After a week off, the NASCAR Cup Series is back in action at Darlington Raceway, one of the most exciting tracks on the circuit with four differing turns on the 1.366-mile asphalt oval.
NASCAR has been racing there since 1950 and from the beginning, it’s been called “The Track Too Tough to Tame” and “The Lady in Black,” names that don’t exactly espouse friendliness.
The Lady is an equal opportunity enforcer. It doesn’t matter if a driver is a former champion, a rookie, or former winner at Darlington, she’ll slap a Darlington stripe on them all the same. The Darlington stripe is the marking left on the side of a car when the driver navigates one of the turns poorly and slaps the wall. Every driver has gotten one. Even Cole Trickle, played by Tom Cruise, in the 1990 movie “Days of Thunder” got one.
The last eight races at Darlington have produced eight different winners, but I’m looking for that streak to be stopped in Sunday’s Southern 500 and I’m looking for it to come from the last driver to win multiple races at Darlington. For whatever reason, Denny Hamlin has been given a free pass from the Lady’s wrath. He sweet talks her somehow and makes her blush.
How else do you explain his 6.1 average finish in 13 Darlington starts? It’s been his best track over his career with 11 top-10s, seven top-fives, and two wins, the last coming in 2017. He drives the track with an old school mentality of saving his tires for the long runs. No track is tougher on tires than Darlington, but if managing the tires properly, a driver can maintain a faster pace than others after 30 laps. It’s easier said than done, but somehow Hamlin gets it better than most.
Hamlin won the last race on the season two weeks ago at Bristol, his second win in the last four races, and now has four wins on the season which is tied for the most in the series with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Hamlin’s 13 top-five finishes on the season are the most in the series and he comes into this weekend riding a streak of six straight top-fives. His ninth-place average finish this season is the best of his career and he only needs two more top-fives to match career-highs of 2009 and 2017 when he had 15 top-fives. He has got 13 in 24 races with 12 more races to go.
It’s been quite an impressive run for Hamlin and the past six weeks have been quite a transition from what we saw in the first half of the season with Kyle Busch and Truex seeming to win each week. In the last five races, Hamlin and Harvick have each won twice and Chase Elliott won at Watkins Glen. Busch’s last win came on June 2 at Pocono. Truex’s last win came June 23 at Sonoma. Both each have one win at Darlington, Busch’s coming in 2008 and Truex’s coming in 2016.
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook didn’t post Hamlin, Truex or Busch as the favorite, but instead went with Kyle Larson as the 5-1 choice despite Larson never winning at Darlington in any series. Larson hasn’t won this season and he didn’t win last season.
So what gives? Why is Larson favored?
It might be because Larson has led the most laps the past two seasons at Darlington. Last season, he won the first two stages and led 284 of the 367 laps before tying a career-high with a third-place finish. But that was last year with a different car. This week they’ll be using the race package with aero ducts and engine producing 550 horsepower and it’s with this car that he won the non-points All-Star race for a $1 million.
He’s also been close to getting his first points-paying race win in the last four races using this package. He was runner-up at Chicagoland, fourth at Kentucky, fifth at Pocono, and third at Michigan three weeks ago.
It is the race package coupled with Larson’s past two seasons at Darlington mixed in with the due theory that the SuperBook posted Larson as the favorite.
Meanwhile, all the drivers I like this week are bunched up at 6-1 odds — Hamlin, Harvick, Truex, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
A driver that hasn’t won yet this season who is worth taking a shot with to win Sunday is Erik Jones who has watched his three JGR teammates combine to win 12 races. As a rookie in 2017, he finished fifth at Darlington and last season he was eighth and he’s been third or better in two of the last three races using this race package. The SuperBook has his odds posted at 16-1.