Mash The Gas: Darlington Preview

Aric Almirola races Paul Menard in their throwback schemes last year in the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. [Credit: Matt Hazlett/Getty Images]

Aric Almirola races Paul Menard in their throwback schemes last year in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. [Credit: Matt Hazlett/Getty Images]


by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

It’s NASCAR’s Throwback Weekend as the historic Darlington Raceway hosts the Bojangle’s Southern 500 on Sunday night under the lights.

Bojangles’ Southern 500
Darlington Raceway
501.3 miles (367 laps)
Sunday, Sept. 4 6pm ET
NBC, 6pm ET
MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
For years the Southern 500 was a steep Labor Day weekend tradition on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit before being moved to a different date as the sport expanded to new markets. Last year, the Southern 500 was restored to its rightful Labor Day weekend date and everyone involved on the tour embraced the move with a throwback weekend theme. Almost all of the cars in the field Sunday night will race with a special throwback graphic scheme honoring some of NASCAR’s greats and the television broadcast will have an old school look featuring some of the legendary announcers from the past.

On top of all that, Darlington has always been known as a drivers race track and its unique elliptical shape where the fast lane requires drivers to scrape the wall and acquire a “Darlington Stripe” has earned it the reputation of being “Too Tough to Tame.” The Southern 500 is a crown jewel on the NASCAR schedule and everyone wants to add their name to the list of NASCAR greats who have already conquered “The Lady in Black.”

With just three Chase spots left with only two weeks to fill them, this could be the most fun weekend of the season and here are some drivers to watch in the Southern 500 Sunday night…

Denny Hamlin (Dan Margetta)

Coming in at 7-1 odds, Denny Hamlin has enjoyed tremendous success at Darlington over the last few years, plus he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing whose Toyotas have dominated most of the races this season. Hamlin has a Darlington win to his credit to go along with five top five results and eight top ten finishes. Hamlin has finished second here twice and was third in last year’s event. He also as the best average finishing position of 6.5.Combine all that with the fact Hamlin and the #11 team have rattled off six straight top five finishes in recent weeks and Hamlin immediately becomes a favorite this weekend. Hamlin’s #11 Toyota will carry a scheme honoring Darrell Waltrip as the car resembles Waltrip’s 1984 Junior Johnson ride.

Carl Edwards (John Wiedemann)

Carl Edwards will be sporting a tribute to Tony Stewart’s retirement with the paint scheme of the 1999 Home Depot sponsored Pontiac that Stewart ran for Joe Gibbs Racing.  Edwards should have that car, now a Toyota sponsored by Arris, running up front at Darlington this weekend.  Edwards is in fourth in the Chase grid with two victories this season.  A twelfth place average finish at the Darlington Raceway is further enhanced by the fact that in twelve races at the track, Edwards has finished in the top ten eight times and the top five four times.  Edwards is the defending champion of this race and looks to continue that success this weekend.

Kevin Harvick (DM)

Kevin Harvick is another driver with recent success at Darlington as he has strung together three straight top five finishes at the track. His lone Darlington win came during that streak in 2014 and he also has five total top five finishes and eight top tens. Listed as a 6-1 odds on favorite this weekend, Harvick is the current point leader as the series heads into the Chase and he won just two weeks ago at Bristol. Harvick and the #4 team have consistently raced up front all season long and that trend should continue this weekend at Darlington. Kevin Harvick’s special Darlington scheme will mirror Cale Yarborough’s 1979 Busch beer ride.

Jeff Gordon (JW)

Probably the most frustrating thing about this weekend for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is that he will not be able to race the 2016 version of Buddy Baker’s Grey Ghost.  The Nationwide Insurance #88 Chevrolet will be driven by Jeff Gordon instead.  Because of the grey color on the hood, the Baker driven car would blend into the track and “sneak up” behind drivers and pass them before they knew it.  Now Gordon will be the driver to channel the Grey Ghost and try to get to victory lane at Darlington for the eighth time at the track.  At the very least, look for Gordon to improve on awesome statistics at the “To Tough To Tame” track which include seven wins, 19 top five finishes, 23 top ten runs and a series best driver rating.

Jimmie Johnson (DM)

Jimmie Johnson has three prior Darlington victories which is second only to Jeff Gordon’s seven and he comes into this weekend’s Southern 500 at enticing 12-1 odds. After going through a rough stretch the past few weeks, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets showed up at Michigan last weekend determined to right the ship and all four teams showed increased performance. In addition to his three wins, Jimmie Johnson also has nine top five finishes and twelve top ten results. His average finish here of 9.1 is third best and Johnson along with the #48 team may be peaking at just the right time with the Chase looming as they chase that elusive seventh championship. Jimmie Johnson will race a blue and yellow scheme this weekend honoring Dale Earnhardt Sr. and David Pearson who both drove for owner Rod Osterlund in 1979, which was Earnhardt’s Rookie of the Year season.

Ryan Blaney (JW)

My favorite throwback paint scheme of the weekend will be on the Ford driven by Ryan Blaney.  The scheme pays tribute to the Wood Brothers Racing star driver David Pearson.  The 1976 design won both races from the pole, yes they ran two races at Darlington back then.   Blaney would be happy to get the win this weekend as it would propel him into the Chase.  A win is pretty much Blaney’s only chance to get into the Chase since he is 70 points behind the final spot, currently held by Jamie McMurray.  Channeling the success of Pearson at Darlington, which includes ten wins, is just what the young rookie needs.  It would be awesome to see the #21 take the checkers to victory lane.  A bit of a long shot, but it would be cool.

Tony Stewart (DM)

Tony Stewart is my long shot pick this weekend. That’s right… I’ll say it again…Tony Stewart is my long shot pick this weekend as he comes into his final Southern 500 at 50-1 odds. His record at Darlington isn’t the greatest with only three top five finishes and ten top ten results but this year’s Darlington race will feature the low downforce aero package which really suits Stewart’s driving style well. Also, Tony Stewart appreciates the sport’s history and he currently has 49 total wins. You would have to imagine that Tony Stewart getting his 50th win in his last Southern 500 would be a pretty big deal to both Stewart himself and the sport as a whole. He finished fifteenth in this race last year but this season since his return from injury we have seen a rejuvenated Tony Stewart and I’ve got a feeling this race has been marked on his calendar as it’s his last chance to win at the famed Darlington Raceway. Stewart will drive a special red and gold Coca-Cola scheme honoring Bobby Allison and mirroring the car Allison drove from 1971-1973.

Greg Biffle (JW)

One cool thing about the throwback theme this weekend is that it has brought some sponsors back into the sport.  The Hooters scheme that Greg Biffle will be running is a good example of this.  Bringing back the memory of Alan Kulwicki, who was lost just as he was cementing his mark on the NASCAR scene, is a special part of this weekend as well.  Kulwicki didn’t capture a win at Darlington, but he was getting on the cusp of excelling at the track.  Biffle is pretty good at the classic NASCAR track with two victories, a fifth best driver rating, and six top ten including three top five finishes.  Biffle is another driver that needs a win to get in the Chase and probably isn’t as much of a longshot as one might think.  Biffle is finding consistency and seeing that Hooters ride finally in victory lane at Darlington is a possibility this weekend.

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