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Fantasy: Perfect timing, patience needed at Darlington

May 04, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Track isn't exactly predictable, but it does take a certain breed to excel

NASCAR is in the middle of one of the most unique stretches of the schedule. Three weeks ago, drivers were challenged by an unrestricted, intermediate speedway. Two weeks ago, they had to survive 500 miles on a restrictor-plate superspeedway and last week, the short track of Richmond International Raceway took its toll on a number of drivers. Next week, the Cup Series rolls onto the concrete high banks of Dover International Speedway.

And smack-dab in the middle of it all might just be the most challenging course that drivers will face all year: Darlington Raceway.

Six years ago, NASCAR began running this race under the lights. In 2008, the surface was repaved to add more grip, but it hasn't lost its edge. The Lady in Black might have a fresh coat of makeup, but she is still Too Tough to Tame. Despite the reputation, however, someone wins the race every time the Series rolls into town and it is always one of the victories drivers cherish most at the end of the season.

Racing the track

Darlington is not exactly predictable, but it does take a certain breed to excel there. In order to run strong on this egg-shaped track with a racing groove that is right against the wall, drivers have to be patient and take only as much as the track will give them. If they overstep their boundaries, The Lady will slap them. NASCAR's new body is durable and can take a little contact, but if they press their luck a second or third time, the slap becomes a punch and Darlington will send them packing.

This is one of those courses where drivers are fond of saying they "race the track and not the competition." To be effective, they need to have a game plan in place before the green flag waves and stick with it throughout the evening. Cars that race to the front quickly are just as often the ones that fall back late in a tire run, so the successful driver will be the one that has his timing down perfectly so that he gets the most out of his Goodyears from the moment they are bolted on until the next pit stop allows him to get a fresh set.

The Favorites

Last week was a bitter disappointment for Jeff Gordon and his fans. Fantasy owners will never know if he was saving something back and might have been able to challenge Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin for the victory at the end of the Crown Royal 400, but he certainly had a top-three capable car. This week will be a test of how quickly and thoroughly he can snap back, because Darlington is one of his favorite tracks. With seven total victories there, he's been better than anyone in the field for a much longer period of time. His dominance is not relegated to the distant past, either, because he has a perfect record of top-five finishes since this race was moved to nighttime and in those past six races, his average finish is better than third. He's not completely infallible there, however. In three consecutive races in 2003 and 2004, he finished outside the top 30, mostly because of crash damage. Last week's accident was not of his making and the same fate could befall him at Darlington, but by the numbers, he is easily the top-ranked driver this week.

After Gordon, picking a favorite gets to be a little more difficult. Other than Ryan Newman, no other driver in the field enters the weekend with back-to-back top-10s and nearly all of the drivers who were successful in 2009, finished well down the order last year. That means fantasy owners have to take a wider view of the stats and rely on driver's personalities to help determine their lineup. Matt Kenseth could be the poster child for cautious, patient drivers. His apparent lack of emotion behind the wheel doesn't get him a lot of TV time, but he is usually found around the leaders when the green flag waves. At Darlington, he has only one career top-five, but his last five attempts have ended in results of 13th or better. More remarkable still, all but one of these efforts came after he rolled off the grid 29th or worse.

The other top pick this week has to go to another driver with relatively few top-fives in recent years, but a strong record of consistency. Jeff Burton swept this track in 1999 when it hosted two races per year and that was part of an eight-race streak of top-fives. Since that string ended in 2000, he hasn't earned another such finish, but he hasn't completely lost his touch. His last five races at Darlington have all ended in a narrow band of results from eighth through 12th and often consistency is much more valuable than raw power. Along with Gordon, Kenseth, and Hamlin, Burton is the only driver with five consecutive top-15s on this track.

Darlington


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Last week was atypical for Jimmie Johnson -- until the final dash to the checkers, that is. He argued with his crew chief, struggled to stay in contention for the free pass after losing a lap with an ill-handling car, and triggered a wreck with Joey Logano when he couldn't keep his car stable in its groove. In the final tally, he managed to earn another top-10 finish, which was his third consecutive and fifth in the past six races. If last week's effort before that final spurt of speed shook your confidence, you are not alone and now he enters a track where two of his past three efforts have ended outside the top 10, including a crash-induced 36th-place finish in last year's Showtime Southern 500. On the other hand, he does at least need to be considered a dark horse, because the last year this track held two races he was the one who swept Victory Lane in 2004. Nine of his 12 attempts ended in top-10 finishes, which means he certainly knows how to get to the front.

Now that the monkey is off his back with a strong run last week, Hamlin could be prepared to win. If he manages to do so, he will be the first back-to-back winner since Greg Biffle performed the feat in 2005/2006. The driver of the No. 11 has been consistently strong since he first visited this track with a worst result of 13th and a second-place finish to Gordon in 2007 that supplements last year's victory. Darlington is a track where confidence means a lot, and last week's runner-up finish in the Crown Royal 400 should put him back on your radar screen.

Underdogs

Occasionally the Lady in Black will allow a driver to get fresh, just to enhance her reputation as a woman of mystery, and that explains the rollercoaster relationship with Kyle Busch. This brash, young driver is an all or nothing competitor who likes to attack the corners and that gets him into trouble as often as it pays dividends on this track. In six starts, Busch has finished 23rd, 37th, and 34th in alternating seasons ending in 2009; his other three efforts netted a pair of sevenths and a victory in 2008. If you caught the pattern, however, you will have noticed that all of his bad results came in odd-numbered years, and since this is 2011, he's due to struggle once more.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Darlington (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Kyle Busch6.97 15.Ryan Newman15.69 28.Scott Riggs29.63
3.Martin Truex Jr.7.00 16.Kevin Harvick15.78 29.Paul Menard30.44
4.Denny Hamlin9.50 17.Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.72 30.Regan Smith31.17
5.Jamie McMurray9.88 18.David Reutimann17.29 31.Casey Mears31.59
6.Jeff Burton10.96 19.Brian Vickers17.81 32.David Gilliland31.88
7.Kurt Busch11.59 20.Joey Logano18.35 33.David Stremme32.31
8.Brad Keselowski12.72 21.Carl Edwards18.52 34.Robby Gordon32.58
9.Mark Martin13.00 22.Travis Kvapil18.74 35.Marcos Ambrose33.06
10.Kasey Kahne13.36 23.David Ragan21.84 36.A.J. Allmendinger34.38
11.Matt Kenseth13.41 24.Juan Montoya23.00 37.Tony Raines35.89
12.Greg Biffle14.25 25.Clint Bowyer27.32 38.Joe Nemechek36.40
13.Tony Stewart15.00 26.Bobby Labonte28.63 39.Michael McDowell37.82

Brad Keselowski is an underdog that is capable of either being the most pleasant surprise of the week or the Lady's latest rejection. His public persona -- based primarily on a highly publicized feud with Carl Edwards -- would suggest that his temperament is not suited to this finesse track, but he has defied that prediction in the two races he has run there during his Cup career. He was easily the top rookie in 2009 on a track that is not usually friendly to first time drivers when he finished seventh. Last year was not quite as strong, but he still provided a lot of bang for his salary cap buck with a 12th in the 2010 edition of this race.