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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, really unlike any other 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-to-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 that the casual fan notices 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 three- and four-wide drafting action of Talladega, we're in for a big change this weekend. The rim-riding action under the lights of Darlington on Saturday 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 superspeedway, 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. The new Gen-6 car 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 eight years or eight races at Darlington Raceway.

Jeff Gordon8.02451801872,615111.8
Greg Biffle13.82492836322,170110.5
Denny Hamlin5.92291753542,123109.5
Jimmie Johnson10.12272103162,137105.7
Kyle Busch15.53231753232,423102.3
Kasey Kahne15.11741923041,98598.3
Ryan Newman11.6193621642,32697.6
Martin Truex Jr.11.3215115981,62095.2
Carl Edwards13.9249149942,00093.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.622966361,91190.4
Tony Stewart10.6266104121,81390.0
Matt Kenseth12.0195761131,66686.5
Brad Keselowski9.39912078484.5
Kevin Harvick19.620083491,79084.4
Jeff Burton15.119058311,65084.1
Jamie McMurray17.815953871,75383.9
Mark Martin12.312738461,54483.7
Kurt Busch18.42116311,70279.8
Joey Logano20.38581985478.2
Clint Bowyer22.612142161,17275.4

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 and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last six 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 and Denny Hamlin, this stable has racked up two of the last five victories at the 1.366-mile oval. The last two seasons, JGR dominance at Darlington came under fire from the Chevrolet camp. 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. Last year it was five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his No. 48 Chevrolet claiming his third Darlington trophy and first since the 2004 season. Ford is looking to snap a six-year winless drought at the speedway. Greg Biffle leads the way for this camp, with two career Darlington victories, but we believe Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski could be just as dangerous in this event. Considering how well all the teams of Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing are performing right now, we wouldn't rule any of them out in vying for the victory this weekend. Assuming this trio and the other contenders can avoid the "Darlington Stripe," a 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 employ in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion brings a good racing resume with him to Darlington this Saturday night. Johnson is a three-time winner at the egg-shaped oval, and he has a 71 percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at Darlington Raceway. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited 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 rides into this weekend's race as the standings leader by a wide margin, and with the ability to roll the dice 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 flexed his muscles the last several weeks, and already has two victories to his credit this season. Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led over 300 laps in his last five trips to Darlington Raceway. Considering how well he performed in this event one year ago (44 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.

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 21 percent of the laps at Darlington Raceway in the last eight years. That's an amazing number, and almost doubles the next nearest competitor. Biffle has been one of the more consistent 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.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been the hottest drivers in the series the first 10 races of 2013. He has two poles, one victory and three Top-10 finishes in his last three races. Darlington Raceway should provide the No. 20 Toyota team with another great opportunity. Kenseth enters this event with a respectable 86.5 driver rating at the historic raceway, but those numbers are sure to improve after Saturday night. Joe Gibbs Racing teams have always fared well at Darlington, and that should bode well for the veteran driver this week. Kenseth has been red hot and we've seen him lead laps and race at the front often the last few weeks.

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

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to rediscover his groove coming to Darlington Raceway this week. He's coming off the disappointing crash and DNF at Talladega Superspeedway. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet is a four-time pole winner at the Track too Tough to Tame, and his last two trips to the South Carolina oval have netted Top 10s. Kahne has led 157 laps in those last two Darlington races and made a strong challenge for the win in each. He and crew chief Kenny Francis should be able to replicate that kind of speed in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is a great historical play at Darlington Raceway and he's riding a big wave of momentum after his Talladega Top 5. Edwards has six Top 10s in nine career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, and that includes second- and seventh-place finishes in his last two starts. We expect the driver of the No. 99 Ford to stay on a roll at the South Carolina oval this weekend. Edwards comes to Darlington second in the overall championship standings, and with a lot to race for in this 500-mile battle with the Lady in Black.

Brad Keselowski -
The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has only four career starts at Darlington Raceway, but all have been very respectable finishes of seventh-, 12th-, third-and 15th-place. The driver of the No. 2 Ford will look to keep his short, but spotless record at Darlington Raceway intact and post yet another Top 10 this season in the Bojangles Southern 500. Keselowski showed extraordinary patience by finishing third in this event two years ago. Darlington is a tough track on young drivers, but the Penske Racing star handled that outing with precision. We expect no less this Saturday night.

Ryan Newman -
Newman had a car tumbling across his hood at Talladega last weekend, so we know he'll be looking forward to this week's Bojangles Southern 500. The loop stats and historical numbers show his love of this super speedway. The Stewart Haas Racing driver's 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 eight races at this facility. The No. 39 team's little black note book should come in handy this weekend at Darlington Raceway. Newman should backup that impressive 64 percent career Top-10 rate at Darlington.

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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the x-factor in fantasy leagues this week. After climbing out of his No. 11 Toyota last week at Talladega and seeing Brian Vickers climb in the driver's seat only to finish poorly, there may be more urgency for Hamlin to race the full 500 miles this week. Barring any medical clearance issues, there's at least a 50/50 chance that he could get the nod to go the distance this week. It may be worth the while to roster Hamlin this weekend and roll the dice. In recent history not many drivers can stack up to the pilot of the No. 11 JGR Toyota at the egg-shaped oval. He has a victory, runner-up finish and sixth-place finish in his last three trips to Darlington. With 354 laps led in seven career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race this tricky oval. Have a contingency prepared, but watch the news closely as Hamlin may get late clearance to run the full race.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star enters this event looking to continue his recent success. He has Top-10 finishes in three of his last four races and he's looking for more coming to the Track Too Tough to Tame. Truex should be inspired by the prospect of visiting the Darlington oval this weekend. Truex has led 98 laps for his career at the Lady in Black and he's posted three Top 10s in his last four trips to the South Carolina oval. From an average finish standpoint, this is one of his best ovals on the circuit with an impressive 11.3 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-10 finishes in two of his last five 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 this season. This past week's 23rd-place finish at Talladega has been one of the few lowlights in 2013. McMurray and the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team should have no problem rebounding at Darlington Raceway this Saturday night. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has one career pole position and five Top 10s in 12 starts at the 1.366-mile oval. That includes 84 laps led and second- and ninth-place finishes at this facility in the last three seasons.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola brings to Darlington a career-best four-race Top-10 streak. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has already equaled the number of Top-10 finishes he scored in all of last year and we're only 10 races into this campaign. Almirola has only one career start at Darlington Raceway, but it was a decent Top-20 performance in this event one year ago. Now that the RPM driver has had a look at the tricky Darlington oval, he's ready to take his level of performance up a notch. Three of his recent four Top 10s have been on ovals larger than one-mile in size, so the speedways are playing well to the No. 43 Ford team.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver has been like a swinging pendulum this season. One week Logano's on the good side of the ledger, and the next week he is on the bad side. We have good reason to believe the No. 22 Ford team will be a desirable fantasy racing play at Darlington on Saturday night. Logano has only four career starts at the South Carolina speedway, but two of those efforts have netted Top-10 finishes. His 10th-place finish in this race one year ago gave Joe Gibbs Racing one a few nice parting gifts before he headed to Penske Racing. Logano has scored all three of his Top-5 finishes for the season in the last six races. The on-again off-again driver should be on his game this weekend.

Regan Smith -
The 2011 Darlington 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 his follow-up 14th-place finish in this event one year ago may be a more likely scenario. This time around Smith will pilot the No. 51 Chevrolet of Phoenix Racing at the Lady in Black. Given this team's Top 10 this past weekend at Talladega, Smith is riding into South Carolina with a lot of momentum.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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-10 finishes on the season and is ranked a lowly 13th 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. However, the last two trips to the South Carolina oval have yielded unimpressive results for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Gordon finished 12th in this event two years ago, and a disastrous 35th in this race one year ago. All the indicators point to an underperform weekend for this driver and team.

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 seven career Darlington outings, and two of his last four trips to the Lady in Black have yielded DNFs. That includes him being caught up in the Kyle Busch/Kevin Harvick shenanigans late in 2011's Southern 500 that robbed Bowyer of a potential Top-5 finish. Keep Bowyer on the bench, at least for this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The No. 88 Chevrolet team has slipped into a bit of an early-season funk. Since his runner-up finish at Fontana, Earnhardt has only cracked the Top 10 once in the last five races. The consistency that usually marks this team's performance has gone completely missing. In fact, you could call Earnhardt's lackluster 17th-place finish at Talladega last weekend a bit shocking in light of what he's accomplished at that oval through the years. His recent Darlington resume looms ominously over this weekend. Earnhardt's last four visits to the Lady in Black have netted 27th-, 18th-, 14th- and 17th-place finishes. Proceed with caution.

Paul Menard -
Menard is in a similar position to Bowyer 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 six career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, but with only two Top-20 finishes. That works out to a lowly 24.5 average finish at Darlington, and is well above his 21.7 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.