richmond during August. Now the points reset, which gives this veteran driver a good reboot for the Chase for the Cup. 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 has three poles, three wins, one runner-up finish and well over 700 laps led in his last 13 Darlington starts. That has led to an amazing 13-race Top 10 streak at the Track Too Tough to Tame entering this weekend. This high-groove style of racing has been a big success for Harvick and the No. 4 SHR team, so he'll be on his game in Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500.

Christopher Bell – The driver of the No. 20 Toyota hasn't enjoyed much success at Darlington Raceway, but his first start in a Next-Gen car here this spring netted some good results. Bell started third on the grid that afternoon and peddled to an impressive sixth-place finish in the Goodyear 400. That coincides nicely with Bell's performance on mid-sized ovals this season. He has two poles, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes along with 85 laps led. It's clear that the young Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a good handle on this sized oval in the new generation stock car. Bell should be a Top-10 threat Sunday evening in the Cook Out Southern 500.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Darlington & solid upside

Kyle Busch – Busch's one Darlington win (2008) is not particularly recent, so he's not a major threat to win this race. However, his consistency at this facility has been pretty flawless for most of his career. Busch has three Top 10s in his last five starts at this Raceway and that has boosted his career stats to 13 Top-10 finishes at the Track Too Tough to Tame for a strong 62-percent Top-10 rate. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led 744 career laps at this facility, so Busch isn't just riding in line when he races here. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is looking to make a big impression with possible free agency looming and a potential championship in the balance.

Ross Chastain – Chastain was on fire for much of the season but has cooled a bit in recent races. Still, his performance on mid-sized ovals is worthy of high praise and fantasy consideration this weekend. Chastain has racked up three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes this season on those ovals, good for a mind-blowing average finish of 5.8. As for Darlington Raceway, Chastain has six career starts at this track, but his last three are the most noteworthy. The Trackhouse Racing veteran has led a combined 37 laps here in those races and has nabbed one Top-5 and two Top-15 finishes. Chastain has struggled with consistency of late and has had a penchant for finding trouble on the track. That's the risk this Sunday and the reason for sleepers' list inclusion.          

Erik Jones – The Petty GMS Motorsports veteran recently announced an extension to stay with this team in 2023, and it comes as no surprise. Jones has been quite consistent this season and has grabbed two Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes. The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet absolutely loves racing at Darlington Raceway. Jones is a one-time winner here (2019), and his six Top 10s check in at a strong 67 percent Top-10 rate at the track. His last two starts here have been forgettable, but we'll give him a mulligan for those.  Jones is racing very well right now and clearly loves the high-line racing style that is the key to success at Darlington.      

Austin Dillon – This past Sunday's Daytona winner got the last-second pass into the Chase for the Cup as a result of that win. Now Dillon will look to carry that momentum into the playoffs. Darlington Raceway is a good follow up track for the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet, as Dillon has five Top-10 finishes in 12 career starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame, with three of those coming in his last four starts. The veteran driver now sports a respectable 42-percent Top-10 rate at Darlington and a strong 11.9 average finish. Dillon understands the high-groove style of racing that it takes to succeed at this challenging oval.

Chris Buescher – Buescher has had a nice season, and while he won't be a part of the playoffs, he'll get to show off his skill with more good performances down the stretch. The Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing veteran has Top 10's in three of the five races leading up to the Chase. Buescher has just two career Top-10 finishes at Darlington Raceway, but the good news is that they've both come in his last three starts at the South Carolina oval. He's been gradually improving here and he's whittled his average finish at Darlington down to a respectable 17.4. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has had kind of a mixed season on the mid-sized ovals, but right now Buescher is racing the best he has all year. He makes a tempting choice in weekly lineup leagues this Sunday.

Austin Cindric – It's clear that as we close in on the end of his rookie season, Cindric is beginning to come of age. The last five weeks alone, he's registered a pair of Top-5 and four Top-15 finishes for a steady 13.4 average finish. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is beginning to figure this Next Gen car out and crew chief Jeremy Bullins is a part of that success. Mid-sized ovals have been a mixed bag for Cindric, but his highlights of third place at Atlanta and 11th place at Kansas can't be overlooked. The Penske Racing rookie's start here earlier this year was a subpar 18th-place finish, but we expect an improvement this time around. Cindric was a 50-percent Top-10 finisher at Darlington in six Xfinity Series starts, so he knows this track well.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

William Byron – Byron limps into the playoffs on a 10-race Top-10 drought, as he hasn't visited the Top 10 since the Sonoma road circuit in the early summer. Darlington Raceway isn't the best track for Byron to shake this slump heading into the Chase for the Cup. Eight career starts at this challenging oval have only netted two Top 10s and an inflated 19.9 average finish for Byron. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has struggled in his last three stars on mid-sized ovals. A subpar 16th-place finish at Kansas was followed by two crashes and DNFs at both Charlotte and Atlanta. It's best to keep Byron on the fantasy racing bench this weekend. 

Kurt Busch – It was announced last week that Busch will miss the start of the playoffs as he continues to deal with concussion-related symptoms from his crash at Pocono Raceway several weeks ago. That's really unfortunate, because the veteran driver has had his share of success at Darlington Raceway in recent seasons. Six of his last nine starts in South Carolina have netted Top 10's. The young prospect Ty Gibbs will be in Busch's No. 45 Toyota this weekend, and he's worth a passing glance in deep fantasy leagues and lower driver tiers, but Busch won't suit up this weekend at Darlington.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney squeaked his way into the playoffs by a mere 3 points at Daytona last weekend. The young driver of the No. 12 Ford gets a new lease on his racing season with the points reset and his entry into the Chase for the Cup. However, we couldn't be visiting a much worse oval from the standpoint of Blaney's historical performance. The young Penske Racing star has just one Top-10 finish in 11 career starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame and an inflated 19.1 average finish. Blaney's start at Darlington earlier this spring netted a very subpar 17th-place finish in the Goodyear 400. Mid-sized ovals have been a real struggle this season for Blaney in the new generation stock car.    

Brad Keselowski – The Penske Racing star is a top Darlington Performer with one win and eight Top-10 finishes, which works out to a solid 12.4 average finish at the egg-shaped track. However, 2022 has been a lean season for the owner and driver of the No. 6 Ford. Keselowski comes to Darlington mired in a six-race Top-10 slump and remains a distant 29th place in the championship points. It's just been a disastrous season for Keselowski on every front. Mid-sized ovals this season have been a real puzzle for Keselowski. With two finishes inside the Top 15 vs. two finishes outside the Top 20, his average finish stands at 19.6 on these size tracks in 2022. The veteran driver presents little upside for Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500.   

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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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