NASCAR Sprint Cup: Drivers in the Mix at Darlington's Southern 500

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IMay 9, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: Drivers in the Mix at Darlington's Southern 500

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    NASCAR's premier series makes its annual pilgrimage to the track deemed, "Too Tough To Tame." It's a track few have truly mastered, and those who don't can face devastating results at the wicked track.

    It's normally hot at the South Carolina track, and by the end of the race many of the drivers are even hotter after a night of fender banging and encounters that result in the famous Darlington stripe.

    The egg-shaped, 1.366-mile track with as much as 25 degrees of banking is challenging for teams to get a car to handle well in turns one and two, which are very different from turns three and four.

    Danica Patrick will once again make an appearance in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with her No. 10 Chevrolet.

    It should be quite the learning experience for Patrick.

    Regan Smith was the surprise winner last year, but it's likely that lightning won't strike twice for the Furniture Row racer.

    In this slideshow, the drivers most apt to mix it up in the lead pack and contend for the win will be highlighted.

Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski is hot off a win at Talladega with his Penske Miller Lite No. 2 Dodge. It was his second win of the season, with the other coming at Bristol.

    "Bad Brad" proved that he's a calculating driver with his move on Kyle Busch for the win in the Aaron's 499. He may have to seriously plan some strategy at the Bojangles' Southern 500.

    Keselowski hasn't made all that many appearances at Darlington, but his average finish is 7.3, with one top-five and two top-10 finishes.

    The driver of the Blue Deuce is 12th in the point standings and though he probably has secured a wild-card slot, he wants to get secure footing in the top 10.

Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon has no reason to smile about his season so far this year that not only finds him winless, but 23rd in the point standings.

    The four-time Cup series champion has run well with his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet out of Hendrick Motorsports. For most of the races, his car has been fast.

    Gordon seems to be foiled by engine failures or wrecks more times than he cares to count.

    Darlington has been a good track for him with seven career wins—the most recent in 2007. His record at the track shows 18 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes with an average finish of 11.1.

Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson had a disappointing race at Talladega with an engine failure, but still remains eighth in the point standings.

    The record for the driver of the Lowe's No. 48 at Darlington shows two wins, nine top-10 finishes and an average finish of 9.8.

    If Johnson can stay out of trouble, he will definitely be a threat to win the Bojangles' Southern 500.

    He's hungry for that next win since he has failed to find victory lane since Kansas during the Chase last year.

Denny Hamlin

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    Denny Hamlin has probably secured a wild-card position in the Chase even if the next 16 races go poorly for him.

    It's unlikely the season is going to deteriorate for the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota with Hamlin currently fourth in the point standings.

    Hamlin has two wins so far this season at Phoenix and Kansas. His wins came on intermediate tracks, but his record at Darlington is pretty good with one win, five top-10 finishes and an average finish of 6.5.

Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch—driver of the No. 18 M&M's Toyota—has one win this season and has finished second twice.

    Currently, he's ninth in the point standings, but needs to climb to a stronger position with more consistent finishes. His one win won't guarantee his place in the Chase if he has some bad races.

    Busch is likely to perform pretty well at Darlington since he has one win and three top-10 finishes, but his average finish is 17.1.

    It seems his team is starting to gain momentum for this season and Busch is always a threat on the racetrack.

Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards should have snatched a win by this time in the season, but he's hanging out at the 11th-place slot in the point standings, with his best finish in 2012 being fifth at Las Vegas.

    Edwards is performing the worst of the three drivers at Roush Fenway Racing.

    The driver of the No. 99 car is due to break out and just may get lucky at Darlington, though his strength is on intermediate tracks, with 17 of his 19 career Cup wins coming on the 1.5-mile tracks.

    Edwards has five top-10 finishes at Darlington with an average finish of 13.9.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. heads to Darlington with a string of six top-10 finishes. He's currently third in the standings, two points behind second place and nine points behind the leader Greg Biffle.

    Earnhardt has never won at Darlington, but likes the old-school style racing that requires the driver to really control the destiny of his car.

    Junior has seven top-10 finishes at Darlington with an average finish of 15.2.

    Earnhardt Jr. needs to break that winless streak of 139 races as each week passes. Of course, just like his teammates, he would like to be the one to get Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup win that remains elusive.

Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne had a dismal start this season in his new No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports, but has put together four consecutive top-10 finishes heading to Darlington.

    Kahne knows he has to win races to even get a wild-card spot in the Chase. Currently, he's 19th in the point standings.

    The Darlington record for this driver isn't all that exciting with three top fives and an average finish of 14.6. Kahne does know how to get around the track fast, with four poles to his credit at the "Lady in Black."

    With a little luck combined with his talents, Kahne will be a contender to win the Bojangles' Southern 500.

Ryan Newman

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    Ryan Newman—driver of the No. 39 out of Stewart-Haas Racing—has one win this season and an average finish of 15.8. His stats aren't outstanding, but does have a win at Martinsville.

    Newman is currently 13th in the point standings and needs another win to give him a chance at the wild-card slot if he needs it for the Chase.

    The one win he has this season was at a tough, short track. Newman is an old-school style driver, so racing at Darlington is a good gig for him.

    Newman has never won at Darlington.

    He does have seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes for an average finish of 11.6 at the track. He should be a contender to win at Darlington.

Martin Truex Jr.

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    Martin Truex Jr.—driver of the No. 56 NAPA Toyota—is the lead driver at Michael Waltrip Racing. After massive changes at MWR, the operation is experiencing a revival.

    Truex is currently sixth in the point standings and has three top-five and six top-10 finishes this year. He's running strong and on the verge of winning at any given race.

    Darlington statistics for Truex consist of two top-10 finishes and an average finish of 12.3.

    Truex was third at Bristol and fifth at Martinsville earlier this season. It seems this driver likes to mix it up on tracks that can get ugly real quick, so he just may contend for a win at Darlington.