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Bojanglesí 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, and is 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 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 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 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 high speeds and some three-wide action at Texas, 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 superspeedway 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 nine years or nine races at Darlington Raceway.

Jeff Gordon7.42721942032,982111.8
Denny Hamlin5.42661823542,488108.9
Greg Biffle13.72912866322,441107.5
Jimmie Johnson9.42522333162,504107.5
Kyle Busch14.43372305882,790106.2
Kasey Kahne15.32012173042,31899.1
Ryan Newman11.4212621642,42595.8
Martin Truex Jr.11.4250125981,95794.8
Carl Edwards13.1279151942,24893.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.227369362,27791.4
Matt Kenseth10.82231131302,03390.9
Tony Stewart11.1300105122,14489.6
Kevin Harvick18.024490492,15786.9
Jeff Burton15.819065311,69782.9
Jamie McMurray17.616053871,75582.6
Kurt Busch17.924172702,04882.4
Brad Keselowski13.811027081481.5
Clint Bowyer21.116758161,48278.0
Joey Logano20.692111985976.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.0620469.7

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 Sprint Cup Series at Darlington. Chevrolet and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last seven 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, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, this stable has racked up three of the last six victories at the 1.366-mile oval. The last three seasons, JGR dominance at Darlington came under fire from the Chevrolet teams. 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. In 2012 it was six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his No. 48 Chevrolet claiming his third Darlington trophy and first since the 2004 season. Last season we saw Kenseth reestablish Gibbs' dominance at the Track Too Tough to Tame with a sneaky-good victory over teammate Busch. Ford is looking to snap a seven-year winless drought at the speedway. Biffle leads the way for this camp, with two career Darlington victories, but we believe Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski could be just as dangerous in this event. Considering how well the teams of Penske Racing are performing right now, we wouldn't rule either of them out in vying for the victory this weekend. Assuming this trio of Ford drivers 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 deploy in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star has only five career starts at Darlington Raceway, but all have been very respectable finishes until last season's 32nd-place disappointment. The driver of the No. 2 Ford will look to up his game considerably in Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500. No driver in the series is hotter on these larger ovals. With 189 laps led, one victory and two Top-5 finishes on the ovals larger than one-mile in length this season, Keselowski has been a top performer. With a brilliant third-place finish in his last Nationwide Series appearance at Darlington, it's clear that this veteran driver has this oval figured out. Saturday night promises a career-best effort at the Lady in Black.

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-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 an impressive 73-percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at Darlington Raceway. In the 2012 installment of this event at 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 qualified on the outside pole and finished fourth in this race one year ago. Each season we come to Darlington, Johnson races with the leaders and makes a run at victory lane.

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 one victory to his credit this season. Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led well over 500 laps in his last six trips to Darlington Raceway. Considering how well he performed in this event one year ago (265 laps led, sixth-place finish) and how well Busch is running right now, the timing could be right for another trip to victory lane at the Lady in Black.

Jeff Gordon -
The team too good to ignore lately is Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet team. Gordon has three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes on the season and is ranked first in the driver standings entering this week. The Hendrick Motorsports star is still winless for the young season despite his near-brush with victory lane once again last weekend at Texas. The veteran driver is a seven-time Darlington Raceway winner, and as recently as 2007. Two of his last four trips to the South Carolina oval have netted Top-5 finishes. Gordon led 16 laps and finished third in this event one year ago. One gets the sense that if he stays patient and keeps rolling the dice, the first win of the season isn't far away.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is the x-factor in fantasy leagues this week. After a big performance during Speedweeks at Daytona, the rest of this young season has not measured up to expectations. However, 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 and two runner-up finishes in his last four trips to Darlington. With 354 laps led in eight career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race this tricky oval. Saturday night's 500-mile race could be where the entire season turns around for this Joe Gibbs Racing star.

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 19-percent of the laps at Darlington Raceway in the last nine years. That's an amazing number, and leads all drivers including Kyle Busch. Biffle overcame some consistency issues to start this season with a solid Top-10 finish at Fort Worth last Sunday, 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 could easily be this veteran Ford driver.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth has been one of the hottest drivers in the series the first 7 races of 2014. He has one pole position, one Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes to start the season. Darlington Raceway should provide the No. 20 Toyota team with another great opportunity. Kenseth enters this event with a respectable 90.9 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. In this race one year ago, Kenseth led 17 laps and stole the victory away from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is a great historical play at Darlington Raceway and he's riding some decent momentum as he rolls into the South Carolina oval third in the overall driver standings. Edwards has seven Top 10s in 10 career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, and that includes a pair of 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 high in the championship standings, and with a lot to race for in this 500-mile battle with the Track Too Tough to Tame.

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

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing driver is fresh off a big victory at Texas Motor Speedway. 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 five career starts at the South Carolina speedway, but two of those efforts have netted Top-10 finishes. His 10th-place finish in this race two years ago gave Joe Gibbs Racing one a few nice parting gifts before he headed to Penske Racing. Logano still has a lot to prove at this particular oval, but he comes to Darlington one of the hottest drivers in the series right now.

Tony Stewart -
With Top-10 finishes in three of his last four events, we have to pay close attention to Smoke for this week's race at Darlington. The No. 14 team has been getting it done in solid, yet unspectacular means the last month. This past week's pole position and 10th-place finish at Texas has been one of the few highlights in 2014. Stewart and the SHR team should have no problem keeping their momentum at Darlington Raceway this Saturday night. The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet has 11 Top 10s in 21 starts at the 1.366-mile oval. That includes a third-place finish at this track two years ago.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to rediscover his groove coming to Darlington Raceway this week. He's coming off so-so 11th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet is a four-time pole winner at the Track too Tough to Tame, and two of his last three trips to the South Carolina oval have netted Top 10s. Kahne has led 157 laps in those last three 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.

Ryan Newman -
Newman had a frustrating 16th-place finish at the Fort Worth oval 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 superspeedway. The Richard Childress Racing driver's recent history at the 1.366-mile oval has been pretty spotless. He's led 325 career laps and finished in the Top 10 in 10 of 15 races at this facility. The No. 31 team will benefit from Newman's experience and notes at Darlington Raceway. Newman should backup that impressive 67-percent career Top-10 rate at Darlington.

Jamie McMurray -
The veteran driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has been pretty steady to start the 2014 season. McMurray has a pair of Top-10 finishes in the first seven races and he's finished inside the Top 20 in five of those seven events. Despite some bad luck each of the last two weeks, he should rebound well in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500. McMurray has 13 career starts at the Darlington oval, with five Top-10 finishes to show for. But his career average finish of 16.1 speaks higher of his abilities at this facility. In this race one year ago he finished 16th and we believe he'll be right there challenging the Top 15 once again this Saturday night.

Kyle Larson -
The rookie Chip Ganassi Racing driver continues to race like a veteran 10-years his senior. Larson claimed his second Top-5 finish of the season this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, and both those performances have come on ovals larger than one-mile. That bodes well for the CGR No. 42 team coming into the Bojangles' Southern 500. His only career Nationwide Series start at this oval netted an impressive sixth-place finish last season. Larson should have learned a lot in that outing. We expect the young driver to stay on a roll this weekend in South Carolina.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing veteran is off to a tough start with his new race team. After seven races he comes into Darlington weekend a disappointing 27th in the championship standings and with no Top-10 finishes yet this season. Truex's Darlington history shows three Top 10s in eight career starts or a less-than-impressive 38-percent rate. While his career average finish is a more respectable 11.4 his current struggles override any expectations we would normally have coming to Darlington Raceway. Until Truex can develop some chemistry with the No. 78 team it's best to stay clear.

Clint Bowyer -
The No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team have gotten off to a slow start this season and are fighting for every inch of ground in the Chase standings. We have to ratchet down our expectations for Bowyer at Darlington Raceway. This weekend the veteran driver comes to one of his tougher venues in recent seasons. Bowyer has one Top 10 in his eight career Darlington outings, and two of his last five 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 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 Las Vegas, Earnhardt has only cracked the Top 10 once in the last four races. The consistency that usually marks this team's performance has gone completely missing. In fact, you could call Earnhardt's error and shocking crash at Texas last weekend a bit surprising 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 five visits to the Lady in Black have netted 27th-, 18th-, 14th-, 17th- and ninth-place finishes. Proceed with caution.

Paul Menard -
Menard is riding a three-race Top-10 streak entering 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 seven career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, but with only three Top-20 finishes. That works out to a lowly 23.7 average finish at Darlington, and is well above his 21.3 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.