Bojangles' Southern 500
April 8, 2014
By Micah Roberts
The NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers better be extra careful this Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, because “The Lady in Black” has waited an entire year to say hello, and when she says hello, she kisses sides of the cars with her signature Darlington stripe.
Every driver has gotten a Darlington stripe on their car at some point of their career, it’s just that some have been able to stay clear of the wall more frequently, and those are the drivers we want to focus on when choosing a driver to win at the sports books.
Darlington is the heart of NASCAR, and has been continually handing out stripes since 1950. Because of the unique 1.336-mile layout where one set of turns is narrower and banked lower than the other side, it offers the most unique racing experience of the season. At one point, because of those unique traits, winning the Southern 500 was just as prestigious as winning the Daytona 500 which began in 1959.
Drivers who win at Darlington are a special breed. They are usually the best of the best and their names continually find themselves in the top-5. Drivers like Denny Hamlin, who won in 2011, and was runner-up three times, including the past two seasons. Jimmie Johnson, who swept the 2004 season when the track last had two dates a season, and also won in 2012. Then there’s Jeff Gordon who has seven wins all-time, including a record four straight Southern 500’s from 1995-98.
The one name among drivers we consider great, a two-time champion, who is missing from the list of past winners is Tony Stewart. He’s had 21 cracks at it, and run well with a 12.3 average finish, but third-place twice is the best he’s done. He’s also never won the Daytona 500, but has won in the summer at Daytona, so zero wins total at a track for Stewart is a big deal and also very telling to how rough the track can be.
Last season it was Matt Kenseth winning at Darlington for the first time in his career. It was only his second top-5 finish in 20 starts at a place that he took plenty of lumps, as well as stripes. At the time, Kenseth had already won twice on the season, both on 1.5-mile tracks at Las Vegas and Kansas. He led only 17 laps on the day, but the last 12 he led were the most important.
If we use Kenseth’s lead-up to his win last season, a driver that would be comparable to possibly get his first win at Darlington would be Brad Keselowski. He won at Las Vegas and also ran very well at Texas, the only two 1.5-mile tracks raced on this season. His best finish at Darlington was third in 2011, but the lady got him last year when he was involved in a wreck and finished 32nd.
With Joey Logano running fast on the 1.5-mile tracks this season, including Monday's win at Texas, he might be a driver to take a shot with at higher odds. His best finish on the “Track too Tough to Tame” was ninth in his rookie season. He was 22nd last year in his first attempt with a Penske Ford.
Kyle Busch was outstanding at Fontana and Texas, and he won at Darlington in 2008. His team has found some horsepower and it will be needed here as well, along with Busch's knack to drive in tough situations, and “The Lady” is a tough situation throughout.
Let’s stay with the meat and potatoes this week and roll with the most consistent drivers at the track with one exception made for Keselowski. Gordon looks to offer the most value and he's been consistent all season which is why he is now the point leader.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
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