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Bojangles' Southern 500

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Break out the grill, open up a can Pabst and turn on the TV for some late Sunday afternoon NASCAR racing. It's one of the great American traditions on Labor Day weekend. Since 1950, NASCAR has been running the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway's egg-shaped, high banked 1.366-mile layout. We don't work on Monday, so let's take it up a notch and party on Sunday.

This track oozes NASCAR history which is why fans have been coming to this track in the middle of no where in South Carolina for so long. It's tradition, and while NASCAR was resisting against it's historical importance for a brief period from 2005 to 2014 in favor of more traditional modern tracks, they saw the errors of their ways and brought the Labor Day weekend race back in 2015.

Rather than argue with angry fans about moving the Labor Day tradition, NASCAR embraced it and took things up full throttle asking teams to dress their race cars up in old school paint schemes. Last season Kyle Larson turned his No. 42 into a Mellow-Yellow Chevrolet, similar to what Kye Petty drove in the 1980's or Cole Trickle drove to a Darlington win in the movie "Days of Thunder." Just about every car entered this weekend will have something that will remind us of decades past. I love that!

“I like going to Darlington – it’s a fun place although it’s bit me a lot of times," Kyle Busch said. "I should have won probably twice as many races as I’ve won there, which is frustrating. I was glad to win there in 2008 and get my Southern 500 win – that was pretty cool. Why we’re good there? I don’t know, but it’s a place that a lot of the driver comes into play and I feel like all the JGR drivers obviously are really, really good. Of course, our equipment is good, too, and we can run fast there – run well there – and, if you can keep air in the tires, you might win.”

So, who is going to win? First of all, this thing is wide open. The track too tough to tame with four differing corners doesn't play favorites with anyone. She dishes out wrath and Darlington stripes to everyone alike. They call Darlington 'The Lady in Black' and she's looking at a moment in its history where so few drivers have conquered her. When Jeff Gordon retired with his seven Darlington wins, that left Jimmie Johnson as the active leader with three wins. Seven other drivers have one each. That's it. She's intimidating.

“A Darlington Stripe is pretty easy to receive," Busch said. "Running at Darlington is so tough and we are carrying so much speed there nowadays that you have to run right up there against the wall in order to get your car pointed correctly for the next corner, the next apex you have to make. So, running next to the wall in (turn) one and (turn) two and turning down coming off of two and carrying big momentum and big speed down the backstretch in order to set yourself up for turn three is important. Running high in three and four all the way through the corner, trying to keep the momentum going, because it’s such a tighter corner that the radius difference between each end of the track, you try to spread that radius as wide as you can and that’s right up against the wall. So, at any moment that car can slip and, during a run when the tires fall off, you have to be aware of one to two seconds of tire fall-off and your car is slowing down and at any moment you might slip a little bit and tag that wall. It can be very easy to do.”

Denny Hamlin has been the best among all active drivers with a 6.2 average finish in 11 career starts, which includes a 2010 win. He's been runner-up three times and has finished third and fourth, respectively, the past two seasons. After struggling to find speed for the first two-thirds of the season, the Joe Gibbs Racing squad is flexing their muscles in the past six races.

Hamlin captured the teams' first win of 2017 at New Hampshire, the 19th race of the season. Then Kyle Busch won his first of the year two weekend later at Pocono and then he won again at Bristol before the series took last week off. That's three wins in six races and only two races remain until the playoffs start at Chicagoland. I'd say they have themselves positioned nicely as a team to win a championship. Look to them this week as well.

Martin Truex Jr. has had no problem this season capturing wins with JGR equipment. He's team has been on a bit of a different program from the four JGR drivers, but it's proved to be one of the most successful in the Cup series as he leads with four wins and 951 points. Truex won this race last season and he should be considered the favorite this week.

Kyle Larson was third last season, 10th the year before and eighth in rookie campaign of 2014. That comes out to a seventh-place average which makes him second-best among active drivers behind Hamlin.

Jimmie Johnson was for the third and final time in 2012, but had a rough 33rd-place finish last season. Overall, he's third-best in the series with a 10.4 average finish.

The driver I'll be rooting for, but have no money wagered on, is Johnson's Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in what will likely be his final race at Darlington. He's never won thee in 21 starts but does have a respectable 14th-place average finish. He missed last years race with a concussion, but he finished eighth in 2015, second in 2014 and ninth in 2013.

The reason I won't have any money on Junior is just because it doesn't appear he or his team has any urgency to get some good gear. They're not looking like a team that is anywhere close to winning. For nostalgia purposes, I'd like him to to win and make the Chase in his final year. That is the only way he can make the Chase.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (9/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
3) #42 Kyle Larson (6/1)
4) #20 Matt Kenseth (15/1)
5) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (5/1)

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