Two races remain in the Nextel Cup championship playoffs with four drivers positioned well enough to win the inaugural title.
This week’s race at Darlington Raceway is the perfect setting for such an important race. Since 1950, Darlington has been a pivotal part of NASCAR history.
As we move forward into the new era, some of these older tracks have been put to rest in favor of the new corporate cookie cutter tracks. A premium is now placed on luxury skyboxes, but it’s nice to see such an important event at a track where the greats in NASCAR history have raced.
Traditionally, the Southern 500 has always been on Labor Day weekend. While I’m not for all the radical changes in any sport, I must say that I am really enjoying the championship chase this year. Many traditional NASCAR fans, while being disappointed with all the venue changes, have warmed up to the new championship chase.
In the past at this point of the year the title was all but sewn up. We’d be talking about magic numbers and a certain driver just having to qualify to clinch the title. The story on the race would fall on the back pages of the sports pages right next to an AP story on the English Premiere League. The race itself was a formality with drivers and teams getting ready for their short time away from their sport after racing from January through November.
Now, there is a definite buzz in the garage area with teams all having an opinion on who will win. The media is giving it front page hype on the sports pages right next to the Steelers and Eagles big game over the weekend.
The greatest thing about Darlington, "the track too tough to tame," is that it’s tough on all the drivers. It’s tough on the crew trying to set-up a car, and it’s rough on the tires. This presents a great opportunity for several drivers to move up dramatically or slide down in the points. It’s highly improbable that the top four in points will all do well like they did last week in Phoenix. Just when a driver thinks he’s got his line figured, he’s up in the wall getting himself a historic Darlington stripe on the side of his car.
Going through recent history, there really isn’t one driver that has done well each and every race at Darlington. There are plenty that will win or have a top five finish in one race, then come back and fail to make the top 30. Last season, two improbable long shots won the race. In the last 10 Darlington races there have been nine different winners. The only multiple victor over that span has been Ward Burton, a driver who has only five career wins.
The 500-mile race is the one that could usually be counted on to have the cream rise to the top, meaning the best teams with the best equipment win the battle of attrition. That theory went down the tubes last year when Terry Labonte won for the first time in any race since 1999. Still there is merit to the theory, and the consistent teams should be ones to select this week.
Jeff Gordon tops the list at Darlington. Gordon has six career wins on the track, including five at the Southern 500. Gordon’s last three outings on the track have been awful, but this may be his turn. He’s only 41 points behind Kurt Busch for the lead. Darlington has been marked by drivers separating themselves from the field.
Jimmie Johnson won at Darlington earlier this year and has done surprisingly well over his short career. His worst run was 27th with all others in the top 10. He’s peaking at the right time right now, having won three of the last four races during the chase. Based on his career runs at the track and the roll he’s on right now, Johnson might be the driver to start all wagering strategies this week.
Kurt Busch was involved in one of the greatest finishes ever on this track last year when he and Ricky Craven went door to door over the final laps. Craven finally nosed him out at the line. Busch finished 13th in the Southern 500 last year and sixth in the spring. He’s holding all the cards right now. It’s his championship to lose.
Expect Busch to be very conservative for the first 400 miles staying near the top 10. Then he should attempt to position himself near the top five down the stretch. If he can get out of Darlington unscathed, he’ll be in great shape going to Miami.
Jeff Burton has probably tamed this track on a consistent basis more than anyone over the last 10 years. In 21 starts, Burton has 14 top 11 finishes, all while driving for Jack Roush. In the race earlier this season, Richard Childress had Robby Gordon finish fourth and Kevin Harvick eighth. Look for trend to continue for both Burton and Childress this week. Also, Ryan Newman, has done very well, placing third in March along with two other top five finishes.
Mark Martin has one career win at Darlington and that came way back in ”˜93. He was fastest in happy hour prior to the March race there and finished seventh. He has to feel this is a track where he can make up some ground. He’s only 102 points from the leader.
After seeing how Johnson diced through the points two weeks ago when others faltered, there still is a glimmer of hope remaining for Martin.
Joe Nemechek is worth keeping an eye on this week as a possible long shot candidate. He’s never done anything special on the track, but he’s one of the hottest drivers on tour right now. Over the last six races, he has accumulated more points than anyone.