Cookout Southern 500 Preview: Let the Chase Begin

Cookout Southern 500 Preview: Let the Chase Begin

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The first race in the 2020 Chase for the Cup is on tap this weekend.  NASCAR changed the schedule this season and moved the start of the Chase from Las Vegas to the unique oval in Darlington, as the Track Too Tough to Tame will kick off this season's playoffs.  

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.  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 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 straight-aways as they accelerate coming out of the turns.  This historic

The first race in the 2020 Chase for the Cup is on tap this weekend.  NASCAR changed the schedule this season and moved the start of the Chase from Las Vegas to the unique oval in Darlington, as the Track Too Tough to Tame will kick off this season's playoffs.  

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.  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 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 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 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.

We'll need to take into account several factors this weekend.  First, we'll need to examine the current hot streaks, as the trending drivers should carry their streaks of success or struggles into Darlington.  Second, 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.  Last, we'll take an in-depth look at the races earlier this season at Darlington Raceway.  That data will have some relevance for this weekend, even though those events were held way back in May.  The crew chiefs' notes should be very helpful for the teams that finished well that weekend 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 twice at Darlington earlier this season, so we have very good and very recent data to examine.  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 15 years or 17 races at Darlington Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Denny Hamlin7.25583045745,025106.7
Erik Jones5.4201771061,503106.6
Kevin Harvick11.25233637364,785103.5
Kyle Busch11.45973207165,070102.9
Brad Keselowski10.43461903803,33099.9
Martin Truex Jr.11.15152872484,04999.6
Jimmie Johnson14.94542983363,95895.3
Joey Logano15.8395891223,21589.5
Matt Kenseth12.44241551523,45289.1
Ryan Newman12.5463821784,00188.7
Kurt Busch15.65602351784,36188.4
Chase Elliott 18.326980371,65987.8
Tyler Reddick10.04514024781.1
William Byron25.811819382378.7
Clint Bowyer21.3371153882,81677.4
Alex Bowman19.01301074176676.0
Austin Dillon13.31541801,04675.3
Aric Almirola17.619213091572.7
Ryan Blaney19.98234052372.5
Chris Buescher19.0927070465.2

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 seven 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 five of the last seven victories at the 1.366-mile oval.  In addition to that Toyota driver, Denny Hamlin, visited victory lane at Darlington back in mid-May.  The way the No. 11 JGR team is performing right now, that has to put a smile on Hamlin's face coming to South Carolina this weekend to start the playoffs.

The other Darlington winner from mid-May was Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Ford team.  His dominant performance kicked off NASCAR's resumption of racing after the Coronavirus shut down.  The effort netted Harvick his second-career win at the track.  He'll be the top contender from this manufacturer this Sunday night.  If Chevrolet hopes to regain the top of the heap at the Tack Too Tough to Tame, a handful of drivers from the bowtie brand will lead the way.  Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman will lead the way for this manufacturer.  Elliott will likely be the lead contender of this trio.  He's been coming on strong of late, and nearly won in his last start at Darlington but Kyle Busch accidentally put him in the wall in the closing laps.  Assuming this trio of Chevrolet drivers and the other contenders can avoid the "Darlington Stripe", a NASCAR slang 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 Cookout Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is a must-start in fantasy racing leagues this week.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has one victory and four Top-3 finishes in the five races prior to this weekend, so he's been one of the top performing drivers in the series of late.  Hamlin has impeccable Darlington stats with three wins and 13 Top-10 finishes in 16-career starts.  That works out to a stellar 81-percent Top-10 rate at this unique oval.  With over 550 laps led in 16-career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race the Track Too Tough to Tame.  His last start at the South Carolina oval in May saw Hamlin take the lead from Chase Elliott late in the Toyota 500 and hang on for career win number three at the historic race track. 

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 2014.  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 has three poles, two wins, one runner-up finish and well over 650 laps led in his last eight Darlington starts.  This high-groove style of racing is clearly warming up to Harvick and his No. 4 SHR team.  Given his impressive victory at this oval in mid-May, we could see him back in victory lane this Sunday night.   

Martin Truex Jr. – The intermediate and larger ovals have been this team's true strength throughout the season.  The amazing eight-race Top-5 streak that Truex carries into this weekend is not lost on us coming to Darlington Raceway.  Truex's Darlington history shows one win and eight Top 10's in 16-career starts or a strong 50-percent Top-10 rate.  However, it's his incredible recent level of performance that grabs our attention entering the Chase.  Truex bucked his recent Daytona history last Saturday night and fetched an uncharacteristic fourth-place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.  This driver and team are running like a well-oiled machine right now.  Truex has the potential to sneak up and win this 500-mile battle under the lights to kick off the playoffs.          

Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports youngster is looking to assert his presence among the championship-contending drivers with the playoffs just getting underway.  Elliott has been tuning up his performance of late with this in mind.  He has one win, one runner-up finish and over 60 laps led in just the last four events.  We believe morale and motivation are already at a high level in the No. 9 Chevrolet team.  Elliott has seven-career starts at Darlington Raceway with two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in those efforts.  Those are not eye-popping numbers, but we remember well how close Elliott came to winning in his last start at the Track Too Tough to Tame before late-race contact from Kyle Busch ended his chances.   

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

Kyle Busch – Busch's career stats at the Darlington oval may not be his 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 had an inconsistent season, but we believe he'll find high gear for the playoffs.  Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led well over 700 laps for his career at the Darlington track.  Four of his last five trips to the South Carolina raceway have netted Top-10 finishes, including his brilliant runner-up finish in his last start at the facility in May.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led a lot of laps at the Darlington oval, but he's found it tough securing the victories.  That makes Busch more of a driver outside the top tier of contenders this week.

Brad Keselowski – The Penske Racing star now has 13-career starts at Darlington Raceway, and the results have been considerably improving in recent outings.  Right now, he's looking to kick off the Chase for the Cup in good fashion.  Keselowski is carrying a three-race Top-10 streak into South Carolina so he'll have some real momentum as we start the playoffs.  Keselowski won the Bojangles' Southern 500 two seasons ago for his first-career Darlington victory.  He's led over 350 combined laps in his last seven Darlington races, and Keselowski has claimed Top 10's in five of those seven outings.  His consistency at this oval right now is impressive.  Although we don't believe he'll be a major threat to win this event, he should be a face among the Top 10 when 500-miles of action are complete this Sunday night.

Kurt Busch – Busch is mired in a four-race Top-10 drought that has had more to do with bad luck than a lack of speed.  He'll look to reverse his fortunes at one of his better ovals to start the Chase for the Cup.  Darlington Raceway has become a very successful track for the veteran driver in the last several seasons.  Four of his last five starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame have netted Top-10 finishes.  That now makes 10-career Top 10's for Busch at this challenging oval, and it has boosted his career average to 40-percent.  With the playoffs starting the No. 1 Chevy team gets to hit the reset button this weekend.  Busch will be fast and competitive in Sunday night's Cookout Southern 500.

Erik Jones – The young Joe Gibbs Racing driver makes the solid plays list this weekend, and for good reason.  Jones has been uber-consistent all season long on the intermediate ovals.  Top-10 finishes at Fort Worth and Kansas this summer are just the latest examples.  The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has five Top-5 finishes in his five-career starts at Darlington Raceway.  That level of performance makes this track easily his best on the circuit.  With an average finish of 5.4 in those starts and a stellar 106.6 driver rating, Jones is one of the top Darlington performers in this race field.  He should be equally impressive in this Sunday night's 500-mile battle under the lights. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Darlington & solid upside

Joey Logano – Outside of his crash at Daytona this past Saturday night, Logano has been rock solid of late.  The Penske Racing star had a six-race Top-10 streak ended by his misfortune at Daytona.  Darlington Raceway has been a mixed bag for Logano over his 12-season career. He owns six Top-10 finishes in 13-career starts for a respectable 46-percent rate.  However, Logano's last look at the Track Too Tough to Tame left us with a good impression.  He peddled the No. 22 Ford Mustang to a respectable sixth-place finish in the Toyota 500 in May.  Logano is squarely in contention to win this season's championship, and a good start to the Chase for the Cup will be incredibly important.    

William Byron – The young Hendrick Motorsports driver is fresh off his first-career win at Daytona this past week. Byron upset some of the biggest names in the sport to capture his first victory in NASCAR's top division.  For an encore performance, he'll try to duplicate that feat at Darlington Raceway.  Byron's four-career starts at this oval have netted one pole position and one Top-15 finish, so the accomplishments to this point have been thin.  However, we do like the momentum of the Daytona victory to propel the No. 24 team to greater heights this weekend.  Byron has been heating up of late with a win and three Top-10 finishes in his last four races.  His fourth-place finish on the high banks of Dover could be a good preview of what to expect this Sunday night.

Alex Bowman – Coming off fifth- and seventh-place finishes the last two events, Bowman is doing everything he can to wrap up the 2020 season on a positive note.  His spot in the playoff field was secured by his early-season victory at Fontana.  Now Bowman will attempt to make a deep drive into the playoffs.  Darlington Raceway has not been a good oval for the young driver.  However, he did turn in a very impressive and career-best Darlington performance in mid-May's return to racing.  Bowman started on the outside pole, led 41 laps and finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick in the Real Heroes 400.  The experience should yield some very helpful notes for the car setup and give this team the opportunity to start the Chase for the Cup with a potential Top-10 finish.          

Austin Dillon – The Richard Childress Racing veteran didn't quite get the finish he wanted at Daytona this past weekend, coming home 25th-place.  Still, Dillon has been performing well of late and has two Top-10's and three Top 15's in the last four events.  Darlington Raceway has been a pretty decent oval for this veteran driver over the years.  In eight starts Dillon has netted two Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes for an average finish of 13.2.  He's never finished off the lead lap here and is always competitive.  Dillon's 11th-place finish in May's the Real Heroes 400 is a good example of what to expect this Sunday evening.  Fantasy racing deployment should be pretty safe with high ceiling potential returns.         

Tyler Reddick – The talented rookie served notice in May of this year he would be a force in the 2020 season.  Reddick's seventh- and 13th-place Darlington finishes grabbed immediate attention.  Times have been a bit tougher of late for the No. 8 Chevrolet team, but this race has rebound potential written all over it.  This will be Reddick's third look at the Track Too Tough to Tame in a Cup Series race car.  His results here in May are a confidence building experience.  Reddick nabbed second- and third-place finishes in three Xfinity Series starts at this oval, so clearly the high-groove racing style of Darlington appeals to Reddick.  He makes a great fantasy racing consideration in tired driver group leagues and salary-cap based games.     

Matt DiBenedetto – DiBenedetto used good moves on the race track and some good luck to squeeze his way into the Chase for the Cup playoffs after Daytona last weekend.  His 12th-place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 not only propelled the No. 21 team into the playoffs, but it was DiBenedetto's third Top-15 finish in the last five races.  Since the journeyman driver moved into better equipment in 2019, his level of performance at this facility has gone in the right direction.  DiBenedetto's last three starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame have yielded finishes of eighth-, 14th- and ninth-place.  That's a fantastic average of 10.3 across the span.  Knowing that he's participating in his first NASCAR playoffs will be a big psychological boost too.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Blaney – Blaney is a big wildcard in this event.  With just one Top-10 finish in the last five events, he's been underperforming entering the playoffs.  His seven-career starts at Darlington Raceway have only netted three Top-15 finishes, so this track has not been a place of vast success for the Penske Racing driver.  The average finish checks in at a lowly 19.9 and Darlington ranks in the bottom quarter of his tracks on the circuit in terms of average finish.  Blaney's 16th- and 21st-place finishes at the South Carolina raceway in May are likely a good indicator of what to expect this Sunday night.  That level of performance does not warrant a fantasy racing start for Blaney in the Cookout Southern 500.     

Jimmie Johnson – The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion stumbled and fell just short of making the playoffs this past weekend at Daytona.  His 17th-place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 eliminated the No. 48 team from the Chase for the Cup in his final season of NASCAR racing.  Johnson is a three-time winner at the egg-shaped oval, and he has an impressive 57-percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at Darlington Raceway.  However, he's only cracked the Top 10 once in his last seven starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame.  Those efforts have netted an average finish of 23.6 for Johnson and the No. 48 team across the seven-race span.  The indicators and recent history look very troubling for this star driver.  It's best to keep Johnson benched for the time being.    

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Last weekend's Daytona race was the week to deploy Stenhouse to maximum effect in fantasy leagues.  Unfortunately, he and the No. 47 team failed to impress.  Stenhouse crashed and finished 32nd in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.  The veteran driver is limping into the schedule's last 10 races.  Stenhouse's finishes outside the Top 30 the last two events have dropped him to 24th-place in the championship point standings.  Unfortunately, Darlington Raceway will not be the track to help him turn things around.  He's labored for years at this tough race track.  Stenhouse has just one Top-15 finish in nine-career starts at Darlington, and an inflated average finish of 25.9.  His 40th- and 25th-place finishes here in May of this year only underscore our thoughts. 

Clint Bowyer – Another tough season is winding down for Bowyer and the No. 14 team.  The veteran driver has just seven Top 10's to this point in the campaign, but still managed to wiggle his way into the Chase for the Cup playoffs.  Bowyer is fresh off an uninspiring 19th-place finish at Daytona and looking to drive deep into the playoffs with a good start at Darlington.  The Track Too Tough to Tame has been a real puzzle for Bowyer over the years.  With just two Top-10 finishes in 16-career starts, the 13-percent Top-10 rate doesn't inspire much hope.  The No. 14 SHR team gave Bowyer a great car here in May's Toyota 500, but after leading 71 laps Bowyer would make hard contact with the wall and finish a disappointing 22nd-place.  That's more-or-less been the story of Bowyer's career at this race track. 

Want to Read More?
Subscribe to RotoWire to see the full article.

We reserve some of our best content for our paid subscribers. Plus, if you choose to subscribe you can discuss this article with the author and the rest of the RotoWire community.

Get Instant Access To This Article Get Access To This Article
RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only NASCAR Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire NASCAR fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
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.
F1 and NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks selections for the Chinese Grand Prix and GEICO 500
F1 and NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks selections for the Chinese Grand Prix and GEICO 500
NASCAR DFS: GEICO 500
NASCAR DFS: GEICO 500
GEICO 500 Preview: Superspeedway Battle
GEICO 500 Preview: Superspeedway Battle
NASCAR Barometer: Chase Elliott Breaks Winless Streak
NASCAR Barometer: Chase Elliott Breaks Winless Streak