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Bojangles' Southern 500 Preview: The Darlington Stripe

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The track "Too Tough to Tame" is the next stop on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval unlike any race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a short track, but somewhere in 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 23-25-degree banking and wide racing grooves makes for some of the most exciting, side-by-side racing that NASCAR has to offer. The first thing the casual fan notices when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the corners. 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 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- and four-wide drafting action of Talladega, we're in for a big change this weekend. The rim-riding action of Darlington 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 weekend, the loop data from Darlington Raceway will be an extremely important component in developing a list of fantasy racing drivers. 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 seven years or seven races at Darlington Raceway.

Jeff Gordon4.12201721872,420116.2
Greg Biffle14.01942545581,802109.7
Denny Hamlin6.51971512981,755108.3
Jimmie Johnson11.41921551821,769100.6
Ryan Newman10.0147601642,073100.2
Kyle Busch17.12651602792,05699.6
Kasey Kahne16.11321652711,62096.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.019659351,75892.5
Carl Edwards14.9204119941,63392.4
Martin Truex Jr.12.317981731,25391.5
Tony Stewart11.7216100121,45688.1
Brad Keselowski7.3778070187.3
Jamie McMurray15.414838871,64886.8
Mark Martin11.112537461,54486.4
Jeff Burton14.718458311,62286.1
Matt Kenseth12.9147671131,30585.1
Kevin Harvick20.116578491,51484.3
Kurt Busch18.01624711,38078.8
Joey Logano23.73551956474.0
Clint Bowyer24.577221689073.6

When examining 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, Ford and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last six races at the South Carolina oval. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have had the most success at the facility in the last few seasons. Between Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, this stable has racked up two of the last four victories at the 1.366-mile oval. Last season, JGR dominance at Darlington came under fire from the Chevrolet and Ford camps. 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. Smith used brilliant pit strategy and good moves to win last season's installment of this event. The driver that he upset was Ford driver Carl Edwards. Ford is looking to snap a five-year winless drought at the speedway. Greg Biffle leads the way for this camp, with two career Darlington victories, but we believe Edwards and Matt Kenseth could be just as dangerous in this event. Considering how well all the teams of Roush Fenway Racing are performing right now, we wouldn't rule any of them out in vying for the trophy this weekend. Assuming this trio and the other contenders can avoid the "Darlington Stripe," slang 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 employ in Saturday 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 recently surging driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has flexed his muscles the last couple races, and has already one victory to his credit this season. Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led over 250 laps in his last four trips to Darlington Raceway. Considering how well he performed in this event one year ago (78 laps led) and how well Busch is running right now, the timing could be right for another trip to victory lane at the Lady in Black.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin ran into some trouble this past weekend at Talladega, and it ruined his chances to win. The JGR star should be able to shake off that Dega disappointment and focus for a run at one of his better tracks this Saturday night. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has a great diver rating in six starts at Darlington Raceway, with five Top 10s and a victory in this race two years ago. Hamlin has led close to 300 laps in his six career starts at the historic South Carolina speedway, so we're more than used to seeing him race up front here. He and crew chief Darian Grubb should have a few tricks up their sleeves for this one.

Greg Biffle -
If you're going to roll with Roush Fenway Racing this weekend, Biffle makes the most obvious choice. As the loop stats show, he has led 22 percent of the laps at Darlington Raceway in the last seven years. That's an amazing number, and almost doubles the next nearest competitor. Biffle has been one of the hottest drivers in the series to start the season, so the Darlington event is well timed in the schedule. We've seen Roush drivers win in the past at this oval (Biffle twice) so if an upset victory happens on Saturday night, it will no doubt be this veteran Ford driver.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is finding his groove coming to Darlington Raceway this week. He's riding a four-race Top 10 streak entering this event and Kahne is fresh off a fourth-place effort at Talladega Superspeedway. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet is a four-time pole winner at the Track too Tough to Tame, and he had his best outing in years at the oval in last season's Showtime Southern 500. Kahne led 124 laps from the pole, contended for the win and finished fourth. He and crew chief Kenny Francis should be able to replicate that kind of speed in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Carl Edwards -
This is more of a historical performance pick for Darlington than a trend pick. Sure, Edwards does have five Top 10s in eight career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, but his last few trips to the track have been somewhat inconsistent. That should change this weekend since we expect the driver of the No. 99 Ford to come to life at the South Carolina oval. Edwards led 57 laps at Darlington Raceway last season and battled with Regan Smith in the closing stages for the win, only finish second on the night. We expect the Roush Fenway Racing star to be very excited about the prospect of racing this oval this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Now that Earnhardt has fully thrust himself into this season's championship picture, we have to take him very serious in our weekly driver evaluations. He enters this weekend's race with a series-leading eight Top-10 finishes for the season. That has the No. 88 team positioned a lofty third in the championship standings coming to Darlington. Earnhardt really likes the high-groove racing style that Darlington Raceway dictates, so this is an oval that plays to his strengths as a driver. His last three trips to the Lady in Black have been somewhat forgettable, but we expect Earnhardt to revert to the form of earlier in his career at this facility considering his recent hot streak.

Ryan Newman -
Newman has been like the invisible man the last few weeks of racing, but we expect that to change this Saturday night. Since his big Martinsville victory, the SHR veteran driver has failed to crack the Top 10 in the last four races. That's a trend that's sure to change given Newman's love of this super speedway. His recent history at the 1.366-mile oval has been pretty spotless. He's led 164 laps and finished in the Top 10 in six of the last seven races at this facility. The team's little black note book should come in handy this weekend at Darlington Raceway. Considering the team's outside pole and fifth-place finish here a year ago, Newman should backup that impressive 69 percent career Top 10 rate at Darlington.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been the hottest driver in the series the last few weeks. He has four Top 5s in his last five races. Darlington Raceway should provide the No. 17 Ford team with another great opportunity. Kenseth enters this event with a respectable 85.1 driver rating at the historic raceway, but those numbers are sure to improve after Saturday night. Roush Fenway teams have always fared well at Darlington, and that should bode well for the Killer Bees this week. Kenseth has been red hot and we've seen him lead laps and race at the front here many times over the last few seasons.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Darlington who can provide a solid finish

Jeff Gordon -
The team too good to ignore, but experiencing a rough patch of luck lately is Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet team. Gordon has only two Top 10s on the season and is ranked a lowly 23rd in the driver standings entering this week. This is all due mostly to his horrible luck the first 10 races of this season. The veteran driver is a seven-time Darlington Raceway winner, and as recently as 2007. Gordon has seven Top-5 finishes in his last eight trips to the Track too Tough to Tame. That gives him 18 career Top 5s in 31 starts at this historic oval. That eye-popping 58 percent Top 5 rate at this facility is simply too good to ignore, bad luck or not going into Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500.

Brad Keselowski -
Last weekend's Talladega winner has only three career starts at Darlington Raceway, but all have been very respectable finishes of seventh-, 12th- and third-place. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge will look to keep his short, but spotless record at Darlington Raceway intact and carry the momentum of his Dega victory into this weekend. Keselowski showed extraordinary patience by finishing third in this event one year ago. Darlington is a tough track on young drivers, and the Penske Racing rising star handled that outing with precision. We expect no less this Saturday night.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star enters this event looking for a Top-10 finish. He has cooled a bit the last couple races since his torrid start to the season. However, the driver of the No. 56 Toyota should be rejuvenated by the prospect of visiting the Darlington oval this weekend. Truex has led 73 laps for his career at the Lady in Black and he's posted two Top 10s in his last three trips to the South Carolina oval. From an average finish standpoint, this is one of his best ovals on the circuit with a 12.3 average finish. We expect to see a steady performance from the driver of the No. 56 Toyota Camry in this 500-mile event.

Jamie McMurray -
With Top-15 finishes in his last four straight events, we have to pay close attention to McMurray for this week's race at Darlington. The No. 1 team has been getting it done in solid, yet unspectacular means of late. This past week's 11th-place finish at Talladega illustrates just how close this team is to putting up some Top-10 finishes. McMurray and the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team should have no problem carrying this momentum to Darlington Raceway. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has one career pole position and five Top 10s in 11 starts at the 1.366-mile oval. That includes 84 laps led and second- and ninth-place finishes at this facility in just his last two visits.

Jeff Burton -
Coming off the Top 10 at Talladega, Burton and the No. 31 CAT team make the perfect "old dog" play at Darlington Raceway this weekend. Burton has made 29 career starts at this tough raceway, and he's collected his share of good finishes at the oval over the years. Burton sports a 55 percent Top 10 rate at Darlington and until last season's engine failure and DNF, he had a string of ninth-, 10th-, 10th-, 12th- and eighth-place finishes at the Track too Tough to Tame in the prior five seasons. Burton should be able to parlay this experience into a Top-15 finish on Saturday night.

Regan Smith -
Last year's surprise Showtime Southern 500 winner makes the sleepers list this week. We'll never forget the No. 78 FRR team's brilliant late pit strategy and Smith's classic moves in holding off Carl Edwards for his first career Sprint Cup Series win. The journeyman driver isn't likely to repeat that performance this Saturday night, but the anticipation and optimism of returning to the scene of the crime should be enough to buoy Smith to a Top-20 finish. The Furniture Row Racing driver has a career average finish of 17.0 at the historic oval, and that sounds pretty close to the mark for this weekend's event.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Clint Bowyer -
While the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team have gotten off to a great start this season and are very visible in the hunt for a Chase berth, we have to ratchet down our expectations for Bowyer this week. This weekend the veteran driver comes to one of his tougher venues in recent seasons. Bowyer has one Top 10 in his six career Darlington outings, and two of his last three trips to the Lady in Black have yielded DNF's. That includes him being caught up in the Kyle Busch/Kevin Harvick shenanigans late in last season's Southern 500 that robbed Bowyer of a potential Top-5 finish. Keep Bowyer on the bench, at least for this week.

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion brings a good racing resume with him to Darlington this Saturday night. Johnson is a two-time winner at the egg-shaped oval, and he has a 69 percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at Darlington Raceway. However, most of these accolades were accomplished much earlier in his NASCAR career. Johnson hasn't won at the track since 2004, and his recent appearances at the historic raceway have been anything but impressive. Three of his last four visits to the South Carolina oval have yielded finishes outside the Top 10. Johnson has the ability to prove us wrong, but he's definitely a much riskier start than normal at Darlington Raceway.

Casey Mears -
Mears has generally been a Top-25 finisher most of the season and that's quite helpful in deeper leagues and leagues that count starts based on driver groups. However, that is likely to change this weekend. The Germain Racing veteran has 10 career starts at Darlington Raceway, and little results to show for. His 30.2 average finish and no Top 10s at the historic oval are quite discouraging for the No. 13 Toyota team this weekend. Mears' last four trips to the Lady in Black have yielded no finishes inside the Top 30. If you've been relying on him in the Yahoo "C" group of late, you may want to pass over Mears this Saturday night.

Paul Menard -
Menard is in a similar position to Mears this weekend. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet is having a consistent and performance-filled season, but he's a definite downgrade coming to the bruising confines of Darlington Raceway. The Richard Childress Racing diver has five career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, but with only one Top-20 finish. That works out to a lowly 26.8 average finish at Darlington, and is well above his 22.9 career average finish for all tracks. Menard has experienced more than one Darlington stripe in his career, and we're willing to bet he'll get another in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500.
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