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Chase Watch: Who will win, get in at Darlington?

April 10, 2014, Staff report,

Biffle, Gordon, Johnson seek to extend consecutive win streak to make Chase

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As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Darlington Raceway for its final race before the first off-weekend of the season, the series looks for its eighth different winner of 2014. 

The top three drivers on the active winner's list at the track that is known as Too Tough to Tame are winless this year. Also, among the seven who have visited Victory Lane this season, only Kyle Busch has a Sprint Cup win at Darlington. 

As the streak seeks to equal or surpass the nine wins to start 2003 or the 10 to start 2000, here are five drivers to watch in the Bojangles' Southern 500 (Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET, FOX).

Greg Biffle

One of only three active drivers with multiple wins at Darlington, Biffle is at home at the track, where he's won two Cup races. Known as a "wheel man" who wrangles loose race cars, Biffle will be in his element this weekend, wearing a Darlington stripe on the side of his car like a badge of honor. In the Loop Data era (2005-present), no driver has led more laps (632), had a higher percentage of laps led (19.1 percent) or had more Fastest Laps Run (286) than Biffle. That last stat is defined as "number of laps where driver had the fastest speed on the lap," and it all adds up to the third-best Driver Rating (107.5) at the track. In the case of the No. 16 car, loose really is fast.

Jeff Gordon

Among active drivers, Gordon is the Dean of Darlington with the most wins (seven), laps led (1,736) and best average start (6.758). As NASCAR returns to its roots at its oldest superspeedway -- a track over a mile -- the four-time series champion has returned to the points lead for the first time in nearly five years, and he's new school enough to be tops in Driver Rating among all drivers at 111.8. He has the most laps in the top 15 (2,982) for a 90.1 percentage and the highest percentage of Quality Passes (80.7 percent) as he passes cars in the top 15 under the green flag more often than not. He also has the best Average Running Position (8.1) and best Average Green Flag Speed (160.130 mph) through the nine races in the Loop Data era.

Denny Hamlin

In his first career NASCAR Nationwide Series race in 2004, Hamlin turned heads at Darlington, starting 27th and finishing eighth in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 car. When he completed the Nationwide-Cup sweep at Darlington in 2010, he coined the phrase "All we do is win" after crossing the start/finish line in the 2010 Southern 500. While he doesn't win every race at the Track Too Tough to Tame, he does have the best average finish among active drivers at 5.375. In the Loop Data era, Hamlin holds the best average finish (5.4), and he has four top-fives and seven-top 10s to go with his win. His 108.9 Driver Rating is second-best as is his Average Running Position (8.6).

Jimmie Johnson

Second-best among active drivers with three wins and an 8.8 average finish, Johnson is tied with Biffle for the third-best Driver Rating at 107.5. The six-time series champion won this race two years ago for Hendrick Motorsports' 200th victory and Rick Hendrick's 14th win at Darlington, the most in series history. Ten years ago, Johnson completed the 10th and final season sweep of the races at Darlington as the venue returned to one race a year. Johnson is second only to Gordon in Average Green Flag Speed (160.069 mph) and third in laps in the top 15 (2,504 for 75.6 percent).

Martin Truex Jr.

Returning to the scene of Furniture Row Racing's first and only win in 2011, Truex Jr. hopes to return the team to Victory Lane. At Darlington, he has the third-best average finish among active drivers (11.4), a top-10 Driver Rating (94.8) and a best finish of fifth in 2012. In eight career starts, he only has one finish outside of the top 14, a 19th in 2010, and he's completed all but one lap -- 2,939 out of 2,940 so it makes sense that he considers it to be "probably my favorite track on the whole circuit." A win on Saturday night could go a long way in cementing his love for The Lady in Black.

Go deeper: Check out NASCAR's Darlington Statistical Analysis for more stats and notes for Saturday's race.

Heading into the eighth race of NASCAR's regular season, here is how the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings look:

Pos. Driver Chase berth
1. Carl Edwards
Winner: Bristol
2. Joey Logano
Winner: Texas
3. Kyle Busch
Winner: Fontana
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Winner: Daytona
5. Brad Keselowski
Winner: Las Vegas
6. Kurt Busch
Winner: Martinsville
7. Kevin Harvick Winner: Phoenix
8. Jeff Gordon
Points leader
9. Matt Kenseth
2nd in points
10. Jimmie Johnson
7th in points
11. Brian Vickers
9th in points
12. Paul Menard
10th in points
13. Ryan Newman
11th in points
14. Austin Dillon
12th in points
15. Denny Hamlin
13th in points
16. Tony Stewart
14th in points


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