NASCAR at Darlington: Previewing the Cup Race at the Track Too Tough to Tame

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IMay 3, 2011

DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 08:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after he won the NASCAR Sprint Cup series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 8, 2010 in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images)
Jason Smith/Getty Images

This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its one and only trip of the season to Darlington Raceway, or as it is more affectionately known as, "the lady in black".

Darlington is famous for adorning many of the cars with the patented "Darlington stripe". That is when the car runs out of race track, and scrapes the wall coming out of turn four. On a good day, the lady in black will typically tag about half of the field with her markings.

This track has been labeled "the track too tough to tame" and for good reason.

To win here is truly an accomplishment, and something that requires not only the perfect car, but a perfect day from its driver.

Last season, it was Denny Hamlin who was able to celebrate victory. He won for the first time at the famed speedway. Hamlin is coming off of a strong, second-place run this past weekend at Richmond, and would love nothing more than to score his first victory of 2011 at the track where he scored his third victory in 2010.

For his career Hamlin has made five starts in Darlington, and finished in the top 10 in four of them. The only time he failed to finish in the top 10 he still came home with a 13th place finish, so Hamlin is a driver who has really grown fond of this race track, and certainly knows his way around it.

Fresh off his best run of the season, look for Hamlin to be a major factor in Saturday night's race again this year.

But Hamlin isn't the only driver who has found great success at this track. When it comes to Darlington Raceway, there may be none better than four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.

Gordon has made 30 starts at Darlington, and has won seven times. He has 21 top-10 finishes, and of those, 18 of them resulted in a top-5 effort. In fact, in each of his last seven trips to Darlington, Gordon has finished fifth or better each time. Five of those were third or better.

It is an almost certainty that Gordon will be near the front when the checkered flag is waving.

Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson should also have no trouble finding his way to the front. In 12 starts, Johnson has nine top-10 finishes a pair of wins.

Until a crash forced him out of this race a season ago, Johnson had only failed to complete two laps in 11 previous trips to Darlington. He has an average finish of 9.3 at Darlington, and five times has led at least 40 laps at this track.

A third Hendrick driver should also be in the mix. Mark Martin has had a very solid career at Darlington Raceway. He has scored two wins here, and has posted 26 top-10 finishes in 44 starts.

Martin was the winner of this event in 2009 and in his last 11 starts at Darlington he has posted six top-10 finishes, but 10 out of those 11 events have resulted in a finish of 16th or better.

Martin has been decent this year but not great. He currently sits 13th in points, with just three top-10's in nine starts. But only one of his finishes this year has been outside the top-20. So, Darlington may be the perfect place for Martin to really turn things around this season.

Last weeks winner Kyle Busch has been a hit or miss driver when it comes to Darlington. He has scored a victory here, in six career starts, and has a total of three top-10 finishes. But the other three finishes have all been 23rd or worse.

And, if you believe in patterns or trends this year does not bode well for Busch at Darlington. Busch's three good finishes at Darlington have all come in even numbered years, while his three bad finishes have all come in odd numbered years.

While I don't personally put a lot of stock in statistics like that, it is hard not to notice, and sometimes fun just to mention.

One potential sleeper, if he could even be considered a sleeper, would be Ryan Newman. The Stewart-Haas driver has had a fair share of success at Darlington in his 12 starts.

For his career, Newman has eight top-10 finishes, including six in the top-5 at Darlington. Not surprisingly, Newman has also qualified extremely well here too. He has one the pole once and 10 times has started in 12th place or better.

When you go up and down the list of winners at Darlington Raceway, it is a list of NASCAR greats. This track is one of, if not the, toughest tracks on the entire schedule.

To win here, everything must go right, and a driver's contact with the turn four wall must be kept to a minimum, because it is almost inevitable that they will at least have some contact with it.

This race is always a favorite to both the drivers and fans alike, and when it comes to Darlington, there is only one thing that we know for sure. Whoever wants to win this race, will have to find a way to tame the lady in black.