It is throwback weekend as NASCAR celebrates Labor Day the only way they know how… in retro paint schemes for an iconic track. You would think that most teams would not be too concerned about this race since we are only two weeks away from the start of the playoffs and there are no tracks like the Lady in Black in the playoffs. You would be wrong though. The teams will do their best this week to bring home the Darlington trophy. The Southern 500 can be seen Sunday evening at 6 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network. (The time could be moved depending on the weather)
Tires will be very important this week since the surface at Darlington tends to wear out the rubber through a green-flag run. Goodyear brought a set of tires that have never been raced at the track before. The tires compound was used at Chicagoland speedway so the drivers who had success in that race could be upfront Sunday. Each team will get 14 sets of tires for the race, 3 sets for practice and 1 set for qualifying. That is a lot of tires!
The cars will have the 550 HP engines with the 2” splitter, 8” spoiler and aero ducts. The drivers will have to lift more at Darlington than at other intermediate tracks so I would not expect the draft to come into play so much this week as we have seen in the previous intermediate track races.
NASCAR will inspect the cars before qualifying so we do not need to worry about any drivers losing their starting position and going to the back Sunday night.
Chase Elliott: It takes a smooth driver to turn fast laps at Darlington. If you overdrive the car you will get a “Darlington Stripe.” Elliott is one of the smoothest drivers in the sport. He seldom overdrives the car and that makes him a safe pick this week. Elliott said his balance is good in 3 and 4 but a little free in 1 and 2.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson enters the race 18th in the Playoff Standings. He is 26 points behind the cutoff line so the No. 48 team will likely gamble in the pits to score Stage points. Johnson told SiriusXm Radio this week, “Out team is going to bust our butts in these final two races but if we do not make the playoffs, it will give us 10 weeks to test for the 2020 season. That should be a huge advantage for next year.” This is just something to keep in mind if Johnson misses the playoffs. Johnson liked his car. He said, “These lap times are not bad. The easier I get off the throttle on entry the better I can keep it open on exit.”
Alex Bowman: Bowman is in 10th place in the playoffs so he simply needs points to secure his spot. Unfortunately, Darlington ranks as his worst track. He has never finished in the top 20 at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Some of the teams were talking about the line Bowman was running in the first practice. He was really turning fast lap times at the top.
William Byron: Byron made his first start in the MENCS at Darlington last year and it did not go well. He qualified 10th and finished 35th. Byron has only been mediocre on the steep tracks this season. His 75.3 Driver Ranking is 18th best in the series.
Kyle Larson: Larson put on a clinic last year at Darlington. He led 284 and won both Stages. Larson has averaged 204 laps led in the last 2 Southern 500s and he is averaging 17 Stage points per race. Larson is nearly locked into a playoff spot but he needs points so he can finish the regular season in the top 10 (The top 10 regular season finishers earn playoff points). Larson said, “It is too loose. I need to keep the backend under it and it feels like it was to snap out from under me.” Larson got a flat tire in final practice. The team thought he wore out the front tire by running the top of the track.
Kurt Busch: Darlington ranks as the best track for Busch. He has the 2nd best Driver Rating and the 2nd best average finishing position. I expect Busch will learn a thing or two from his teammate (Kyle Larson) and that could make him more dangerous this week. Busch has run well on the steep tracks this season and he should be up front again Sunday night even if he does not qualify well. Busch made some long runs and said, “I need a little help to run it wide open in 2 but the rest of the track is not bad.” After his last run Busch said, “I am close to wide open now. I think we hit on something.”
Kevin Harvick: Harvick has the best Driver Ranking (111.3) on the steep tracks this season (Las Vegas, Dover and Bristol) and he is the most consistent driver in the field at Darlington. Harvick has 4.3 average finishing position at the Lady in Black since 2012. Harvick was told to manage his tires so they could make a fuel run (A long run to manage how much gas they burn compared to how fast the tires wear out). He said, “I am running it about 95%. It feels pretty secure.” He was P12 at the time. Harvick got into the wall in final practice but the team said it was only cosmetic damage.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer desperately needs something good to happen Sunday night. He enters the race 17th in the Playoff Standings and 2 points behind his teammate, Daniel Suarez. Darlington is by far the worst track for Bowyer. He has finished 36th and 40th in his two races with Stewart-Haas Racing at the Lady in Black. Bowyer liked his car. He had a similar setup as the No. 4 car. He said, “Not a bad piece boys. She likes the highline for sure. We just need to get it a little freer on the bottom.”
Daniel Suarez: Suarez currently sits at the cut-line in the Playoff Standings. The No. 41 team needs points so I expect Suarez to gamble to try and steal some Stage points Sunday night. Suarez has two races in the MENCS at Darlington on his resume. He finished 38th in the first and 29th last year. Suarez liked his car. He said, “The consistency is good. It is free in the center at both ends.” The team worked to tighten it up. After his last run Suarez said, “I am fine with it if you are fine with.” The team told him to make a pit practice and park it. It is good.
Aric Almirola: Almirola is 73 points above the cutoff line for the playoffs. The No. 10 team needs a win as much as it needs points this week. Almirola was OK in his first race with Stewart-Haas Racing at Darlington. He qualified 12th and finished 14th. Almirola ranks 14th on steep tracks this season. Almirola crashed his car in final practice. He said, “It just snapped out from me.” The tem will go to a backup car and Almirola will start in the back. He will be scored from his qualifying position in Fantasy NASCAR.
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski won the Southern 500 last year and he should be a threat to get back to Victory Lane again this week. He has finished 2 of the last 4 Southern 500s in the top 2. He also spends a lot of time running in the top 5 so that means Keselowski should score a lot of Stage points. The No. 2 team had three setups for the first practice. They then decided on the setup they liked the best and tried to perfect it in final practice. Keselowski went straight to the top of the speed chart in final practice.
Joey Logano: Logano has been very good at Darlington over the last 4 seasons. He finished 2nd last year, 5th in 2016 and 4th in 2015. Logano has the 3rd best Driver Rating in the races on the tracks where the 550 HP aero package was used. Logano does not have a Southern 500 trophy and he said a win at this track is very important to him. I expect the No. 22 team to run well Sunday night. The spotter told Logano, “When you moved to the top in 3 and 4, you really picked up speed.” Logano used the setup that the No. 2 car had in final practice and he was 2nd fastest.
Ryan Blaney: Team Penske has historically been good at Darlington but this tracks ranks as the 3rd worst for Blaney. He has 4 starts in the MENCS at the track and his average finishing position is 22nd. Blaney will compete in the Xfinity Series race this weekend so the extra track time could help him out Sunday night. I did not get much info from the No. 22 car but most of his lap times were outside the top 15.
Paul Menard: Menard has finished 16th, 16th and 17th in his last 3 races at Darlington. He also has a 16.5 average finishing position in the last 5 races this season. Menard has been one of the easiest drivers to predict this season. He always qualifies right outside the top 15 and he finishes right outside the top 15. That is not good enough to make Menard a good fantasy pick this weekend. Menard ran lap speeds just outside the top 20.
Kyle Busch: Busch has not been to Victory Lane in almost 3 months. That could change this week. His average finishing position at Darlington in the last decade is 6.7. Busch can clinch the regular season title if he scores 21 more points than Joey Logano, so I expect the No. 18 team to use pit strategy to earn as many Stage points as possible Sunday night. Busch was working on his long run speed and managing his tires in practice so his speed in the race should be faster than his practice speed. After his last run, Adam Stevens told Busch, “You are the fastest at the top.” The word in the Garage is that Busch has the best car on the long runs.
Erik Jones: Jones enters the race 14th in the Playoff Standings and 55 points above the cut line. The No. 20 teams will likely use pit strategy to try and earn Stage points. Darlington ranks as the 3rd best track for Jones. He has finished 5th and 8th in his 2 races in the MENCS at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Jones spent the first practice fighting a loose race car. The team made a lot of changes and worked with the No. 18 team between the two practice. In final practice Jones said, “The entry and exit are where we need it to be. Just need it to rotate the center.”
Denny Hamlin: The No. 11 team is on fire right now. Hamlin has finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd and 5th in his last 6 races. When a driver is running this well you do not fade him. You burn the allocations even if you run out. Darlington ranks as the No. 1 track for Hamlin. He has finished 3 of the last 4 races at the Track Too Tough to Tame in the top 4. Hamlin was pleased with his car. He said, “A little be free in 1 and 2, and the center of 3 and 4 is really good. If we can just get the nose to rotate a little better on entry it will really help our exit.”
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex ranks third in Driver Rating on the steep tracks this season (Las Vegas, Dover and Bristol) and he ranks No. 1 in Driver Rating in the 550 HP aero package. Truex won this race in 2016 and he swept the Stages in 2017. He should be good again Sunday night. Truex was happy with his car. He was running a line where he was up against the wall and diamonded the corner to the bottom. His spotter said, “Your tires are older than the cars you are passing. Good speed.” Truex got into the wall at the end of practice but it was just cosmetic damage.
Matt DiBenedetto: DiBenedetto’s stats at Darlington are not great but neither is the equipment he has been drove at previous races at Darlington. DiBenedetto is auditioning for a job next year so he will be driving every lap like it is his last. DiBendetto is running the chasis that he qualified 17th and finished 20th at Dover. He liked his car. DiBenedetto said, “3 and 4 is where we need it to be but I need some help rotating the center of 1 and 2.”
Daniel Hemric: Hemric will be making his 1st start in the MECS at Darlington this week. He has had a lot of success in the Xfinity Series at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Hemric finished 3rd last year and 4th in 2017 in the Xfinity Series. Hemric is 25th in the Playoff Standings so he needs to win to make the postseason. Hemric said, “It rolls into turn one good but gets too loose on the exit of two and it ruins the run through 3 and 4.”
Austin Dillon: Darlington is a weird track (egg shaped) and Dillon is a weird dude. It is no surprise that this is his best track. Dillon has a 10th place average finishing position in the last 3 Southern 500s. He said on SiriusXM this week that his team brought their best car to the track because they want to get the 50th anniversary paint scheme into Victory Lane. Dillon was complaining about the back tires sliding and having no throttle in 1 & 2.
Ty Dillon: Dillon has been much better on the shorter tracks than he has been on the 1.5-mile and larger tracks this season. Dillon is good at running up against the wall so he could have a decent finish Sunday night. Dillon finished 13th and 21st in his 2 MENCS races at Darlington. Dillon said his car was bouncing too much but it was pretty good in 1 and 2.
Chris Buescher: Buescher has been awesome this season and Darlington ranks as his best track. He has 3 career starts in the MENCS at the Lady in Black and he has never finished outside the top 17. Last year Buescher qualified 19th and finished 13th. Buescher was complaining that his car was free on the exit and hitting the splitter through the corners. They brought him in to help lift up the car. After his next run Buescher said, “Much better.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: It is going to be hard to trust Stenhouse this week. His average finishing position in his 6 races at Darlington is 22.5. Stenhouse is an aggressive driver and now that he is in a “win or go home” situation, he will be even more aggressive. Stenhouse has not finished inside the top 20 on an oval track since the race at Kentucky in early July. Stenhouse blew a tire in practice and got into the wall. The team was working to fix the damage. Stenhouse was in new tires and made a mock qualifying run in final practice. That is why his speed was good.
Ryan Newman: He has been running very well this summer and Darlington ranks as his 5th best track. Newman is an old-school and this is an old-school track. This is one of the hardest tracks to make a pass and Newman is the hardest driver to pass. I expect the No. 6 team to use pit strategy more than normal to score Stage points. Newman was not happy with the car. He said, “I have to lift earlier than everyone else because it is hitting the splitter and it is too loose. It is like a double-negative.”
Favorites to win Sunday: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch
Good Sleeper Picks: Daniel Suarez, Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher and William Byron
MENCS Final Practice Speeds
Final Practice 10-Lap Average Speed
Final Practice 20-Lap Average Speed
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