Last weekend’s race at Richmond proved to be a roller coaster for many fantasy owners. If you had Denny Hamlin on your team, you were riding high for the vast majority of the race; but then, a flat tire brought you crashing back down to earth. And if you were anticipating a big payday with Dale Earnhardt Jr. his late-race run-in with Kyle Busch left you with pocket change instead of the jackpot. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for fantasy owners. Jeff Gordon looked pitiful in the early stages of the race before regrouping and scoring a top 10 at the end of the night. And if you had Clint Bowyer on your team… well, you certainly lead a charmed life.
This weekend in the Dodge Challenger 500 at Darlington, you can expect more of the same. They don’t call this place “The Track Too Tough to Tame” for nothing! But the Lady in Black got a new facelift since the series visited there last May, making this weekend even more of a challenge. The faster speeds combined with the usual Darlington Stripes will keep fantasy owners on the edge of their seats for 500 miles Saturday night.
With that in mind, which drivers will make that ride a bit smoother, and which ones will make you a bit queasy? Read this week’s Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans to find out.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Water was one of the key players in last year’s Dodge Avenger 500. First, it came in the form of rain that forced the race scheduled to be run on Saturday night to Mother’s Day instead. Then came water in the form of the steam pouring out of the top of the DuPont Chevrolet, as Gordon pulled into victory lane to claim his seventh career victory at Darlington. Gordon’s win kept the Hendrick Motorsports freight train moving, giving the team eight wins in the first 11 races of the season. Behind Gordon was Hamlin, suffering with yet another disappointing finish after dominating the race. Hamlin led the most laps (178) before suffering a poor pit stop on lap 305 in which he could never fully recover from. Jimmie Johnson finished third after taking tires during the 10th and final caution of the day while Gordon, Hamlin and fourth-place finisher Ryan Newman opted to stay on track. Carl Edwards rounded out the top five as the highest-finishing Ford.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Darlington Raceway is the original superspeedway. It was completed in 1950 and has hosted 104 Cup races in its history. The track has been famous for its surface, which would wear out tires within five laps and would force drivers to race the track instead of their competitors. The track has now been resurfaced, and the new surface apparently doesn’t not contain the same density of sea shells and sand that the old surface did. The end result is probably going to be tires lasting longer and holding their grip better than they used to; but there’s a consequence to that. Any time a track is resurfaced, the racing suffers for the first year or two. Darlington could conceivably be an exception to that; the shape of the track will most likely afford the drivers some options. But it is yet to be determined if the preferred line will be around the top as it was in the past or around the bottom as it normally is with a newly paved surface.
The history this year on intermediate tracks says that your best selections are going to be Edwards and Kyle Busch. Track history says the best average finish of anyone who has raced more than twice at the track is Johnson; Jeff Burton, Newman, Greg Biffle and Gordon round out the top-five best average finishers. This week’s race could hold some serious wild cards with the new surface and the speed that the drivers will be carrying into the corners.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Burton has a long and distinguished career at Darlington. Since 1998, he has three finishes worse than 13th on the track, with two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s to his credit. Burton has been the model of consistency this year; while not leading a ton of laps, he’s been a machine when it comes to finishing races. Burton’s worst finish is 13th, and out of 10 races he’s finished in the top 10 six times. Add to those stats the fact that Richard Childress Racing has been strong this year, and the chances of Burton finishing up front this week are quite strong.
Newman has been struggling in the shadows of his Daytona 500 victory this year. However, his last two races have been top-10 finishes, and the momentum seems to be building back in our direction. In addition to momentum, Newman’s track record at Darlington tends to indicate he’ll be strong this weekend. He’s run at Darlington for nine races and has six finishes of sixth or better. Newman will be extremely quick on the new surface and Goodyear will most likely bring an extremely hard tire compound which will lend itself to a tire strategy race which has been Newman’s forte for years. Expect to see Newman come home with a very solid finish again this weekend.
Sit ‘Em Down:
David Gilliland has been doing some outstanding work in his Yates ride this season. He has been consistently in the middle of the pack at the end of races and has shown some outstanding patience when his cars have been mediocre. However, Darlington is a different animal. The Lady in Black can reach out and bite drivers with little experience, and the new asphalt may make it even more treacherous. Gilliland’s only start at Darlington resulted in a 30th-place finish with an engine failure with six laps to go, so there’s not much to go on here. He may surprise everyone with a strong run this weekend, but the odds are he’ll be back in the pack quite a ways when they drop the checkers.
Brian Vickers has been by far the best non-Gibbs Toyota this season. He’s had a handful of strong runs but, for the most part, his finishes are still averaging well back in the pack. Vickers has run at the Track Too Tough to Tame five times, and his best finish is 16th. His average finish is also 28.8; so, while Vickers has shined through on some occasions this year, do not expect to see it happen this weekend. Leave him on the pine.
Roll the Dice:
Matt Kenseth has an average finish of 19.4 at Darlington. He has had ups and downs on the track, with more downs than ups. However, in the last two years, Kenseth’s finishes were third and seventh. He’s also had some horrible luck in the last three races with two finishes of 38th and one of 41st. Kenseth may be in the middle of a terrible slide, or due for a breakout; that is the exact type of driver you roll the dice with, and hopefully it will be a breakout race this weekend.
Crank ‘Em Up:
After three straight top five finishes, Johnson has faltered a bit in the last two races; but Darlington is a prime place for him to turn things around. Last week at Richmond, he caught a few lucky breaks to stay on the lead lap before ultimately bad luck ended any chance of a decent finish. The resulting 30th-place finish was his worst of the year, but don’t look for a repeat this Saturday night. At Darlington, Johnson has accumulated two wins and eight top-10 finishes in the nine races he’s run there, giving him an average finish of 6.8. Yes, the No. 48 team isn’t as dominating as they were last year; but you can’t argue with using him this weekend given his past history at the track.
If you had to name the highest ranked Ford driver, chances are you probably wouldn’t answer correctly on the first try. Given a second chance, you might get it right… as long as you answered Biffle. After three straight top-five finishes, Biffle stumbled at Martinsville and Texas but has started to make his rebound. He is a two-time Darlington winner, coming from back to back victories in 2005 and 2006, and finished 15th in this race last year. Given the fast pace that is expected this weekend, Biffle should be strong when you look back at how he ran at Las Vegas (third) and Atlanta (fourth) earlier this year.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Kurt Busch made plenty of noise early on in the season, coming in second in the first race of the year at Daytona; but in the last five races, he’s gone suddenly quiet. Last week’s 42nd-place finish at Richmond, resulting from being involved in the Big One of the night, marked his fifth straight finish of 23rd or lower. Currently 24th in the standings, the No. 2 team is struggling to the point their Chase bid is seriously considering it. Busch equates the team’s struggles with their inability to get the car to turn and handle properly; but if those problems continue this weekend, things could get ugly for Busch. He has failed to finish in the top 10 in the last three races at Darlington.
With a career best 15th-place finish and average finish of 28.7 in seven starts at Darlington, it’s easy to see why Casey Mears admits that his team hasn’t had much luck at this track. Mears hasn’t had much luck, period; he did manage to score a top 10 at Talladega, but any momentum from that was quickly squashed last week at Richmond when got on Michael Waltrip’s bad side. Mears has the talent and equipment to turn things around, but banking on that happening at Darlington is a stretch.
Roll the Dice:
Last Saturday at Richmond, Gordon pulled off quite a feat coming back from a lap down and fighting back to finish ninth. This Saturday night he’s looking to pull off the feat of repeating as champion of this race and scoring his eighth career victory at Darlington. Yes, Gordon has struggled this year; but with four straight finishes of third or better at the Lady in Black it’s hard to overlook him for your team this weekend.
Cami: Even though I’ve tried to permanently block that Richmond race out of my head, I guess I should give you credit for doing so well. Even though you got pretty lucky with Gordon.
Mike: I don’t know about lucky. As he said during the tire test at Charlotte this week, the best thing that could have happened was being lapped. It let them restart up front and figure out if their changes were actually working. The end result was a top 10. I felt terrible for you with the flat for Hamlin. It reminded me of Bill Elliott at Homestead a few years ago.
Cami: Yeah, I had to get a cold one out of the fridge to help me get over that. It’s too bad he got that penalty and couldn’t get anything more than a 25th-place finish out of it after he dominated for so long. Nothing personal against Junior, but I was happy to see you not pull off the 1-2 finish.
Mike: I’m sure you were. I was resigning myself to a 2-3 finish. Then I was sure I was going to see a 1-2 with Junior breaking his winless streak. But one of those hard racing deals settled that. Oh well, enough of last week’s pain; I see that you think Jimmie is going to continue his strong average finishes at Darlington.
Cami: Obviously they aren’t as dominant as they were last year, but with his great record at Darlington it’s really hard to believe he won’t be up there contending this Saturday night. I will give Knaus credit that he usually seems to find a way to make the car better if they are off early. On the topic of being off, are you off your rocker with Kenseth?
Mike: Perhaps. Lord knows his season has been less than spectacular – especially the last three races – but his last two races at Darlington have been strong. He’s had some crappy luck this year and is just in need of a good run. With the strength of his teammate, Edwards, hopefully a good race will bring him back around to the success we’ve seen from him the past two years at Darlington. I see you took my lead rolling with Gordon this week.
Cami: Knock on wood, you won’t be able to Roll the Dice with him next week. That would mean that he worked out for me. With seven wins at Darlington, it’s hard to not take him. I’ve read a few places that have said qualifying will be important so that usually plays in Gordon’s favor. That might go against your other Jeff pick. That’s not usually his strong suit.
Mike: It could bode poorly for me, not only with Burton but with Kenseth. It will be interesting to see if the race turns out to be a parade around the bottom, the top, or if there will be racing all across the track. But Burton has won at the track before, and his average finish is quite high, not to mention he’s running for RCR; they have three drivers in the top 10 in points. Do you think Biffle is going to continue to have better luck than he had the last couple of years?
Cami: He won in ’05 and ’06 and was 15th last year. I’ll take those odds. Plus he ran really well at Vegas and Atlanta earlier this year. I think his experience at Darlington will help him out and keep him off the wall. Your Newman pick is good… I thought about that one myself.
Mike: Thanks, he’s certainly had a pile of good finishes there, without bringing home a win. It would be nice to see him take the checkered flag first down there this weekend. I imagine the tire that Goodyear brings will probably be another rock and Newman tends to run well when the tires don’t wear out. I was a little surprised you are sitting Kurt, though. He’s been all over the map at Darlington, but I would not be surprised to see him have a good run.
Cami: I guess it could happen. But his finishes at Darlington have been all over the place, plus they are struggling big time right now. Busch admited they don’t have the handle on the new car right now; that’s not good at Darlington. I guess we’ll just have to see how it all pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Cami and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 14.0
Sit – 21.4
Roll – 14.0
Crank – 11.5
Sit – 23.3
Roll – 15.0