Last week we saw drivers bumping and banging with each other taking their anger out.
This week at Darlington, we’ll see a little bit of the same at higher speeds, except many will be just plain upset with themselves. At Darlington Raceway, another element is added to the race where they’re not only battling others drivers, but battling the track like no other on the circuit.
The 1.366 mile track egg shaped oval has been getting the best of NASCAR drivers since 1950. It’s a high banked track with each of the four turns being vastly different which has caused many drivers to earn their Darlington stripes over the years, a term used when drivers slam into the wall scraping up the right side of their car because of miscalculating the difficult turns.
“The Lady in Black” is an equal opportunity enforcer and even the most experienced of drivers is not immune to her wrath. Over the years, only a small group can say they have mastered the nuances of the track. Jeff Gordon is a seven-time winner on the track while it remains one of two tracks on the tour that Tony Stewart has never won on.
Gordon is probably the driver to key on the most this week because Darlington has been the most consistent for him dating back to his glory years. We’ve seen Gordon go through different spurts at tracks in the post-Ray Evernham era with no real consistency except for Martinsville and Darlington. He’s currently on a streak of seven straight years finishing inside the top-five at Darlington that includes a win in 2007. No driver even comes close to that type of excellence.
Denny Hamlin won this race last year and it looks like his runner-up finish last week at Richmond may have been his teams wake up call for 2011. Hamlin is one of the few drivers who has never experienced a poor finish at Darlington. In five starts, his worst finish was 13th in 2009.
Kyle Busch looks like a new driver this season. Perhaps the combination of getting married and being older has made him mature to where he’s at now which is third in the standings, 30 points behind Carl Edwards.
Busch is the perfect example of a good driver having high and lows when battling the Lady in Black. He won the 2008 race, but also finished 37th in 2007 and 34th in 2009 to mushroom his average finish to 18.2 in six career starts. With the way he’s running right now, and if the Lady shows a little mercy, he could be in store for another win.
Jimmie Johnson has proven that he can drive on any kind of track and showed it early on by sweeping the season there in 2004, the last year Darlington had two races a season. Since then he’s had three top-five finishes, but finished 36th last season.
Two drivers who stood out the last two seasons were Penske Dodge teammates Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Busch finished third last year, but may best be remembered for his runner-up finish in 2003. The last 10 lap battle between he and eventual winner Ricky Craven has been called the greatest finish ever seen at Darlington in its 61 years of NASCAR racing as they bumped, banged and passed each other back and forth all the way to the finish line.
For some odd reason, this track hasn’t been very kind to the Childress group of drivers. Jeff Burton won twice while driving for Jack Roush, but hasn’t had a top-five finish there since 2000. Kevin Harvick had a couple top-three finishes early in his career, but has been victimized by the track more than most. In 14 career starts, Harvick has five finishes of 32nd or worse. Clint Bowyer has followed Harvick’s trend in each of his last two starts there.