NASCAR: 7 Bold Predictions for the "Lady in Black"
Darlington Raceway is one of the oldest tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule, having hosted its inaugural race in 1950. For many years it witnessed two races per season, although since 2005, the Cup series has visited just once each year.
Darlington is known by several colorful names, including the "Lady in Black" and the "Track Too Tough to Tame." It is infamous for leaving the "Darlington Stripe" on the right side of many cars before the night is over as drivers struggle to navigate the tricky egg-shaped oval.
The current Cup car has proven resilient, however, as Kyle Busch demonstrated by winning the race despite brushing the wall several times in 2008.
Jeff Gordon is the active wins leader with seven victories at Darlington Raceway. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have more.
But can he win again? Gordon hasn't won at the Lady in Black since 2007 and has just two victories in the previous 18 Darlington races. Last year he came in fourth after leading 110 laps.
What can we expect from the Track Too Tough to Tame on Saturday night? Read on to find out.
Ryan Newman: Will Rebound from His Rough Richmond Run
Newman has been one of the best drivers at Darlington the last two seasons.
He's led 48 laps with two top-10s, including a fourth-place run in 2009. He has eight top-10s and six top-5s in 12 career Darlington starts with one pole and a best finish of second in 2002.
Newman is clearly comfortable at Darlington, and he ought to be able to rebound from his drama-filled night at Richmond with a strong finish on Saturday night—provided he can put his feud with Juan Pablo Montoya behind him and focus on keeping out of trouble at the Track Too Tough to Tame.
The Winner Will Be a JGR or a Hendrick Motorsports Driver
The last four Darlington champions have been Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin.
Jeff Gordon's average finish in the last seven races at the track is a sparkling 2.8 and he's also led 342 laps in that span. Expect him to rebound from his Richmond wreck and run up front.
Hamlin, Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson each have at least three top-10s in the last five Darlington events, while Martin has an eight-place finish to go along with his win from 2009.
Joey Logano hasn't been too shabby at the track either, as he led 19 laps and came home with a ninth-place finish in his first race at the track in 2009.
Expect the winner to be driving for either Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports.
Brad Keselowski Will Get His First Top 10 of the Season
Seven drivers have averaged better than a 10th-place finish in the last two Darlington races. One of these is Brad Keselowski, who finished seventh in 2009 and followed that up with a 12th-place run last season.
Keselowski has yet to lead a lap at the Lady in Black, but his ability to keep his car running strong until the end of the race is impressive at one of NASCAR's toughest and most notoriously dangerous tracks for young drivers.
Keselowski took over the famed Blue Deuce this season from former series champion Kurt Busch, but even though he's shown speed at times this year, Brad has yet to record a top-10 finish in 2011. Accidents, bad luck and mistakes of his own making have been his undoing.
However, that could change this weekend if Keselowski can keep his car clean as he's done in his two previous visits to Darlington Raceway. I expect him to have his best run of the season thus far.
Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger Will Drop out of Chase Contention
Darlington has a way of making the cream rise to the top. Young drivers tend to struggle with the tricky configuration, while the patience of more experienced veterans is rewarded.
Paul Menard and A.J. Allmendinger have impressed so far this season, hanging around the top 10 in the points much longer than either has been able to do previously.
I like both drivers and root for them every week, but I believe they'll have to wait another year or two before seriously contending for a Chase spot.
As far as 2011 is concerned, I believe their staying power is coming to an end. Sure, they'll have strong runs from time to time throughout the year, but Darlington could be the last time either is within the Chase zone.
Menard's average Darlington finish is 28.0 with a top result of 15th in four tries. Only once has he finished on the lead lap, and he'll struggle to do so again. Menard's ability to post career-best finishes at many tracks this season has been remarkable, but I don't see that happening on Saturday night.
Allmendinger, meanwhile, has a top finish of 17th at Darlington with an average result of 29.25. He also has only one lead-lap finish in four attempts, and although Richard Petty Motorsports is more stable this season, it will be an uphill battle for him at the Lady in Black.
Tony Stewart Will Continue His Trend of Odd-Year Darlington Top-10s
Since 2004, Tony Stewart has posted a top-10 at Darlington in the three odd-numbered years but not in the four even-numbered years. That means he's due for a top-10 in 2011 after finishing 23rd in 2010.
Darlington is one of the very few tracks on which Stewart has not won a Cup series race. In fact, he's led just 14 total laps at the track in 18 career starts at the track.
I don't expect him to break through or even seriously challenge for a win, but he should be able to have a strong run and solidify his top 10 position in the Sprint Cup standings.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Will Have a Strong Night
With an average finish of 8.25, EGR drivers have posted the best average Darlington finish of any team over the last two seasons.
Admittedly, one of those finishes came courtesy of Martin Truex Jr. (who is no longer with the team) in 2009.
However, 2010 was even better for the team, as both Juan Pablo Montoya and Jamie McMurray came home with top-fives. Both drivers posted their best-ever Darlington results, and McMurray led 71 laps before settling for a runner-up result.
Although both drivers have faced adversity this season, with bad luck especially plaguing McMurray at times, I expect both drivers to run near the front.
David Ragan Will Have Another Good Race
David Ragan's average finish in four career Darlington starts is just 21.0. However, I expect him to have a strong race on Saturday night.
He has top-10s on three different types of tracks recently, including Texas Motor Speedway, a fellow intermediate track. Ragan's team ought to be able to put their notes from that race to work and have the groundwork for another good run this weekend.
Ragan does have a previous top-five at Darlington. He led a couple of laps in 2008 (his best year in Sprint Cup) en route to a fifth-place finish.
If he can keep his No. 6 UPS car in one piece, don't be surprised to see Ragan once again running near the front at the end of the race.