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Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Darlington

Bob MargolisContributor IIApril 12, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Darlington

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    Mic Smith

    No other track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit has more nicknames or taglines attached to it than Darlington Raceway.

    Every NASCAR fan knows them by heart.

    She is “The Lady in Black.” This place is “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” And you’ve not raced hard enough unless you’ve had a “Darlington Stripe” on your race car.

    A throwback to stock-car racing’s past if there ever was one, this 1.37-mile piece of history was NASCAR’s original super speedway built in an era when stock-car speeds topped out at 100 miles per hour. Today, with its narrow track, rough surface and speeds nearly 100 mph faster, Darlington is arguably the toughest challenge for a driver on the entire Sprint Cup schedule.

    Greg Biffle, who has two wins and two poles at Darlington Raceway, tries his best to talk about what it's like racing here, yet admittedly falls short trying to answer.

    “I don’t know if I can tell you what it is like to drive around this track. It is pretty hard. I don’t know how every other driver feels, but this is probably the toughest place we race at as far as concentration and what it takes to get around here.

    "You drive the corner close to 200 miles per hour, about 190 and the car slides up and hopefully stops about six inches from the wall as you are pushing the power to it. It just takes a lot.”

    And it is a most satisfying feeling, when you’ve been 500 miles around this place and you know you’ve taken the checkered flag first.

    Ask defending race winner Matt Kenseth:

    “It was a really big win. I always feel like the Southern 500 is one of the biggest races of the year—certainly it was right up there towards the top of my list of tracks I wanted to win at that I never won at before last year.”

    The Southern 500 is the first Saturday night race of the Sprint Cup season. It starts before the sun sets and runs nearly fours long, well into the South Carolina spring night.

    The key to winning here: race the track, not the other 42 cars on the track.

    As the cars fly by you at nearly 200 mph, you can almost imagine when drivers with names such as Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison dominated on this track. 

    There’s no question that NASCAR was born in the South. And while it has expanded its reach in the past couple of decades to places far beyond its origins, its heart beats here—at Darlington Raceway.

     

Darlington Raceway by the Numbers

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Bojangles’ Southern 500

    The Place: Darlington Raceway

    The Date: Saturday, April 12

    The Time: 6:30 p.m. (ET)

    TV: Fox,  6 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 501.3 miles (367 laps)

    Youngest Pole Winner: Kurt Busch (09/02/2001—23 years, 0 months, 29 days)

    Oldest Pole Winner: David Pearson (09/06/1982—47 years, 8 months, 15 days)

    Races Won from Pole: 19

    Last Race Won from Pole: Dale Jarrett (03/23/1997)

    Defending Race Winner: Matt Kenseth

    Youngest Winner: Kyle Busch (05/10/2008—23 years, 0 months, 8 days)

    Oldest Winner: Harry Gant (09/01/1991—51 years, 7 months, 22 days)

    Race Record: Matt Kenseth, 141.383mph (05/11/2013)

    Qualifying Record: Kurt Busch, 181.918mph (05/11/2013)

    All-Time Race Winner (active): Jeff Gordon (7)

    All-Time Race Winner: David Pearson (10)

    Darlington weather

A Brief Bit of Darlington Raceway History

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    Craig Jones/Getty Images

    After a trip to the Indianapolis 500 in 1933, South Carolina businessman Harold Brasington came back home to tell stories of fast cars and a business opportunity. He wanted to bring racing to the Darlington area. 

    Eighteen years later, Brasington broke ground in what was once a peanut and cotton field to build his vision of a super speedway that would bring racing by the up-and-coming stock-car series from Florida—NASCAR.

    The track’s egg shape came from a pledge to landowner Harold Ramsey, who owned the land adjacent to the property Brasington was using to build his race track. Ramsey asked that the minnow pond on his property not be disturbed. The result was a narrowing of that end of the track to accommodate his request.

    • Darlington Raceway was built as a 1.25-mile paved superspeedway in 1949-1950.
    • Darlington Raceway hosted the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first on asphalt on Sept. 4, 1950won by Johnny Mantz.
    • The track was re-measured to 1.375 miles in 1953.
    • The track was reconfigured to 1.366 miles following the spring race in 1970.
    • The track was repaved in 1995.
    • The 2005 race was the first Saturday night race at Darlington.
    • The track was repaved again prior to the 2008 season.

    A more detailed account of the fascinating history of Darlington Raceway is available on the track’s website.

Key Storylines

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    Tony Stewart
    Tony StewartJerry Markland/Getty Images

    Winner No. 8

    Most observers expected there to be a repeat winner by this point in the 2014 season. Eight different winners to start out the first eight races of the season wouldn’t be a record, but several drivers would like to be winner No. 8 anyway. 

    Three-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson and seven-time winner Jeff Gordon belong at the top of the list. Add Tony Stewart (above), whose teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick already have their tickets punched for the Chase, right under the Hendrick duo. 

    Defending race winner Matt Kenseth is likely to have something to say about the outcome of Saturday night’s race, as well as Ryan Newman, who's never won here, but he does have a pole start.

     

    Tires—not an issue this week

    As we've seen at all the previous Cup races this season, Goodyear’s tires will undergo a difficult test as crew chiefs utilize radical camber settings and close-to-the-edge tire pressures in an effort to gain mechanical grip.

    One thing that has changed with the ride-height rule gone is that crew chiefs will have the benefit of using aerodynamics to gain downforce and thus add to their driver’s comfort zone.

    The Sprint Cup teams will run the same combination of  left- and right-side tires that they ran at Darlington last May. As per NASCAR rules, on ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners in all four tires. This rule applies to Darlington.

    Darlington’s track surface has greyed up quite a bit since it was last paved in 2008, and it's lost a good deal of its grip. Some drivers will be comfortable with this, but others will not. 

     

    A cautionary tale

    The Southern 500 tends to have several cautions. Last year there were only five for 25 laps. The record is 17 in 2009. With speeds up from last year and grip down, plus a record rookie class of eight drivers (it’s likely one of them won’t make the show), the caution flag will probably fall on a number somewhere on the high end between five and 17.

     

    The secret to my success

    The key to the championship since the inception of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2004 is success on the 1.5-mile tracks.

    Tracks measuring 1.5 miles in length populate half the Chase, including the all-important season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Joining Homestead in the Chase are Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

    One team appears to have hit the new rules package for racing on those tracks spot on—Team Penske. They’ve swept the 1.5-mile tracks, with Brad Keselowski taking Las Vegas and Joey Logano winning at Texas.

    Logano was strong at Vegas, finishing fourth. Keselowski was on his way to a top-five finish—and possibly a win—at Texas if not for a pit-road speeding penalty prior to the final restart. He finished 15th.

    While Darlington isn't quite 1.5 miles in length, it is often considered one, given its high speeds and odd-shaped configuration.

Drivers to Watch

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    Jeff Gordon
    Jeff GordonJeff Curry/Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon

    No one stands poised to win on Saturday night more than seven-time Darlington Raceway winner Jeff Gordon. He leads the driver points, he’s nearly won twice this season and he’s been among the fastest drivers during practice. Although it’s been a long time since Gordon has visited Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway, 2007 to be specific, he hasn’t forgotten how to win here.

     

    Jimmie Johnson

    Right next to Gordon on the “next winner is” list is "Mr. Six Time." Johnson has three wins at Darlington; the last one was in 2012. His team has shown speed during practice and is likely to be a threat. How long has it been since Johnson won a race? How about November 3, 2013 (Texas Motor Speedway)

     

    Matt Kenseth

    Although defending race winner Kenseth would love to repeat this year, his team seems to be just a tick off. Not yet a winner in 2014, it’s hard to count him out at a place like Darlington. Second behind Gordon in the driver standings, a poor showing here would mean a drop in points. Or maybe Kenseth is just counting on a win to get him into postseason racing.

     

    Joey Logano

    Quick in both practice sessions, Logano would love to make it two in a row and also be the first repeat winner. He has a win and two top fives in the NASCAR Nationwide Series here, so he knows where Victory Lane is at Darlington Raceway.

     

    Greg Biffle

    With two wins to his name at Darlington, Biffle would like to join Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards in postseason racing—especially since he is in the middle of contract extension talks with team owner Jack Roush. Biffle will either be very good or very bad, as his record indicates. His No. 16 Ford has been good—but not great—in practice. But race day is something else.

Sleepers and a Dark Horse (or Two)

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (l) and Kyle Busch
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (l) and Kyle BuschJeff Curry/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    His father holds the record for laps led at this track (2,648), so one might expect that Junior spent his Labor Day weekends at Darlington Raceway. Earnhardt Jr.’s record isn’t as stellar, with eight top 10s and three top fives. But, the prestige of winning at a place like Darlington is an awfully strong incentive to drive to Victory Lane on Saturday night.

     

    Kyle Busch

    Busch has only one win in a Sprint Cup car at Darlington, along with five top 10s. He does, however, have two wins and five top 10s in a NASCAR Nationwide Series car. Busch has been fast in both practice sessions, but he’s been hot and cold all season.

     

    Ryan Newman

    No wins here, but 10 top 10s make Newman a definite sleeper for Saturday night’s race. He’s been quick in practice, and he’s won a pole here (2003). Newman would like to put the spotlight at Richard Childress Racing on the No. 31 team this season—at least for one race.

     

    Marcos Ambrose

    The first of two dark-horse drivers, Ambrose has been knocking on the door to win another oval pole. His last was at Michigan in 2012. He’s been fast every weekend and in both practices this weekend. Ambrose is leading the resurgence of Petty Motorsports in 2014 and is likely to make the Chase (there are two road-course races). But wouldn’t he just love to make it there with a long-sought-after oval win?

     

    Paul Menard

    The forgotten man at Richard Childress Racing, Menard knows how to win at the Cup level (Brickyard 400 in 2011), even though he's only done it once. I just like Menard as a dark horse for no other reason(s) than he's a good guy, deserves a win and his crew chief, Slugger Labbe, is one of the more colorful and brilliant crew chiefs in the Cup garage.

Qualifying Report

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    Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick won the pole for the Bojangles' Southern 500 with a lap of 26.802 seconds at 183.479 mph. It is his seventh pole in 474 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, but first in 18 races at Darlington Raceways. It's his third top-10 start and first pole of the season. 

    Joey Logano (second) posted his seventh top-10 start of 2014 and his second in six races at Darlington Raceway.

    Aric Almirola (third) posted his first top-10 start at Darlington Raceway. It is his third in eight races this season. Almirola set a new track record during Round 2 of qualifying with a lap of 26.880 seconds at 182.946 mph. It is the sixth track record in eight races this year.

    Kyle Larson (17th) was the fastest qualifying rookie.

And the Winner Is:

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    Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon 

    The all-time winningest active driver at Darlington Raceway with seven wins, Gordon is overdue for a trip to Victory Lane in 2014.

    Last week at Texas Motor Speedway was another missed opportunity for the No. 24 team. 

    This week, they're at a track Gordon knows well.

    "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."

    Saturday night, Gordon should make it win No. 8 at Darlington Raceway as he becomes the eighth different driver to win in 2014.

     

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

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