Drivers to Watch - Darlington
April 11, 2014
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For the first time this season, NASCAR takes its show to the evening hours with Saturday’s Bojangles' Southern 500 race under the lights at Darlington Raceway. Nicknamed the "Lady in Black" and "The Track Too Tough to Tame" by many NASCAR fans, this egg-shaped oval track has been around since 1950.
It measures 1.366 miles with a frontstretch equidistant to the backstretch (1,229 feet or 0.23 miles) both containing a small amount (six degrees) of banking. Turns 1 and 2 are banked at 25° and 23° respectively.
The defending champion of this race is Matt Kenseth, who is looking to be the first back-to-back Darlington winner since Greg Biffle in 2005 and 2006.
Drivers to Watch
Denny Hamlin (8/1) - Hamlin has been outstanding at Darlington in his career, carrying a stellar 5.4 average finish in eight starts, which is by far the best mark among active drivers (Jimmie Johnson's 8.8 is second). Not only did Hamlin win at this track in 2010, but he has banged out three runner-ups in 2007, 2012 and last year. Hamlin has also done a nice job of giving himself advantageous starting positions with a pole, 2nd and 6th in his past three races, and this is important for Saturday's race because 86% of Darlington winners have started from the top-10 spots.
Tony Stewart (25/1) - Stewart carried 8-to-1 odds in this race two years ago, and he's getting more than three times that for the second straight Darlington start. "Smoke" began the season slowly, but is starting to get his groove back with a 9.0 average finish in his past four races and an average start of 6.0 in his past three, including last week's pole in Fort Worth. Stewart has yet to win in his 21 starts at the "Lady in Black," but he does have the 5th-best average finish (12.0) among active drivers here. Stewart has tallied 11 top-10's and four top-5's at Darlington, including a 3rd, 7th and 3rd in three of his past five starts. He's also led at this track in three of his past five starts.
Jeff Gordon (8/1) - The other chalk pick on the board that is worthy of a wager is Gordon, the seven-time Darlington winner. In addition to those seven wins, he has 12 other top-5's at this track, giving him an average finish of 11.5 in his career at Darlington. This isn't all ancient history either, as Gordon has finished 1st, 2nd or 3rd in six of his past 10 starts at the "Lady in Black," including a third-place showing last year. And no racer has been as consistent as the 42-year-old Gordon this season. He sits atop the points standings by finishing no worse than 13th in all seven races in 2014, including leading at least four laps in three of those starts.
Carl Edwards (20/1) - An undervalued darkhorse pick this week is Edwards, who went off at 10-to-1 at Darlington last year, and carries a strong 12.5 average finish at this track, good for 7th among active drivers. Edwards has never won at this venue, but he does have top-7 finishes in six of his 10 career starts, including three in a row. The No. 99 car is also off to a fast start this season with four top-10's in the first seven races to put Edwards third in the current points standings.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (100/1) - Another driver whose odds have doubled since last year is Stenhouse Jr., who went off at 50-to-1 in the 2013 Bojangles' Southern 500. Stenhouse has been scuffling since his runner-up finish in Bristol on March 16, placing 34th, 40th and 26th last week in Texas. He doesn't have much history at Darlington, with his first career start coming last year when he started 14th and finished 18th.
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