Mash The Gas – Darlington Preview

Leaving the madness of Talladega in the rearview mirror, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits a classic stock car racing track – Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina. Unfortunately, the series only visits this track once a year. This egg shaped track is 1.37 miles of a driver test for every one of the 367 laps during the race.

The green flag for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 is scheduled to fly Saturday night at 7:15pm eastern.

The Darlington Raceway is the most unique and challenging circuit on the schedule and a favorite among both fans and drivers. Opening in 1950, Darlington Raceway received its egg-shaped design as the result of track builders having to work around a nearby minnow pond the owner refused to locate. The track emits a deep aura of tradition and oozes history. Nicknamed, “The Lady in Black” and “The Track Too Tough To Tame” due to its challenging nature, drivers are forced to stay focused and a slight lapse of attention is sure to result in the track smacking them in the face.

When looking back through historical statistics to find a dominating driver only Hall-of-Famer David Pearson and semi-retired Bill Elliott stand out as those who could be counted on to always run well here, reminiscent of just how tough this circuit is. Only three active drivers sport top-ten average finishes here.

#11-Denny Hamlin
Dan Margetta – Denny Hamlin has a win (2010) and five top ten finishes in his six starts at Darlington and already has two wins this season. Current crew chief Darrien Grubb has had relative success here with Tony Stewart and the #11 team should be near the front in the Bojangles Southern 500 Saturday night. His average finish of 6.5 leads all active drivers.

John Wiedemann – The results Hamlin has posted in just a few runs at Darlington make it seem like he is one of the few drivers to have this place figured out. Only one time did Hamlin finish outside of the top 10, 13th in 2009. Denny came back in 2010 and won the race. Even last season, a down year by Hamlin’s standards, he finished 6th. Hamlin is a safe bet for Saturday.

#24-Jeff Gordon
JW – Jeff Gordon says he doesn’t believe in luck. Yet, his team put a horseshoe in his car at Talladega, which didn’t really work out. Gordon theory about luck will be true at Darlington, it takes skill to race around the egg. Over 31 starts, Gordon has 18 top five finishes including seven wins. Those results prove that Gordon has the skills needed by Darlington. Now if he can get rid of that black cloud hanging over his season so far, he can start to climb up the standings.

DM – Gordon has seven victories here (trailing only Pearson’s 10 on the all-time list) and he comes into Darlington with nothing to lose as the only way this team makes the Chase this season is by racking up checkered flags. Prior to last season’s 12th place finish, Gordon reeled off top five results in seven straight seasons and if he can shake the bad luck, Darlington could be where the 2012 season turns around.

#2-Brad Keselowski
DM – Keselowski has yet to win at Darlington and only has three starts, but with two top ten finishes, his average finish of 7.3 is second best among active drivers. Plus he’s coming off a victory last weekend at Talladega and is more of a thinking driver than most give him credit for. His awareness of history and studious nature could help keep him steer clear of the trouble that befalls most competitors at Darlington.

JW – Brad Keselowski’s season has been an amusement park ride, a lot of fun at times, and other times make you sick to your stomach. On a high after his win at Talladega, Keselowski is also becoming a fan favorite. Picking up fans on Twitter and winning on the racetrack have fans forgetting about the bad boy and his past run-ins with Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. A win this week will almost guarantee a spot in the Chase and a solid shot at the Championship.

#55-Mark Martin
JW – Mark Martin is the most experienced driver in the field and still is running with the leaders. Many have counted him out over the last couple years and wanted him to retire. As far as I’m concerned, as long as he continues to race strong, I want to see him in the field. I can’t wait to see which Michael Waltrip Racing driver gets to victory lane first, it would be great if it was Mark Martin.

DM – Navigating around Darlington takes more mental fortitude than anywhere else and Mark Martin tops the list when it comes to patience and experience. He has 26 top ten finishes in 45 starts and last won here just two years ago. The #55 team has raced up front all season long and Martin is smart enough to stay out of squirrely situations early and be around at the end to challenge for the win.

#18-Kyle Busch
DM – Since his Richmond victory and the follow-up second place finish at Talladega, Kyle Busch is back in the mix big-time. He may be the only driver with enough raw talent to overcome Darlington’s treacherous layout which was displayed in 2008 when he drove on the wall numerous times en route to his only victory here. His stats are all over the place here as his “take no prisoners” style matches up against Darlington’s lurking walls and the battle between track and driver continues Saturday night.

#39-Ryan Newman
JW – Newman may not pop in to your mind when you think of top drivers at Darlington, but his stats say otherwise. Flyin’ Ryan has started on the front row five times in thirteen starts including one pole. When the checkers are in the air, Newman has finished in the top ten nine times. Include Newman’s run last year where he started second and finished fifth and he needs to be included in the favorites.

#48-Jimmie Johnson
DM – Johnson trails just Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski in average finishes among active drivers with a 9.8 and has scored two wins at Darlington. He has nine top ten finishes in thirteen starts and his only DNF came as a result of being caught up in a wreck not of his making in 2010.

#5-Kasey Kahne
JW – Maybe I’m still just hoping (Kahne is on my fantasy racing team), but it looks like the season may be turning around for Kasey Kahne. Kahne has three top five finishes at Darlington in nine races. He also has started on the pole four times, including last year where he finished fourth. Look for Kahne and Newman to share the front row and run upfront on Saturday night.

#10-Danica Patrick
DM – The Go-Daddy Girl meets the Lady in Black and their introduction is sure to draw intense media attention. Danica has a guaranteed starting spot and Darlington presents what could be the biggest challenge of her career to date. While the car is sure to sport several Darlington Stripes throughout the night, how she handles this tough assignment will go a long way in earning respect among both her peers and fans.

JW – I’m sorry, but the only DP I would consider is all-time Darlington star and NASCAR Hall of Famer, David Pearson. What I wouldn’t give to be able to see Pearson race. Pearson’s stats at his home state track are amazing. In 47 races, Pearson won ten times, finished in the top five 24 times and had 30 top ten finishes. No one has been close to matching Pearson’s dominance of Darlington, and I wish I could go back and see those races.

Darlington is a truly historic track with many great races and finishes. Saturday night’s race hopefully will be another one for the memories.

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