FANTASY: A Southern Tradition
Bojangles' Southern 500 Fantasy Preview
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will race at Darlington Raceway for the 111th time this Sunday. The series first raced there in 1950, and most anyone that's anybody in racing history has won there: Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt (Sr.), Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson; just to pick out a few across the generations.
The track has its own unique, egg-shape. It was built like this in 1949 to allow for the preservation of a minnow pond on the west side of the property ... A minnow pond, of all things. Over the years, the track earned the name "The Lady in Black" because of the marks that the wall would get from the amount of drivers that slid up the track and left black tire marks.
To this day, it remains one of the most legendary tracks on the schedule. It's other nickname, "Too Tough to Tame," says just about all you need to know about its difficulty. This isn't a track for the faint of heart (not that auto racing in general is designed for the faint of heart). Here's a look at the drivers that might be able to tame "The Lady in Black" this weekend:
As mentioned, Darlington is shaped like an egg. On paper, it's listed as a 1.366-mile oval, and as such falls into the category of an intermediate. However, it's one of the farthest things from just another cookie cutter. There's a reason that it earned a nickname for the tire marks on the walls, and that's because it's so difficult for drivers to hold their race lines on this tricky track. Its lack of symmetry makes it much harder to get into a consistent rhythm with the corners.
Not only is this track unique, but the drivers only race here once per year. That means that there's far less experience for both the teams and drivers, especially when it comes to the Gen-6 car that was unveiled in 2013. The configuration is just different enough from the "cookie-cutter" intermediate that it makes it difficult to setup. The X-Factor will be which teams can adapt faster than others.
With the X-Factor in mind, experience and proven success at Darlington is the key to selecting drivers. If a driver hasn't done well here in the past, it's not that likely he (or she) will suddenly come out of nowhere to impress this weekend. Stick with the drivers that have proven they can tame this track.
- #20 Matt Kenseth - A career average finish of 16.6 at "The Lady in Black" doesn't stand out, but he won this race last year. It was his first win at the track and didn't come as a surprise, as he showed in 2013 that he has the ability to win anywhere.
- #24 Jeff Gordon - So much for being "Too Tough to Tame," Gordon has seven wins at the track.
- #48 Jimmie Johnson - When you consider the pedigree of Hall of Famers that have tamed Darlington, it's fitting to see success by Johnson. He has three wins and an 8.8 average finish.
- #15 Clint Bowyer - His only top-10 in eight starts at Darlington came back in 2007.
- #2 Brad Keselowski - The No. 2 seems to shoot itself in the foot on a regular basis. Bad Brad has led at least 38 laps in four of seven races this season, so he's been running up front regularly. It's only a matter of time before the bad luck dissipates and he goes on a run.
- #11 Denny Hamlin - Too tough to tame, huh? Hamlin's 5.4 career average finish at Darlington would beg the differ.
- #22 Joey Logano - Stats from previous seasons can just about be thrown out the window. Logano is running up front on weekly basis and that paid off with a win at Texas.
- #78 Martin Truex Jr. - There are a couple things to like at the No. 78 this week. First of all, the only win in team history came when Regan Smith drove to victory lane at Darlington in 2011. Secondly, Truex Jr.'s 11.4 average finish at the track ranks third in the field behind just Hamlin and Johnson.
- #14 Tony Stewart - He led for the first time this season at Texas. He used his pole position to lead 74 laps early, but then faded. He hasn't been near the front often this season, and considering he's led just 20 laps at Darlington in 21 starts, odds are he doesn't lead in this one.
- #27 Paul Menard - Sitting 10th in points, Menard hasn't been to shabby this season. However, without a single top-10 in seven starts at Darlington, this isn't a good week to jump on his bandwagon.
- #3 Austin Dillon - He finished fifth and 11th in two Nationwide Series starts at Darlington and is currently tied for 11th in the Cup standings.
#42 Kyle Larson - It's not much to go on, but Larson finished sixth in his only Nationwide Series start at Darlington last year. He's looked very competent at the Cup level and is worth considering each week.
- #36 Reed Sorenson - If the C-list remains this shallow all season, there might come a time to consider starting Sorenson. This track wouldn't be a good choice, based on his 29.2 average finish across six Darlington starts.
Drivers are listed by car number and not necessarily rank order.
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