It’s called the Lady in Black because more often than not, Darlington Raceway is not kind to the drivers who try to conquer it. One driver who seems, though, to have a good idea on how to handle this so-called lady, is Denny Hamlin.
And if he ever needed to do it again, that would be now. Saturday night’s race will be Hamlin’s first full effort since his return from back injury suffered five weeks ago in a crash with Joey Logano. Hamlin now faces the daunting task of trying to make the Chase. Since he sits 31st in points, it’s probably next to impossible for him to reach the 10th spot with 16 races left in NASCAR’s regular season.
The other way, and probably the only way, he’ll have a chance to do that is by reaching the top 20 in points and also likely needing to win two races. The good news for Hamlin is that not only is his back feeling better, but he’s had a good amount of success at Darlington, a 1.366-mile oval that gives him some hope to make up ground in the standings starting this week.
LOOKING FOR SOME ACES
Hamlin has had just seven races at Darlington, but his numbers are off the charts good. He has an average finish of 5.86 with one win and five other top 10 finishes. His worst finish at Darlington is 13th. Hamlin is 76 points behind 20th-place Kurt Busch. That’s a lot of ground to make up, even for the long term. The question for the short-term is how will Hamlin’s back hold up on one of the most physically demanding tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit? Darlington is an egg-shaped overall, with turns 1-2 being 23 degrees and 3-4 being 25 degrees. The race is 367 laps, so Hamlin’s back will have to endure the stress of those turns 734 times, assuming he runs the whole race. And that’s not counting any Darlington Stripes from bumps with the wall or other competitors, whether it be Logano or someone else. So, if you think Hamlin can physically hold up for the entire night, than go ahead and pick him. If not, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
If you’re looking elsewhere, there is always Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champ does have three wins and seven other top 10 finishes in 14 races there. If you’re on race limits for drivers, Johnson is one of those guys you certainly you want to save at least four or five Chase races for. However, Darlington may be one of those places you might want to use him.
Another Hendrick guy that simply can’t be ignored at Darlington is Jeff Gordon. He’s got seven wins there and is looking to get on track there. He didn’t have much success with the old Car of Tomorrow, so the new Gen-6 car may help him find the kind of results that he likes. Gordon has led 1,720 laps there, by far the most of any active driver.
And finally, you shouldn’t forget about defending champion Brad Keselowski at Darlington. He has yet to win there in four tries, but has an average finish of 9.25. Maybe this is the week he breaks through with his first win of the season, different crew chief and all, just to make a statement.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
Much like Johnson, there’s always Kyle Busch to consider in this category. He’s not been off-the-charts good at Darlington, but he does have one win in eight races there and three other top 10 finishes. His average finish of 15.5 is a bit skewed by one 37th place finish. The thing you have to like about Busch, at least so far this season, is he seems to have matured enough to know when to be aggressive and when to back off a little, and that’s key at Darlington. The other thing to consider is if you are on race limits, is if you want to use Busch this week or save him for the Chase.
A driver who was in the Chase last year and got off to an extremely slow start, but has rebounded in recent weeks is Martin Truex, Jr. Even though he hasn’t won since 2007 at Dover, Truex has flirted with victory in recent weeks. He has a solid record at Darlington with three top 10 finishes in seven races and an average finish of 11.29. He’s also led 98 laps in those races. So, I’m going with the less than obvious choice of making him my pick to win this week.
Another driver who could use a visit to Victory Lane and has done so at Darlington twice is Greg Biffle. In his 12 races at Darlington, he also has three other top 10 finishes and has led 713 laps there. Biffle hasn’t been one of those every week type of guys to use yet this year, so this might be a place to put him on your list.
One driver who is in the midst of a bit of rebound is Jamie McMurray. After a disastrous 2012 season, he’s now 15th in points with three top 10 finishes this season and has a decent record at Darlington. He has five top 10 finishes in 12 races there and has also led 163 laps there. He’s another guy who you probably won’t look at each week, who can be used here.
As always, there are a couple of constants here in rookies Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Danica Patrick. However, Darlington is one of those tracks that is not kind to rookies. There’s simply too much that can happen too fast at the track. It’s rare for a rookie to farewell here.
So, while Stenhouse has shown that he definitely belongs on the Sprint Cup circuit after back-to-back Nationwide titles, this may be a week to look elsewhere.
A popular pick this week may well be last week’s winners. First, there is Regan Smith, who won the Nationwide race at Talladega. He will be driving the No. 51 car this week and he did earn his first career victory at Darlington in the 2011 Southern 500, as well as another top 10 finish in five races. So, he has to be given due consideration here.
Then there is David Ragan, who won the Sprint Cup race last week. He’s still just 26th in points, so I wouldn’t go crazy on just that one win. However, at Darlington, he does have a top five and a top 10 finish in six races.
There is a new overall leader in the two Frontstretch Fantasy leagus on Yahoo! as RWO Motoring took over the lead from cdakost after Sunday’s race. It’s still close though as RWO Motoring has 2,627 points and cdakost is at 2608. The next closest in the two leagues is Rowdy Friend with 2,577.
The team with the most points at Talladega was NASCAR Forever with 326. It was one of only four teams out of 63 in the two Frontstretch leagues to reach 300 points. The winning lineup was race winner David Ragan, then Carl Edwards in third, Brad Keselowski in 15th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 17th.
Of these 63 teams, only five had the foresight to pick Regan last week. Just another example of showing that the majority is not always correct.
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