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Bojangles Southern 500 Preview

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We may not see a 100-to-1 payout this week at Darlington Raceway like we saw Sunday at Talladega when the low budget car driven by David Ragan beat all the heavyweights, but precedent has been set before that gives some semblance of hope that there could be. Two seasons ago, Regan Smith shocked the NASCAR world with a Darlington win that paid out 500-to-1 at the LVH Super Book.

If looking at who's win was more shocking, its easily Smith's simply because restrictor-plate racing at places like Talladega allow for up to 35 drivers to have a legitimate shot. At Darlington, the track "Too Tough to Tame" called "The Lady in Black", we go back to racing where the elite teams are supposed to have a considerable edge. In Smith's case, he ran the perfect race and "The Lady" was in a forgiving mood.

Darlington is the oldest track on the NASCAR circuit, running races annually since 1950. It's the toughest track on tour for the drivers to navigate because of it's 1.366 mile configuration with four drastically different turns. There is no other track to compare it to, which makes it not only hard for the drivers to adapt to each time out, but also for the crew chiefs to set up their cars properly.

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Whoever makes the proper adjustment during the Friday practice sessions and during Saturday night's race, will have an edge. Coming into this race with the new Gen-6 car, there are up to 16 drivers that have a legitimate shot at winning. Smith proved a long-shot can win, and we have seen drivers like Ricky Craven (40/1) and Ward Burton (25/1) win there among giants, but Darlington wins are usually reserved for the elite.

From a horsepower and handling standpoint, you could look at the top performers from the races already run on 1.5-mile tracks at Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas to get a head start on handicapping the race, which immediately takes us to the Joe Gibbs drivers.

The first driver to begin with is Denny Hamlin, who returned to the track last week at Talladega, but only raced the first 23 laps before turning the car over to Brian Vickers. Hamlin made the start to get driver points, and is still dealing with an injured back.

Over his career at Darlington, Hamlin has the top average finish among active drivers (5.9), including a 2010 win. This would appear to be a track that he could capture a win and start his quest to getting back in the top-20 in points. Hamlin's goal for the next 16 races before the Chase starts will be to try and get the most wins possible. The bad news for Hamlin is that Darlington is a lot tougher on a back than Talladega is.

Next up on the Joe Gibbs list is Kyle Busch, who won at Darlington during his magical 2008 season. He finished fourth last year and has two wins already through 10 races this season. Matt Kenseth, on the other hand, has had a tough go of it at Darlington over his career. "The Lady in Black" has forced him to a 17.5 average finish over his 19 career starts, with only one top-5 over that span.

Jimmie Johnson is a three-time winner with a 9.1 average finish and will be considered the favorite with Busch this week.

Jeff Gordon has seven Darlington wins, the last coming in 2007, and will be starting his 700th Cup race of his career.

"I've been fortunate to race this long and have the type of career I've had," said Gordon. "It's really cool to see that this will be my 700th start, but it's not something I really paid attention to.

"It's hard to believe I've run that many - especially consecutively."

Before NASCAR pulled the rug from the track as being considered one of most special races, Gordon had won four straight Southern 500's, something no one before had ever done. Not Richard Petty, and not even South Carolina natives David Pearson or Cale Yarborough.

Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex, Jr. have all shown a special ability on the track that most others haven't, making them candidates to win. Tony Stewart would be a candidate if his car wasn't so slow on the horse-power type of tracks, because he's always fared well there despite never winning.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
2) #99 Carl Edwards (12/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
4) #11 Denny hamlin (8/1)
5) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)

  
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