The best drivers in the world have descended upon the Darlington Raceway. They'll have to be at their most chivalrous if they're to swoon "The Lady in Black."
Any race at Darlington is always a ton of fun to watch because of the track's shape. Turns 3 and 4 have slightly tighter angles than do turns 1 and 2. That makes it harder for the pit crews to get a read on how to configure the car, making for some thrilling surprises during the event.
With seven races gone in the 2014-15 season, there is plenty of time left for underwhelming stars to get their campaigns back on track, no pun intended. NASCAR's new points structure means one win all but books your place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The three drivers listed below haven't gotten off to the best starts, and they're still looking for that critical win to secure their place in the Chase.
When: Saturday, April 12, at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C.
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Drivers to Watch
Jeff Gordon has undoubtedly found an answer for Darlington, despite its claims of being "too tough to tame." His seven wins are third-most in track history. According to NASCAR.com, Gordon has a Sprint Cup Series-best running position of 8.1 at the track, in addition to spending 90.1 percent of his laps (2,982) in the top 15.
While some may argue that Gordon's best days at Darlington are behind him—his last win came in 2007—consider that he broke the track record on Friday, per USA Today's Jeff Gluck. His car is running just fine:
MRN reporters Jeff Gordon just “annihilated” the track record. 26.846 seconds…previous was I think 27.03ish— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) April 11, 2014
Fox Sports' Larry McReynolds wrote that a driver's history at the course has taken a back seat to his most recent performances. Luckily, No. 24 has that area covered, too:
Having won there multiple times, Jeff just always seems to perform well at Darlington. With all that said, I think our sport, like the race car, has evolved to where it's not quite so important how well you've run at any given track in the past, but how you've run this year to date.
It just seems where the track is worn out, where you are slipping and sliding is where Jeff is at his best this year. He had a great run at Las Vegas a month or so ago. At Fontana at the end of March he was the car to beat until that last restart. Then Monday at Texas Motor Speedway, he brought the No. 24 home in second spot.
Even if Gordon doesn't get the checkered flag on Saturday, he'll likely remain near the top for most of the race, and his lead in the standings shouldn't be under too much of a threat.
Of course, Matt Kenseth is the reigning champion at Darlington, and since he sits just four points back of Gordon, he very well could be the points leader by the end of Saturday.
Not that Kenseth is paying much attention to the standings or anything, per Yahoo! Sports' Nick Bromberg:
"I don’t know about close attention, you always kind of know where you’re at once the week is over you maybe glance at the standings," Kenseth said. "They always park in order of points so when you show up parked the next week you kind of know where you’re at. That really hasn’t changed. I don’t know I think maybe when you get closer to the 26 cutoff then you probably study it a little more and see where everybody is and who’s in and who’s out and that kind of thing."
A driver hasn't repeated at Darlington since Greg Biffle went back-to-back in 2005 and '06. Parity has become the name of the game at the track.
Even with that major roadblock, Darlington would be a great place for Kenseth to get his first win of 2014 and lock up his spot in the Chase at the end of the year.
Sooner or later, Jimmie Johnson is gonna get win No. 1 in 2014. He's simply too good of a driver to go much longer without a trip to Victory Lane.
If it happens at Darlington, Johnson will have worked his way up the pack. He didn't perform well in qualifying and will start out in 26th.
This season seems like it's been a bit disappointing so far for Johnson. Two top-five and four top-10 finishes are impressive, but it feels like it's not enough. When you've won six out of the last eight points titles, expectations are gonna be raised.
Might we look back on this race as the moment Johnson's ascendancy to the points title began?