She’s the Lady in Black and her claim to fame is that she’s too tough to tame.
Saturday night 43 of NASCAR’s best will try to be the one to do so, as they take the green flag on the Showtime Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
Over the years some of NASCAR’s best racing has occurred here. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch recorded the closest finish in history back in 2003, and Kyle Busch all but knocked the wall down on his way to victory in 2008.
The infamous Darlington stripe will be out in full force Saturday and it’ll come down to which driver can earn it, but keep on going. Mark Martin is the defending winner of the event and is still looking for his first win of the 2010 season.
But Kyle Busch wants his second. After dominating and winning at Richmond last weekend, he’s ready for another Saturday night celebration. He’ll debut his No. 18 Doublemint Gum paint scheme and says he’s ready to double his fun with another win.
Will another win slip through Jeff Gordon’s fingers?
After having the best car at both Las Vegas and Texas, Gordon made mistakes that saw others get to the checkers first. Then in Martinsville, Phoenix, and Richmond, it looked like he might be able to steal one by using pit strategy but once again wasn’t able to close the deal.
He heads to Darlington where he’s a seven-time winner.
Gordon and Martin aren’t the only two Hendrick winners. Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won a race with the new spoiler but that’s got to end soon, right? No better place than a track where he’s a two-time victor and finished second at last year to Martin.
But Johnson won’t be going to Darlington as the point leader. Kevin Harvick has climbed back atop the board after his early season stint there. Harvick won Talladega and finished third at Richmond, but he’s never won at Darlington.
Then we have our Creatures who have turned it up a notch from last season. Three of them already have two wins on the season and are looking for more. After Kyle Busch dominated in Richmond it set them apart from the field and shook things up.
But can they pick the right driver to help them tame Darlington? Here’s whom they believe will do it.
Misan Akuya: Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray has had a great season performance-wise in 2010. Won the Daytona 500 and has ran well ever since. But has only posted one more top five and two more top ten's since. McMurray was at least a top five car at Richmond, ran as high as third but broke a bump stop and managed to bring it home 19th.
McMurray runs well at Darlington with a win here in the Nationwide Series, and from 2003 to 2005 he scored two top fives, three top tens and led 79 laps. Last year had a car capable of winning but cut a tire then got slammed into the wall when Brian Vickers cut a tire. McMurray will make the chase in 2010 and his second win at a non-plate track will help that goal.
James Broomhead: Jeff Gordon
Quite simply, what does this man have to do to win? Pay off the flagman? Confiscate the Yellow Flag (and turn off the caution lights)?
He's been so close, so many times that he simply has to win soon, and on yet another track he is amongst the top performers on, he surely has to convert all those "nearly's" into a "there."
Kelly Crandall: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson’s losing streak is dragging on and he can’t be happy about it. After winning at Bristol he hasn’t been much of a factor except for a last-lap dash to second at Texas. It seems that since the spoiler has returned, its spoiled Johnson’s run.
But all good things must come to end for the competition, and it’s not going to take long for Johnson to get back to the top. In this race last year he crashed in qualifying, had to use a backup car, and still managed to finish second to teammate Mark Martin.
He’s a two-time winner at Darlington and should be in contention for his fourth win of the year this Saturday.
So I'm not going to be like every other media person and automatically mention the word "knee" or "surgery" in the same sentence as the driver of the 11 car (whoops, just did). But the FedEx Toyota with Hamlin at the wheel has found victory lane in two of the past five Darlington races. I'll take that.
Adam Heasley: NO PICK SENT
No pick sent.
Christopher Leone: Jimmie Johnson
Yes, Johnson is good just about everywhere but at only three tracks does he have a better average finish than the 6.9 he’s put up in 11 Darlington starts. Two wins and nine top ten's show remarkable consistency, even for an all-world talent like Four-Time. He’s my pick for the weekend; meaning Jeff Gordon is going to put him in the wall or something. Oh well.
Kara Martin: Jeff Gordon
Not only does Gordon have a pretty good track record at Darlington, he is hungry for a win! Coming in second again last week in Richmond he had proven this season that he "could" be a powerful force to be reckoned with. It is time, Mr. Gordon, to show us whatcha got! Oh, and put Johnson into the wall while you are at it for good measure!
Dustin Parks: Jeff Gordon
Sooner or later, this guy will get in victory lane. He's come so close, so many times but has just missed out. But, here is a track that is his best chance yet to win.
Gordon has seven victories at Darlington, including four consecutive wins in the Southern 500 from 1995-1998. He took home the last Winston Million bonus in 1997 after a furious battle with Jeff Burton. Plus, just two years ago he took his seventh win despite water spewing out the overflow.
He loves this track, and he's got an attitude that has not been seen from him in years. It's that kind of attitude that will get him a win, and this weekend could be it. I just have a good feeling about this track and that car. I have to pull for the No. 24 National Guard Facebook/DuPont Chevrolet at the "Lady in Black."
Patti Rodisch: Mark Martin
It’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster start to the season for Mark Martin. Last week at Richmond his team never got their hands around the car and it showed with their lackluster finish. I think this weekend Martin will get back into form with a win at Darlington. Last year he wasn’t up front till it counted and I would not be surprised for a repeat visit to victory lane.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Jeff Gordon
Last week at Richmond he handed the race to Busch on a silver platter, and the week before at Dega he had a car that could have possibly won the race had it not been for the wreck he was involved in.
Frustration, anxiety, or father time catching up to him, if Gordon is running up front with one to go, expect to see either checkers or wreckers from him. He will not let another race get away from him at any cost.
Rob Tiongson: Jeff Gordon
At some point, his bridesmaid role has to be handed to someone else in the Cup series. Having won at Darlington seven times, you know how badly he wants to win a race again. Fittingly, he'll be driving a National Guard Chevy, driving with soul even if he's not a soldier. I look for the No. 24 to put together a victorious effort culminating in a scene we've not seen in over a year.
David Yeazell: Tony Stewart
Going out on a limb this week.
Kara Martin (1,446 ) Kyle Busch won (2 )
Kelly Crandall (1.351 ) Denny Hamlin finished 11th (0 )
Sal Sigala Jr. (1,330 ) Denny Hamlin finished 11th (0 )
Billy Fellin (1,326 ) Kyle Busch won (2 )
Christopher Leone (1,305 ) Kyle Busch won (2 )
Dustin Parks (1,292 ) Denny Hamlin finished 11th (1 )
David Yeazell (1,254 ) Jimmie Johnson finished 10th (0 )
Patti Rodisch (1,182 ) Jeff Gordon finished second (0 )
Rob Tiongson (1,170 ) Clint Bowyer finished 12th (0 )
James Broomhead (1,167 ) Denny Hamlin finished 11th (1 )
Misan Akuya (1,095 ) Tony Stewart finished 23rd (0 )
Adam Heasley (792 ) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 32nd (0 )
After 500 miles at Darlington on Saturday night most cars are going to look like they just race 500 miles at Martinsville. Paint will be missing, letters on tires will be long gone, and the surrounding walls will have a new shade. The Darlington stripe does not discriminate; if a driver lets his guard down she’ll reach out and strike.
Qualifying at Darlington isn’t a factor that will keep a driver out of victory lane. In the last 10 races, the winner has started as high as third and as low as 31st so don’t get discouraged if your driver doesn’t do well on Friday.
Darlington also doesn’t discriminate with car makes. The last four race winners have been in a Chevrolet, Toyota, Chevrolet, and Ford. However, Dodge has not won at the track since Sterling Marlin captured the checkered flag in 2002.
Summary of Picks
Jeff Gordon – 5
Jimmie Johnson – 2
Denny Hamlin – 1
Jamie McMurray – 1
Mark Martin – 1
Tony Stewart – 1