NASCAR at Darlington 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Bojangles' Southern 500
The Lady in Black, better known as Darlington Raceway, plays host to the famed (Bojangles') Southern 500.
It marks the first of a three-race sprint to the finish before the Chase for the Sprint Cup kicks into high gear.
A year ago, Darlington showcased the low downforce aero package that’s in effect today. There were issues with tires and cautions, but once the checkered flag waved, Carl Edwards, the winner of the race, was tickled all kinds of pink.
"I don't think I can get in trouble for how much I liked it, but I loved it -- this is as good as it gets," Edwards told NASCAR.com. "This is what it's about. We're sliding cars, tires are falling off -- this is the style of racing -- if there's any chance we can run this in the Chase, I hope we can do it. It was an awesome day."
And with Kyle Larson’s win at Michigan, the Chase window got a whole lot narrower, real estate on the bubble a whole lot more scarce.
So that’s where we are as we head to the track that’s too tough to tame. Read on for this week’s preview and prediction from Darlington.
By the Numbers: Darlington Raceway
Bojangles' Southern 500
Place: Darlington Raceway; Darlington, South Carolina
Date: Sunday, September 4
TV Coverage: 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN
Distance: 500 miles, 366 laps
Defending Champion: Carl Edwards
The Chase Grid
The Chase Bubble Watch
Ryan Newman, -15
Kasey Kahne, -37
Trevor Bayne, -45
Ryan Blaney, -58
Will Somebody Give Chase Elliott a Hug?
Elliott drove a great race at Michigan, and you get the sense that that track will be one where he wins five to 10 times before his career ends.
He finished second in the spring and second in the summer. He led 32 laps before muffing a late restart, thus giving Larson all the clean air his winless car could handle.
“Just made another mistake,’’ Elliott told NBCSN during the broadcast. “Had two opportunities to get out front there and kind of control the race and let Kyle get a better start on me. I spun the tires and didn’t do my job right. It’s about as simple as that. When your tires are spinning, you aren’t going forward.”
Elliott bears a lot: the weight of the No. 24 car, the weight of a team so used to Jeff Gordon, the weight of the fans who rooted for Gordon for decades. So it’s with a kind heart that USA Today’s Jeff Gluck wrote an open letter to the Kid:
I know you expect to win now, but don’t forget to enjoy the ride. Because if the overwhelming emotion you feel when you finally get to victory lane is relief, you will have robbed yourself of a unique joy few people in this world will ever get to experience.
Elliott may be 14th on the Chase Grid, but that doesn’t tell the story of how great a season he’s had as a rookie. He’s 11th in points, ahead of stars and icons.
With measured effort, there’s no reason to think Elliott can’t advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase, but he’ll need to highlight the good and parlay that forward. If so, that first win will come very soon indeed.
Will Kyle Larson’s First Win Launch Him Deep into the Chase?
Nobody expects Larson to rattle off three straight wins, but will finally getting that monkey off his back be the key that unlocks a deep vault of confidence and potential in the playoffs?
Could be. He admitted during one of his post-race interviews during the NBCSN broadcast that he didn’t think his team would be competitive at all this season. You could see it in his face during the first half of the season.
He finished 26th at Atlanta, 34th at Las Vegas, 39th at Fontana, 35th at Bristol, 29th at Talladega and 35th at Kansas.
Since Kansas, Larson has four top-fives and six top-10s. If you draw a line through that 29th at Watkins Glen where he got wrecked by AJ Allmendinger late in the race, Larson has just one finish outside the top 19.
"If we can get into the Final Four, I feel we have a really, really good shot at winning the championship," he said after Sunday’s race on the broadcast.
The upcoming tracks are some of his best (Dover, Martinsville, Phoenix), so he could be right. He most certainly has a shot in the Chase.
Much Ado About Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I’ve said for weeks that I’d love to see Dale Earnhardt Jr. sit out the rest of the season, maybe even retire. He’s in his 40s and head injuries can’t be taken lightly. As the old adage goes, “show don’t tell.” Earnhardt has been showing us just how serious he’s taking this issue.
So where can owner Rick Hendrick turn? Alex Bowman has been a suitable driver, and Hendrick has been beyond lucky that Gordon agreed to placate sponsors by coming out of retirement and drive the No. 88 car.
But Gordon retired for a reason. He didn’t exit the Sprint Cup Series the way Brett Favre exited the NFL for years, which is to say tentatively. Gordon proved a capable analyst for Fox, and he was spending time in Paris when Hendrick had the audacity to call on him.
Hendrick clearly wants an experienced, seasonsed driver in that No. 88 car, but at some point, you need to bring along young talent. Hiring Elliott to drive the No. 24 car was brilliant. Hendrick needs to get somebody just as talented and just as young to drive the No. 88 car even if it means taking some lumps.
Larson took 99 races to win, but Chip Ganassi will likely tell you it was worth the wait.
FoxSports.com’s Jeff Hammond writes, “That's the thing -- I don't know what the options are. Because there really aren't that many when you start boiling it down to the quality of car and quality of driver that Rick's going to be looking for.”
Will Hendrick look for a placeholder driver and wait for a Chris Buescher or Ryan Blaney to free up? Will he look for others in the Xfinity Series? Will he try to scarf up a veteran like Ryan Newman?
Before too long, he’ll need to consider what to do with the No. 48 car too.
The future of HMS suddenly looks a whole lot bleaker than it did just a few months ago.
Dark-Horse Pick: Kasey Kahne
We saw the true meaning of desperation last week while Larson and Elliott battled for that first win and a spot in the Chase.
Fewer drivers are more desperate right now than Kasey Kahne, the red-headed stepchild of HMS these days.
The No. 5 car finished 12th in this race a year ago. He has an average start of 9.6—his best at all tracks—in 13 career starts at Darlington.
Kahne bottomed out at 20th in points at Charlotte. Since then he’s climbed into 16th in points, though he’s 18th on the Grid.
As the season closes, expect all of Kahne’s chips on the table. He’ll drive on that razor’s edge the next few weeks as he desperately vies for a win, something he’ll likely need to make the Chase.
And the Winner Is...Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski led 196 laps in last year’s Southern 500. He comes off of a third-place finish at Michigan and has a series-high four wins.
There’s speed in that No. 2 car and it has been there all season. Expect Bad Brad to be in the top five and parking that throwback No. 2 in Victory Lane.