Bojangles’ Southern 500

Happy Labor Day weekend everyone!

Throw some meats on the grill, grab a cold one and let's watch the Bojangles' Southern 500 together. It's a family tradition for most of us and it's been a NASCAR tradition at Darlington Raceway since 1950. Just two races remain until the green flag of the Playoffs drops in Las Vegas so for every driver currently outside of the top-16 in points, they've got two whacks at getting in by winning one the two, Sunday's race and next week at the Brickyard.

I don't believe we'll see a new winner in either race, but I am intrigued by a possible new winner next week at the Brickyard. Joe Gibbs Racing's Daniel Suarez, who sits 19th in points, has run extremely well of late. He's the teammate of Kyle Busch and last month at Pocono Raceway he had his best career Cup race starting from the pole and finishing second. The reason that's notable is that Pocono is the best comparison to Indianapolis due to long straights and flat tight turns (Pocono turn 3). Lots of horsepower is needed and he had plenty of it and should again next week. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook has Suarez listed at 200/1 odds to win the championship, but there's probably better value by just betting Suarez to win at Indy at a 60/1 price.

As for this week at Darlington's 1.366-mile layout, I don't see any driver outside the top-16 winning, but I can easily see a winless driver on the season winning. There's a couple driver that have figured out this difficult track. All four turns around the track are different and the banking ranges from 23 to 25 degrees. They call it 'The Track Too Tough to Tame' and they also call it "The Lady in Black' who gives all drivers at some point in their career a Darlington Stripe which the rub on side of their car after smacking into the wall. No driver can avoid it. It happens to them all at some point no matter how hard they try.

“My first race and first stripe – that place chewed me up and spit me out," said Kurt Busch who won his first race of 2018 two weeks ago at Bristol. "I think I wrecked 20 times, kept bouncing off wall. I wore out the tires but kept going. I probably finished 40th my first time there. It really was an eye-opener on how tough NASCAR was going to be.”

Busch had an amazing battle with Ricky Craven in 2003 at Darlington. They bumped and banged, slipping and sliding all over the place battling for the lead in the final 10 laps. Craven finally took the lead by a bumper on the finish to lead his only lap of the race. Busch was runner-up and in still remains his best finish after 21 career starts. It's tough. Suarez found out last season as a rookie when Turn 1 found him quickly to end his day in 38th.

Clint Bowyer barely turned a few laps last year at Darlington before his engine died and forced him to finish dead last. He doesn't have a single top-five in 12 starts on the track that really is too tough to tame for him.

“I like the uniqueness of the track," said Bowyer. "I’ve struggled to have good finishes there but we’ve always raced well. We just can’t seem to seal the deal at the end. Something always goes haywire in the end but, sooner or later, we are going to overcome that and have a good weekend.”

Expect to see all the drivers that have done well on the 1.5-mile tracks do well at Darlington, but the Lady in Black adds a bit of a wild card that should create more drama than we've seen on any other 1.5-mile track. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have each won three times on 1.5s and Martin Truex Jr. has one win.

They truly are "The Big-3."

Truex won at Darlington in 2016, Harvick won there in 2014 and Kyle Busch won there in 2008. Of the three, Truex has the best average finish at 11.3 over 12 starts.

“It’s getting close to show time and we’re going to scratch, claw and grind for every playoff point,” Truex said of the upcoming playoffs. “You can’t leave anything on the table.”

Expect Truex to be good again this week. And the same can be said for Harvick who will be using his winning Atlanta chassis that led 181 of 325 laps in February. Since moving to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014 he's been on the Darlington pole in three of four starts and averaged a 4.2 finish. His first career win there in 2014 came just before winning his first career Cup Championship.

Kyle Busch leads all active drivers with 598 laps led at Darlington, but there's quite a gap in wins since 2008. He dominated the 2013 race with 265 laps led and finished runner-up. He's had finishes of 11th or better in eight straight races but has only had the best car once over that span which is unusual for him, especially his last three seasons.

The best active driver at Darlington has been Denny Hamlin with a 5.83 average finish that includes two wins, the last coming last season. He's led a lap in the past four races there and The Lady in Black appears to have some serious affection for him, or at least she's been the nicest to him. Hamlin could use some of that love as he's searching for his first win of the season. He's had at least one in every season of his Cup career since his rookie season in 2006. This could be his spot.

Another driver that has won every year of his career except this season is Jimmie Johnson who has three Darlington wins, but none on Labor Day weekend. Chevrolet is gaining speed and it's perfect timing with the Playoffs starting soon. Johnson is a seven-time Cup Champion and the Westgate has him 40/1 to win his eighth title this season. The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook posted him at 100/1 odds, his highest odds ever at Darlington.

The Lady treated Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott rudely in his first start there in 2015 with a 41st-place finish. But then he finished 10th in 2016 and 11th last year. He's a definite wild card possibility this week.

“It’s just a tough place," Elliott said. "There are a lot of things that make it tough. Running up by the wall is a difficult thing to do there. The racetrack is just so worn out, tough to run up there all night and not hit it. Nowadays if you hit the wall at all with these cars, it really can destroy your day – tough thing to do. Then obviously racing from the daylight to the dark and that it is a long race in general, too. A lot of challenges come with it, but we will just try to hit them head on.”

Elliott has finished in the top-10 of his last five races heading into Sunday's race, which includes his first career Cup win at Watkins Glen. He's 25/1 to win this week.

Kyle Larson has shown some speed in his Chevrolet as well and is searching for his first win of the season. He's fared well at Darlington with an 8.7 average finish in four starts. His best finish was third in 2016, but it was last season that saw him lead 124 laps before finishing 14th. He's led laps in his last three starts there.

Some of the best value on the board might be Kurt Busch and Erik Jones, both listed at 18/1 odds. Jones is a sweet run of finishing fifth in three of his past four starts heading in. Busch is still partying after his Bristol win and carries that momentum in addition to his third-place run at Darlington last season.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
2) #42 Kyle Larson (8/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
4) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (7/2)
5) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/2)