Fantasy NASCAR Preview: Darlington – Bojangles Southern 500
I hope you’re ready for Danica-mania again, because it’s going to be in full effect this Saturday night at Darlington. The Sprint Cup drivers will run at least 367 laps in the race this weekend for the Bojangles Southern 500. There’s only one race here per season (as of 2005), so there’s not as much data available to us compared to other weeks. This is, personally, nowhere near my favorite track, so I’m kind of glad there’s only one visit per year.
Fact of the Track…In the last five races here, the pole sitter has finished in the top 10 four times. The occurrence that that didn’t happen was in 2008 when Greg Biffle led 95 laps but eventually had engine problems and finished 43rd. Also over that span, nearly half of the top 10 starters (22 out of 50) also finished there.
During The Last Race At Darlington…I’ve been talking about this particular race for the last couple of weeks. You may remember that it was Regan Smith who took the checkered flag and grabbed his first career Sprint Cup series victory over Carl Edwards. I said as soon as that race ended that Carl played the “points” card and let Smith win. Just think, if Edwards would have won, he also would have grabbed the 2011 championship. Anyway, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top 5.
Practice Schedule…It’s another night race so it makes sense to practice at close to the same race conditions, but I didn’t make this weekend’s schedule so that’s not happening. There’s a practice session set to start at 11:30 am on Friday followed by Happy Hour at 2:00 pm. Later that night (5:00 pm) the starting lineup will be set. The eleventh race of the season is set to start around 7:00 pm on Saturday evening. For those that play Yahoo! Auto Racing, the deadline to select your drivers is 5:00 on Friday morning. All times are in eastern.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Bojangles Southern 500:
1. Denny Hamlin – The most recent intermediate track race winner is coming in to his second-best track on the circuit (statistically). In six career starts here, Hamlin owns an average finish of 6.5 and he won here in 2010. Denny has never finished worse than 13th at Darlington and I wouldn’t expect that to change on Saturday. This team has been somewhat inconsistent this season, so make sure the #11 Toyota looks good in practice before going “all in” with Hamlin.
2. Kyle Busch – Rowdy Busch isn’t great here by any means, but with four finishes of 11th or better in a row now, it looks like this team is finally getting back into their “great” role. Oh, yeah, a win and a 2nd-place finish in the last two Sprint Cup races doesn’t hurt momentum, either. Busch has made seven career starts here and owns an average finish of 17.1. When you look at his driver rating for those races, though, you can tell the #18 was pretty good in all of them. Kyle won here in 2008 and has led a total of 278 laps in the last four races at this track. In 2010, Busch started 39th and drove through the field to finish 7th, and last year he finished 11th despite leading 78 laps.
3. Greg Biffle – The Biff hasn’t finished worse than 6th on this intermediate tracks this season, and I wouldn’t expect that to change this weekend. The #16 Ford is just so fast week in and week out that it’s almost impossible to go against it. In eleven career starts at Darlington, Biffle has recorded two victories and averages a finish of 14.2. In 2008, he started on the pole and led 95 laps but an engine problem relegated Biffle to a 43rd-place finish, as I said before. Greg has led 639 laps at the track, which is by far more than anyone with less than twenty starts. In comparison, Jimmie Johnson has led just 409 laps in two more starts than Biffle.
4. Kasey Kahne – Hopefully you’ve gotten over Kasey Kahne being so disappointing earlier this year, because this team is finally looking to fire on all cylinders and look like the pre-2012 expected team. This is Kahne’s second-best track on the circuit, but he’s never won here and has finished in the top 10 in just 33.3% of his starts. What’s good, though, is that Kasey hasn’t ran into major problems at Darlington in his six starts and has never finished worse than 23rd because of. As you read up above, Kahne finished a solid 4th here last season after leading 124 laps. Another good thing about Kasey this weekend? He has won the pole in four of his nine starts here.
5. Jimmie Johnson – Five Time is the one driver in my top 5 this week that I’m not 100% sure about. It’s hard to look past how great this team has been on the intermediate tracks in 2012, though (check out the chart here). In the last four Darlington races, Jimmie has recorded just one top 10 finish, but I’m not too worried about that. In the six races between 2003 and 2007, Johnson finished outside of the top 4 just once, and that was a 7th-place effort. His average finish of 9.7 at Darlngton is third-best among active drivers.
6. Brad Keselowski – You know I don’t like to go against the most recent winner. Even better is Keselowski’s quick ‘understanding’–so to say–of Darlington and how to run the track. He started 31st and finished 7th in his first career start here back in 2009 and hasn’t looked back since. In 2010, BK ended up in 12th, and last year, as I said before, he posted a solid 3rd-place effort (although he wasn’t that good all race–Yahoo! chart here). Still, there’s a lot to like with Keselowski this weekend. This team has been strong on the intermediates in 2012 but has run in to problems (mainly the fuel pump issues). The Blue Deuce has now finished 11th or better for three straight weeks. I like drivers with confidence at this track and Keselowski definitely has that.
7. Ryan Newman – “The Rocketman” has gotten us bonus points just once thus far in 2012, but that very well could change this weekend. In thirteen career starts at Darlington, Newman owns an average starting position of 8.2 and has qualified in the top 3 in more than half of them. He also races well here: there are some slip-ups on his record, but for the most part Newman’s finishes have been single-digits. In the last seven Darlington races, “The Rocketman” has finished 6th or better in five of them and the other two finishes have been 9th and 37th (not sure what happened that race). Hopefully this team can turn around their recent shortcomings on the intermediate tracks (chart here).
8. Carl Edwards – When you look at Cousin Carl’s record at Darlington, it’s pretty impressive but he does have a couple bad runs. In 2006, he finished 39th after starting 7th, but that was due to an engine issue. And then in 2009, Edwards hit the wall while inside the top 10 (Yahoo! race chart here) and ended up finishing 32nd. If you take away those two races from his record, though, Carl has an average finish of 6.7 in his other six starts at this track. As I said before, he let Regan Smith win this race last year finished 2nd in this race last season, but this team isn’t back to 2011 form just yet. They haven’t finished outside of the top 10 on the intermediate tracks in 2012, though (chart here).
9. Matt Kenseth – Kenseth isn’t stellar here by any means, but I like the way he is running right now and I think he should get at least a top 10 finish on Saturday night. In eighteen career starts here, Matt owns an average finish of 18.1 and has never finished better than 6th. He ended up in 25th in this race last season, but before that Kenseth had a streak of five straight Darlington races inside the top 13 at the end.
10. Martin Truex, Jr. - With two bad finishes in a row, I can hear the masses jumping off the Martin Truex, Jr. bandwagon at an alarming rate. I’m not so quick, though, and recommend that you give the #56 at least one more shot this weekend before writing him off as “the usual Martin”. Statistically, this is Truex’s second-best track on the circuit, behind Homestead. He has made six career starts at Darlington and owns an average finish of 12.3 and has completed all but one lap in those races. Truex finished 10th here last season, which was his second career top 10 at this track. When it comes to average finish, Martin Truex, Jr. has been the fourth-best Sprint Cup driver on the intermediate tracks this season (chart here).
11. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Junior hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at all in the intermediate races this season and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he continued the streak here on Saturday night. His recent history here is a bit concerning (average finish of 19.7 in the last three years) but he wasn’t running at the level he is running at in 2012 during those events. From 2004 to 2008, Earnhardt recorded six straight finishes of 11th or better. Another thing that I like about Junior this weekend is that he has just four finishes outside of the top 20 in seventeen career Darlington starts.
12. Jeff Gordon – Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Gordon hit the nail on the head when he said that this season has been comedic. His bad luck thus far is almost unbelievable. Jeff’s record at Darlington is great (thirty-one starts, twenty-one top 10s, and SEVEN victories), but how confident do you think he is right now? And how confident are you going to be if you pick him on Saturday? There’s no doubt in my mind that Gordon can run top 5 here this weekend–he does have seven in the last eight events–but why take the risk right now? I’m going to let him get a few good races going before I consider taking the #24. If this was my Predictions article, Gordon would be labeled “High Risk”.
13. Mark Martin – He’s got a week off and this car has been fast on the intermediate tracks all season, so what’s not to like about Mark Martin? His average finish on these tracks in 2012 would be much better (chart here) if he didn’t blow up in Kansas. He was running top 10 in that race. At Darlington, Mark owns an average finish of 12.2 in a whopping forty-five career starts. He has visited victory lane twice (most recently in 2009) and has recorded twenty-six top 10s here. A mid-teens finish is a little bit of a low estimate in my mind, but in four of the last five events here he has finished between 14th and 19th. That was when he was with Hendrick, though, who has just one top 10 as an organization here over the last two seasons.
14. Jeff Burton – In case you don’t read my articles often, let me make this clear: Jeff Burton is very rarely on my radar. I think he’s past his prime and will be done in a year or two. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had him on my many rosters over the last three years or so a maximum of two times. That being said, I’m expecting a top 15 out of the #31 this weekend (although his performance on the intermediates this year has been sad). He just knows how to race at Darlington. In the last six events here, Jeff has posted finishes of 12th or better in all or one of them, with the lone exception being last season. However, he was running top 15 that race (Yahoo! chart here) before having engine problems. RCR doesn’t have problems like that too often so I’m not really worried.
15. Jamie McMurray – Here’s my sleeper of the week. Statistically, this is Jamie Mac’s second-best track on the circuit (behind Indianapolis) and he has just one finish worse than 22nd in eleven career starts here. His average finish of 14.5 is respectable and I like the fact that McMurray has led 84 laps combined in his last two starts at this place. Believe it or not, Jamie hasn’t finished worse than 14th in the last month of Sprint Cup Series racing.
Honorable Mentions: A.J. Allmendinger. This guy has been a qualifying machine as of late and could net you a few extra bonus points if you want to waste the roster spot. I wouldn’t recommend starting him, though (average finish of 27.4 here). Tony Stewart will probably move up in my rankings when I post my Predictions on Friday.
Those To Avoid Entering The Bojangles Southern 500:
Clint Bowyer – If any driver on this Avoid list is going to go against their past record at this track, it’s going to be Clint Bowyer. His history at Darlington should be simply called bad luck. He was running in the top 10 last year before getting caught up in the Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick wreck. In 2010, Bowyer drove up from his mid-twenties starting position to the mid-teens before having brake issues. And in 2009, Clint drove up to the top 5 before getting caught up in a wreck with A.J. Allmendinger. The #15 has the potential to run top 15 this week but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Bowyer’s average finish here (24.5).
Joey Logano -At most of the intermediate track events this year I have went into them with high hopes for Sliced Bread, but that’s not happening this weekend. He’s been disappointing at every intermediate track thus far in 2012 and that trend won’t stop in Darlington. In each of his three starts here, Logano has finished worse than he has started (sound familiar?) and his best finish in the last two years here has been 27th.
Paul Menard – He finished 15th here in 2009 but do you really think Paul Menard was that good all race? Check out his Yahoo! race chart (click here) and you tell me. As the saying goes, even a blind squirrel finds a nut at one point or another. In Menard’s four other starts at Darlington, he owns an average finish of 29.8 and hasn’t finish on the lead lap once. Next!
Danica Patrick – Must I explain?