With a different winner in every Sprint Cup race so far this season, Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is wide-open and could potentially go to almost anyone in the field.
Night races always bring a great deal of excitement to the table, and this will be no different. With non-winners desperately trying to reach Victory Lane and winners trying to bolster their totals, this one should be competitive from start to finish.
Darlington Raceway owns daunting nicknames such as "The Lady In Black" and "The Track Too Tough to Tame." It is unquestionably one of the most challenging tracks on the entire Sprint Cup circuit, which makes for some tense and exciting moments.
The Darlington race has had eight consecutive different winners, which adds to the allure even more. There hasn't been one dominant driver at Darlington in recent years, which is what makes it so tough to pick a winner.
Here is all the information you need to know about how to watch what promises to be one of the most entertaining Sprint Cup races of the season.
Where: Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C.
When: Saturday, April 12 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Steam: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Motor Racing Network
Qualifying for the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway begins at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, April 11. Here is a full listing of the field that will attempt to qualify for the race:
|17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
|78||Martin Truex Jr.|
|88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
Drivers to Watch
Although Jeff Gordon has yet to win a race this year, no driver has been as consistently good. He finds himself atop the Sprint Cup standings, but there is definitely pressure on him to win a race—particularly with no repeat winners thus far.
Gordon could potentially be one of the best drivers leading up to The Chase, but he'll be left out if 16 different drivers win and he doesn't.
With that said, Darlington presents Gordon with the perfect opportunity to get on the board. Gordon is by far the winningest active driver at Darlington, with seven victories to his credit, although many of those wins came early in his career.
Even so, Gordon knows what it takes to conquer "The Lady in Black."
According to Stephen Conley of Motor Racing Digest, Gordon enjoys Darlington despite the difficulties it creates:
The first time I drove there, it reminded me of a couple of sprint car tracks – tracks like Winchester (Ind.) Speedway – that are super-fast but you have to respect it or it could ruin your day. Darlington is just a cool, fast place – you get that sensation of speed there because you run right up next to the wall. And the track 'drives' you.
Nobody in the field has a better feel for Darlington than Gordon, and that gives him a huge advantage. That certainly doesn't guarantee success, since hard racing at Darlington can lead to wrecks and other issues, but Gordon is savvy enough to make it through unscathed.
Denny Hamlin doesn't even have one-quarter of Gordon's starts at Darlington, but there is no denying the fact that he feels comfortable on "The Track Too Tough to Tame."
According to Racing-Reference, Hamlin's average career finish of 5.4 in eight career Darlington races is tops on the Sprint Cup circuit. Hamlin has taken the checkered flag with the No. 11 car at Darlington just once, but has finished in the top 10 on seven occasions.
Perhaps the biggest thing that Hamlin has to worry about this weekend is avoiding another mental lapse.
He had a chance to score a victory last week at Texas, but a late pit road speeding penalty knocked him out of contention. After the race, Hamlin apologized to his pit crew for the miscue:
Also apologize to my pit crew.. Been riding there coat tails all year. Shoulda let them make up time for me instead of me trying to get it— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) April 7, 2014
As long as Hamlin remains error-free, there is no reason to think that he won't be in the mix Saturday night. Even if Hamlin is unable to seal the deal and visit Victory Lane, history suggests that a great finish is all but guaranteed.
Expectations are always high for six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and there is no question that pressure is starting to mount. JJ has been solid this year, as he sits in seventh place in the standings, but fans and analysts usually figure that Johnson's results will be spectacular.
He has been plagued by bad luck, which reared its ugly head at Texas once again. Johnson's windshield got damaged when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked, and he was never able to get his two laps back.
Johnson also hasn't won a race yet, and while he has plenty of time to do so, it isn't often that he goes seven races without reaching Victory Lane.
Conventional wisdom suggests that his luck will turn around eventually, and Darlington may be the venue at which it happens. He has won at Darlington on three occasions and a fourth could be on the horizon.
According to Micah Roberts of Sporting News, Johnson is the betting favorite to prevail:
As long as Johnson doesn't put any added pressure on himself to win and allows everything to come to him, he'll definitely have a chance to come out on top.
In addition to Gordon, Hamlin and Johnson, a host of others will be in the thick of things at Darlington.
Greg Biffle is a two-time winner there, and even though he has struggled to win on a consistent basis over the past few years, he is a definite threat to break through.
Who will win the 2014 Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington?
Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are also former winners who will be threats Saturday night. Busch already has a win to his credit, so he is likely to gamble, which has led to him winning many races over the years.
Kenseth, on the other hand, needs a win to help cement his spot in The Chase. He has five top-10 finishes in seven races this season and is second in the standings. Like Gordon, there is pressure on Kenseth to win even though he has performed well overall.
A dark-horse driver seems to make a run every week on the Sprint Cup circuit, and Martin Truex Jr. seems like a candidate this week. He has the best average finish at Darlington aside from Hamlin and Johnson at 11.4, and he won't have the weight of big expectations on his shoulders.
While any of the aforementioned drivers could win, Darlington is Gordon's playground. He is better-equipped than anyone to handle the rigors of this difficult track and his fine form will finally lead to a victory.
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