Bojangles Southern 500
September 1, 2016
By Micah Roberts
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Only two races remain in NASCAR's regular season before the 10-race Sprint Cup Chase starts at Chicagoland Sept. 18 and Sunday night's Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway will help finalize the 16 drivers eligible for postseason play.
Kyle Larson's first career win last week at Michigan made him the 13th driver to win in the first 24 races which means there are only three Chase spots available.
The Southern 500 used to be NASCAR's feature race of the season every Labor Day weekend. It began in 1950 and while NASCAR took the date away during its rapid expansion -- greed was the real reason, last year it made a return back to its rightful spot on the schedule at Darlington and everyone embraced it.
The track painted the facility just the way it was in the 1950's, and the teams got into the theme as well with retro paint schemes. For the past two months, every team has been unveiling their Darlington paint schemes, and they all look pretty cool. You're going to do a double take wondering if David Pearson, Cale Yarborough or Junior Johnson is driving.
Beyond the historical element added, the best thing about races at Darlington is the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval that features high banks with four different corners. No matter how skilled a driver is 'The Lady in Black' always manages to give away some unwanted Darlington stripes.
“The Darlington Stripe is when you run up right by the wall and you are trying to get the best speed you can out of the car," said Kurt Busch who makes his 20th Darlington start Sunday and finished sixth there last year.
"Just that quick (snaps fingers), the wall just sucks you right on it and you’ve got the right side of your car pancaked. The teams build the cars with extra support on the right sides. It’s extra weight but it helps protect you from running into the wall too hard. It helps where you can keep your day going and not actually ruin your day when you run into the wall. You think, hitting the wall, usually your day is done. At Darlington, that is a tattoo. It’s a stamp that says now you are racing.”
It's a tough track for all, which is why it's often called 'The Track Too Tough To Tame'.
The first handicapping tool we need to start with is understanding that all the teams will be running the regular package that has been run with most of the year that Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated with. There have been 24 races run this season and a Gibbs car has won 11 of them, but if we back out the three restrictor-plate races and the three races with the new low downforce package, a Gibbs car has won 10 of the 18 races. That is an incredible ratio of success.
While Darlington is configured like no other on the circuit, we can still apply a lot of what we've seen already in the six races run on 1.5-mile tracks. Then, let's back out the July 9 race at Kentucky, won by Brad Keselowski, because it used the low downforce package and now we're looking at the last three winners using the regular package on 1.5s coming from the Gibbs stable. This is where we'll start for this week, and there's one Gibbs driver that has been very well liked by 'The Lady in Black.'
No one has been better than Denny Hamlin at Darlington. How does a 6.5 average finish sound in 10 career starts? The track definitely hasn't been too tough for Hamlin to tame. His lone win there came in 2010 and he's been runner-up three times. Last year he finished third. The track just suits his style and you can believe between his own skills and the Gibbs equipment that he'll be running in the top-five for most of the race.
Hamlin and his crew have been in a Chase simulation mode the past few races and they probably wish it was the real deal happening now because they are in their absolute best form of the season with six straight top-10 finishes, including his first career win at Watkins Glen.
He's a good bet right now to win his first Sprint Cup Championship at 12/1 (Westgate SuperBook) and if you do some searching around town, you might find a sports book that overlooks him this week and posts him at 10/1 odds or higher. NASCAR isn't a priority right now for the books with football starting, so there could be an opportunity to catch one of them sleeping at the wheel in other areas, such as this week's Southern 500.
If Hamlin's not your choice this week, Kevin Harvick will surely give you a good run for your money. He's had top-five finishes in his last three Darlington starts including his first career win there in 2014.
Jimmie Johnson has three Darlington wins, second most among active drivers behind Jeff Gordon's seven. Johnson's last win came in 2012 which began a string of three straight top-fives before finishing 19th last season. He has a 9.1 average finish in 17 career starts. Gordon is active again this week after skipping Michigan and is 30/1 to win.
Chevrolet has won the last two races in the series, but the most probable winner this week comes from the Gibbs stable in a Toyota. Hamlin looks to be the best of the bunch this week, but Carl Edwards is close behind as a candidate. After being runner-up twice at Darlington in his first 11 starts, he finally took the checkers last season. The interesting thing to note about that race is that the package they're using for most of this season was used on a trial basis at Darlington last year.
Kyle Busch has had rough weeks back-to-back at Bristol (39th) and Michigan (19th), but Darlington should see his best effort. He's been seventh or better in his last four starts there and captured a win during his magical year of 2008 when he won a career-high eight races.
Matt Kenseth has been sluggish lately as well, but he grabbed his first Darlington win in 2013.
Top-5 Finish Prediction
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
3) #19 Carl Edwards (8/1)
4) #20 Matt Kenseth (8/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (10/1)