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Bojangles' Southern 500

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Labor Day weekend has been missing something for the past 11 years that had been a staple in America since 1950, but that something has returned home. NASCAR Nation gets their wishes this week as the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway returns to its roots this holiday weekend.

Let’s say it again, “Darlington Raceway has the Southern 500 on Labor day weekend again!”

You may say, "big deal, a track is a track and who cares when they race." but that’s not so for the passionate NASCAR Nation that holds onto the sports past with great regard. When NASCAR moved Labor Day date at Darlington following the 2003 season, there was outrage. So what did NASCAR do? The following year they told everyone Darlington would get only one date for the 2005 season and the race would be in May, but they still called it the Southern 500.

It may have taken NASCAR 11 years to finally get to those angry protest letters from the fans, but at least they finally got it right.

We don’t have a lot of history in our young country, but nostalgia is something most of us cherish and hold dear. We like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park because the age tells us its something special. For the Southern 500 on Labor Day, a race and date more synonymous with NASCAR history than the Daytona 500 running in February, it’s finally home where it belongs and I couldn’t be happier.

After a week off, maybe I’m just excited about seeing some racing again and the whole Darlington thing is just a side story in my mind that enhances the anticipation.

Another reason to be excited is that Darlington’s 1.366-mile high banked layout is unlike any on the circuit with four differing turns. It’s a tough track to master and every driver has found a ’Darlington Stripe’ on their car door at some point in their careers. They’ve been calling Darlington ’The Lady in Black’ for years because she’s just a mean old nasty lady.

This weekend’s race is also special because we’ll get to see the new aero package that ran in July at Kentucky, which turned out to be the most exciting race of the season with all kinds of passing. Less overhang on the splitter and a shorter spoiler seems to create the perfect formula for great racing. The cars were super loose and it forced drivers to feather the fuel pedal more around turns rather than mashing the pedal all the way around the track.

Kentucky’s 1.5-mile flatter, wider layout is much different than Darlington’s so who knows what to expect from the racing. What I think we’ll see is an intense race with more Darlington Stripes dished out because of the cars being so loose. Even with race packages where the car stuck good through the turns, drivers had trouble with managing Darlington. The winner of the race will be the driver who has the guts to continually be on the brink of sliding into the walls.

Yeah, I think I’m pretty much all-around jazzed for this race.

What will ultimately make this my favorite race of the year is if I can cash some tickets in odds to win and driver match-ups. To come to my final conclusion on how things should turn out, I’ve mixed in what happened at Kentucky, past Darlington history and current form.

Under that criteria, the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers stand out. They had the new package figured out the best at Kentucky as all four finished in the top-five. Kyle Busch led 163 of the 267 laps en route to his second win of the season. He would go on to win the next two races. He also won at Darlington in 2008. He’s definitely got the current form thing down, he’s run well at Darlington and he dominated at Kentucky with the new package, but who wants to bet the favorite? I don’t want to lay big prices on match-ups either, so I’ve got to go another route and hope he doesn’t win.

Matt Kenseth finished fifth at Kentucky and got his first Darlington win in 2013. He’s won two of the past four races on the schedule and fits the profile of someone that can win.

Denny Hamlin has a 6.9 average finish at Darlington which is tops among all active drivers. The ’Lady in Black’ seems to have a fondness for Hamlin and let him win in 2010. He finished third at Kentucky and might offer some of the best value in this race. I’ll be looking to play him with odds to win and driver match-ups against anyone but Busch and Kenseth.

Kevin Harvick won at Darlington last season for the first time in his career after several years of taking beatings on the track. It was his fourth top-five finish in 18 starts, but he’s got five finishes of 32nd or worse over that span too. I’ll shy away from him this week just because of a lackluster Kentucky performance where he finished eighth and didn’t lead a lap.

Joey Logano has won two of the past three races coming into Darlington, but his 23rd-place average finish is something to really consider and force some match-up wagers against. He was second at Kentucky and we have to respect his set-up there, but his Darlington history resonates more. With a track already being tough on him and now having a looser car, I’ll look for plus money on drivers matched up against him.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
2) #20 Matt Kenseth (7/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (10/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)

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