Selecting a driver to win this week’s NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Darlington Raceway will be a difficult task and is right in line with track’s famed label of being "Too tough to tame."
This week, more so than other weeks, the three practice sessions and qualifying will be pivotal in narrowing down who might win. For the last 10 Darlington races in a five year span, there have been eight different winners. In each of those cases, the practice sessions gave indications of who would do well.
In three of the last four races at Darlington, there have
been some pretty good payouts. Sterling Marlin, Ricky Craven, and Terry
Labonte aren’t exactly the upper echelon of drivers on a weekly basis, but in their Darlington wins the crews were dialed in that weekend and carried it into the race with great performances.
Going back a few years, the track was relatively easy to tame for a few drivers. The late Dale Earnhardt accumulated nine wins in 44 starts. Jeff Gordon came along and went on a never before seen domination of the track, winning four straight Southern 500’s, one of the most prestigious races in NASCAR. No one has ever won more than two. Gordon owns 6 wins at Darlington, the last in 2002.
The duo of Jeff and Ward Burton combined to win four of six Darlington races during a three year span from ”˜99 to ”˜01. Both are in tough spots at the moment. Ward is driving a very non-competitive car and Jeff is still looking for a season long sponsor. "Hot Wheels" signed on to sponsor Jeff’s No 99 Roush Racing Ford for Darlington only. After Darlington, the car will likely be all white with "Advertise Here" painted on it.
Robert Yates racing has done well at Darlington in the past, but his star driver has struggled in the last three races there. Dale Jarrett (18-1) is a three-time winner of the spring race, the last coming in ”˜01. Teammate Elliott Sadler (18-1) has finished in the top 10 in each of the last three races, including a second while driving a Wood Brothers Ford.
Sadler could be a driver to keep an eye on because of the improved Yates engine program and his recent Darlington successes. Last season in this race he was on the pole and started fourth in the fall. Since Gordon last won at Darlington, he’s finished ninth, 33rd, and 32nd. Those aren’t very good numbers considering he’s finished half of his 22 Darlington starts in the top 5. However, Gordon’s teammates have stepped up in that three-race span.
Terry Labonte (30-1) won last year’s Southern 500, a 23-year gap from the last time he won at Darlington. Jimmie Johnson (10-1) has finished in the top 6 in two of those three races. Rookie Brian Vickers (28-1) won the fall Busch race last year.
Roush Racing might be a team that would vouch for Darlington being a track "Too tough to tame." Roush has only three Cup wins lifetime there for his multi-car team. Compare that to the five wins in seven Vegas Cup races and it multiplies when considering Roush has had so many more opportunities at Darlington. Jeff Burton has two wins there and Mark Martin (18-1) has the other.
Last season in this race, Kurt Busch (10-1) finished second in the closest finish in NASCAR history when he traded paint with Ricky Craven (28-1) for the final few laps. That has been Roush’s best performance over the last two seasons there. Over a four-race span among five cars, Martin’s fourth place finish last year is the group’s only other top 5 finish.
Obviously Matt Kenseth (11-1) is always one to watch, but Greg Biffle (30-1) may present some good value in both odds