Fantasy NASCAR race preview: Showtime Southern 500

by Eric McClung on May 4, 2011 @ 15:10:40 PDT

 


Among the most legendary tracks on the schedule, Darlington Raceway has earned its two well-deserved nicknames. The "Lady in Black" is known to leave marks along the sides of the numerous cars that brush against its walls, outfitted with trademark red and white stripes. The unique egg-shaped layout provides different challenges in each set of turns but does not offer much comparison for fantasy owners looking for similar tracks. Unlike other sites, tackling Darlington requires the drivers to race the track while giving and taking with those around them. It is indeed "The Track Too Tough to Tame."

Location: Darlington, S.C.
Shape: Egg-shaped oval
Length: 1.366 miles
Laps: 367
Turns 1 & 2: 25 degrees
Turns 3 & 4: 23 degrees
Front stretch: 3 degrees
Back stretch: 2 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Ryan Newman | No. 36 Tornados Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing

Since loop data was introduced in 2005, Newman has held an average running position of 10th or better in four of six starts at Darlington. In the races where Newman ran that high, he capitalized with an average finish of 5.6. Through nine races this year, Newman's average running position of 11.6 is third among the season leaders. After a quick start to the season, highlighted by three top-fives in four races, on-track issues have kept Newman out of the top 10 in four straight. Despite those hiccups, he has continues to run well and is capable of courting the Lady in Black yet again.

Greg Biffle | No. 16 Valvoline NexGen Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Over the last six years, Biffle has led 558 laps at Darlington, over a quarter of the laps run. In that span, he claimed back-to-back wins in 2005 and 06, leading 170 or more laps in each victory. Biffle led 95 of 234 laps in 2008 before suffering an engine failure. Although he was a non-factor last year, Biffle finished eighth in 2009 after leading 117 laps. Over the last six races of this season, Biffle has five finishes of 15th or better. While he can be something of a boom-or-bust driver, The Biff is worth the risk at Darlington.

Jeff Gordon | No. 24 Driver to End Hunger Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

In addition to seven career wins at Darlington, Gordon is currently riding a streak of seven top-fives at the venue. Since 2005, Gordon has held an average running position of seventh or better with more than 98 percent of laps in the top 15. Last year, he led a race-high 110 laps and appeared to be sewing up a win until having an issue getting on pit road. Too Tough To Tame? Not for Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson, who won here in 2009 with Mark Martin.

Denny Hamlin | No. 11 Great Clips Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Including his win from a year ago, Hamlin has never finished worse than 13th in five career starts at Darlington. Amid performance issues and rumors of a crew chief change, the No. 11 team is coming off a season-high second-place finish last week at Richmond International Raceway. After righting the ship on a track where he has had so much success, look for Hamlin to continuing making a statement.

Kasey Kahne
Returning to form

Kasey Kahne | No. 4 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing

From 2004 to 2006, Kahne claimed three poles and two top-five finishes in four starts at Darlington. However, Kahne has yet to finished better than 20th in the four races since. It hasn't been for a lack of trying. In 2009, Kahne led 45 laps with an average running position of 14th and was running second at the midway point until a tire went down. Last year, he ran 12th on average but fell back to 20th. Kahne just snapped a five-race streak without a top-10 at Richmond and could keep the turnaround going into Darlington.

David Ragan | No. 6 UPS Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

In a span of four races this season, Ragan has three top-10 finishes, including one top-five. That matches his number of top-10s from all of 2010 and marks the first top-five since October of 2008. At Darlington, Ragan owns a fifth-place result from the 2008 season that came with an average running position of 11th. Last year, Ragan rallied from being a lap down to finish 14th. Scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season, Ragan's resurgence could keep him in the Roush house for years to come.

Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Since sweeping Darlington in 1999, Burton has eight top-10s and 13 top-15s in 16 starts. Last year, he finished eighth with a career-high average running position of seventh with 98.1 percent of laps in the top 15. The only issue is Burton's performance this season. He has yet to record a top-10, although he has finished 16th or better in four of the last five. Last week, Burton nearly stole a top-five finish at Richmond by staying out. There's plenty of risk here, but Burton has the veteran savvy to get things turned around starting at Darlington.

Martin Truex Jr. | No. 56 NAPA Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing

After seeing numerous strong finishes evaporate last year, 2011 has started off with more of the same, so it comes as no surprise that Truex finally cracked last week at Richmond. What appeared to be at least a top-10 at one point was dashed by yet another loose wheel, a recurring issue this season. Truex finally had enough, declaring over the radio that his pit crew was fired. While the driver doesn't hold that kind of power, he will get four new tire chargers. Currently 22nd in points, Truex actually ranks 10th in average running position. With an average finish of 12.8 in five career starts at Darlington, improvements could show immediately.

Temper your expectations

Kurt Busch | No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

Speaking of meltdowns, Busch unloaded on just about everyone in the Penske organization during a dreadful run at Richmond. Busch finished third at Darlington a year ago, breaking a streak of five results outside of the top 10 at the site. With an average running position of 13th or better in three of those performances, there is a chance Busch turns it around. Unfortunately, the equipment underneath him is the cause for concern.

Jamie McMurray | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing

A year ago, McMurray qualified on the pole and finished as the runner-up with an average running position of fourth while spending all 367 laps running 11th or higher. However, McMurray has only one finish better than 15th all season. On six occasions he was left outside of the top 20. Jamie Mac's average running position of 20.6 puts him just 23rd this season.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.

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