Drivers often call Darlington Raceway "Too Tough to Tame;" recently, fantasy players have found it tough to handicap.
Conventional wisdom long held that Young Guns should be avoided on this egg-shaped, rough-surfaced oval. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin were able together string long streaks of top-fives and -10s after years of competition, but recent seasons have not been nearly as predictable. While five drivers enter the weekend with back-to-back top-10s, only one has scored three -- showing a lack of consistency that highlights NASCAR’s search for parity.
Statistically, the 2011 Bojangles' Southern 500 was an outlier in several ways. Regan Smith stayed on track during the final caution period and rolled the dice on old tires. Lightly-funded teams often struggle at Darlington -- another strike in his disfavor -- but he managed to keep the veteran Carl Edwards and hard-charging Brad Keselowski at bay. This independent team with a fourth-year driver scored not only Smith's first Cup victory, but his first Darlington top-15.
In that race, Gordon snapped a seven-race top-five streak by finishing 12th, and a changing of the guard at Darlington was underway.
Denny Hamlin has a knack for racing with adversity. In 2010, he underwent knee surgery and immediately returned to the car. He struggled at Phoenix that spring due to mechanical issues, but quickly won five of the next 10 races. Because it is so tough, Darlington would seem to be an unlikely place to mount a comeback, but Hamlin is ideally suited to this track. He is the only driver with top-10 finishes in his last three races. In fact, he won the 2009 Southern 500 and finished second last year. Seven of his eight starts at Darlington ended in top-10 finishes, and he will probably add another.
Martin Truex Jr. scored his first Darlington top-five last year, but he is still a driver worth watching. In seven career attempts, he has finished outside the top 15 only one time as the result of crash damage and he has swept the top 20. He is not a particularly strong qualifier on this track, and in his seven attempts he has finished better than he started in every race, which means he will earn positive place differential points in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game. With an average improvement of 13 positions, he is liable to earn a lot of points in that category.
Traditionally, Kenseth has not been particularly strong at Darlington, but in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing his old records need to be set aside. He runs strong on tracks where his current teammates excel, and both Hamlin and Kyle Busch finished in the top five there last year. Kenseth also has a ton of momentum on his side, with dominant performances at Kansas and Talladega in the past three weeks. His only career top-five at Darlington came in the 2006 Dodge Charger 500, but that statistic is bound to get updated this week.
Gordon dominated Darlington once upon a time and that is not a fairy tale buried in the annals of history. From 2004 though 2010, he scored one victory, another pair of runner-ups, and had an average finish of better than third. He has been strong there throughout his career, and he scored five victories and had a worst finish of third in a span of eight races from 1995 through 1999.
Last week was a profile in determination for Gordon. After sustaining damage in the first "Big One" crash of the Aaron's 499, he spent much of the day a lap off the pace. He got the Free Pass when the sun was low on the horizon and with laps winding down, only to get caught up in the second "Big One." And still, he finished the race among the lead pack in 11th to give him his third consecutive result of 11th through 13th. This week, he will be even stronger.
When Joey Logano went behind the wall on Lap 143 of the Aaron's 499 with an engine failure, he extended a seven-race streak in which he has alternated a top-five finish with one outside the top 15. Patterns can be meaningful when they become that long, but that is not the only reason to recommend him. This week, Penske Racing South had their final appeal of the penalties that resulted from NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway last month and Chief Appellate Officer John Middlebrook reduced the crew chief suspension from six points’ races to two. Logano has been running extremely well all season, and this boost to the team’s morale is the intangible he needs to score another top-five.
Last week was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best chance to regain the momentum he experienced in the first five races of the season. He is one of the best restrictor-plate superspeedway racers and he challenged for a top-five during the afternoon, but ultimately he was nudged out of the draft and finished 17th. As good as the first five races of 2013 were with an average of 4.4, his average during the last five events has dropped precipitously to 19.2 and it is taking a while for his current performance to drop his salary cap to an acceptable level.
Martin traditionally runs well in weeks following his mini vacations, but that statistic is at odds with his recent Darlington record. In his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, he won the 2009 edition of this race after starting 12th, but he was far less successful in the two races that followed with a 16th and 19th. While running part time with Bobby Ginn and Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007 and 2008, he also finished outside the top 10 in both races, and last year in a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, he could manage only a 20th-place result.
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