To say it was a surprise to see Kevin Harvick top the charts in the opening practice at Darlington Raceway Friday would be a major understatement. After all, he has an 18.9 average finish at the track for his career and just one top-10 in his last eight starts. More importantly, Richard Childress Racing has struggled at the track as a whole recently, failing to log a single top-five finish since the start of the 2005 season. RCR's last win at Darlington came way back in 1994, when Dale Earnhardt went to Victory Lane. Whether or not Harvick ends the drought remains to be seen, but despite the fast lap, fantasy owners should still temper expectations for Harvick this weekend.
Harvick was followed by Greg Biffle, and owners should have no worries about using the point leader this weekend. He is a two-time winner at Darlington, and he has finished in the top 10 in two of his last three starts at the track. As well as he has been running this season, there is a good chance Biffle one of the drivers fighting for the win Saturday night at one of his best tracks.
Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart rounded out the top five, and Edwards is the main driver to target out of the group. He has finished in the top five in three of his last five starts at Darlington, including a pair of second-place finishes. Stewart is always worth considering, but he hasn't had the greatest record at Darlington. It is one of just two tracks where “Smoke” has never won in the Cup Series, and he has just one top-five finish in his last 13 starts. A top-10 finish isn't out of the question by any means, but owners that have come accustomed to Stewart battling for wins could end up disappointed.
Only 11 drivers ran 10 or more consecutive laps in the first practice, and Kyle Busch topped all eligible drivers by a sizeable margin. Busch is a former winner at Darlington, and although his overall record is somewhat up and down, he has recorded back-to-back solid finishes at the track. He also enters the race with plenty of momentum, coming off a win at Richmond and second-place effort at Talladega. Slowly but surely, Busch is rounding into form after a sluggish start.
In Happy Hour, A.J. Allmendinger followed Harvick's lead and surprised the competition by posting the fastest lap. He has been miserable at Darlington in his career, compiling a 27.4 average finish in five starts. In those starts, Allmendinger has never managed to crack the top 15. Maybe the move to Penske Championship Racing will help, but it is a pretty big gamble for fantasy owners to take given his track record.
Roush Fenway Racing teammates Biffle and Edwards ranked second and third in the final session, while Jimmie Johnson and Travis Kvapil rounded out the top five. Since he ran just a single lap in qualifying trim, Kvapil can pretty much be dismissed. Johnson on the other hand deserves serious consideration. The two-time Darlington winner is one of three active drivers to average a top-10 finish at the track. Johnson has been taking some heat for not winning a race this year, but outside of two disastrous finishes at Daytona and Talladega, he has finished 12th or better in every race this year. He is still getting it done at a high level.
Denny Hamlin took top honors in terms of 10-lap average speeds in Happy Hour. He leads all drivers with a 6.5 average finish at Darlington, and in six starts, he has never finished worse than 13th. Hamlin won at the track in 2010, and after a sixth-place run last year, there is no reason not to expect him to be a serious threat to win Saturday night.
There were only 18 drivers that ran at least 10 consecutive laps, and Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson and Kurt Busch were in their own class out of the eligible drivers. Given the consistency he has shown in 2012, Junior should be good for another solid run at a track where he has averaged a top-15 finish in his career. It is tough to show the same confidence in Busch, even with his strong practice times. He has a 22.7 average finish since joining Phoenix Racing, and he has just one top-10 finish in his last seven starts at Darlington.
One big name that was absent from the top of the charts was Jeff Gordon. The seven-time Darlington winner, ranked 28-h and 13th in the two sessions Friday and ranked just seventh out of 18 cars in terms of 10-lap average speed during Happy Hour. On the plus side, Gordon does have seven top-five finishes in his last eight starts at the track. That being said, his value has to take a slight hit given his practice times and his terrible luck in 2012. Don't rule out a top-10 effort, but a top-five finish is far from a lock.
Happy Hour Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
First Practice Speeds (sorted by Best Lap)
10-Lap Average Speeds (must run 10 consecutive laps)
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
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