The practice sessions are in the books and the field is set for Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Kevin Harvick is on the pole, giving Stewart-Haas Racing its second pole-winner in as many weeks, but Team Penske also flashed some serious muscle in qualifying yet again as Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski both scored top-five starting spots. Meanwhile, Richard Petty Motorsports has been the early surprise of the weekend with Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose qualifying on the second row. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne are among the big names starting outside the top 20.
Following the on track action, the final driver rankings for Saturday's race have shuffled a bit. In particular, several second-tier drivers have been impressive so far this weekend, boosting their value to the point where I have enough confidence to start them in most formats. With that in mind, I'm definitely going to sprinkle in a few sleepers to my final lineups, and overall, I feel there are plenty of value picks to choose from this weekend.
The top 3
1) Denny Hamlin
Hamlin hangs on to the top spot in the rankings heading into Saturday's race, and while he hasn't been dominant so far, he has been solid enough given his career numbers at Darlington. He ranked in the top 15 in opening practice Friday, and delivered a top-10 effort in qualifying. More importantly, his 5.4 average at Darlington is the best in the series, and he has three top-two finishes in his last four starts at the track.
2) Jeff Gordon
He jumps up a spot in the final rankings, and another strong performance at Darlington appears to be on tap for Gordon. He cracked the top five in both practices Friday and qualified in the top 10. The seven-time Darlington winner has a series-leading eight top-five finishes in the last 10 races at the track, and he is looking like a legit contender for the win this weekend.
3) Kyle Busch
Busch vaults into the No. 3 spot heading into Saturday's, and he has shown plenty of speed so far. He turned the fourth-fastest lap in Happy Hour and followed it up with a top-10 run in qualifying. Busch is also a former winner at Darlington, and in the last four races at the track, he has scored the second-most points in the series. During the stretch, Busch's 416 laps led are 256 more than any other driver.
11) Ryan Newman
He has been solid at Darlington throughout his career, and he has been living up to his reputation this weekend. Newman ranked in the top 10 in both practices Friday, and he actually paced the field in Happy Hour. He also qualified in the top 10. Newman has 10 top-10s and seven top-five finishes in 15 starts at Darlington, and he looks like a rock solid addition to rosters in all formats this weekend.
14) Jamie McMurray
McMurray has been on a nice little roll at Darlington, and it looks like it could continue in a big way this weekend. He turned the eighth-fastest lap in Happy Hour Friday, and he will roll off sixth after a strong effort in qualifying. McMurray has five finishes of 16th or better in his last seven starts at Darlington, including three in his last four starts. In fact, he has two top-10s in his last four starts at the track, and he appears to have top-10 upside this weekend.
16) Marcos Ambrose
Although he has been boom or bust at Darlington, taking a chance on Ambrose this weekend could pay off. After ranking 11th in the opening practice Friday, he jumped to second on the charts in Happy Hour. Ambrose then backed up his practice times with a fourth-place run in qualifying. He enters this weekend's race with two top-15s in his last three starts at Darlington, including a career-best ninth-place finish in 2012. Ambrose could end up being a sneaky top-10 pick Saturday.
17) Aric Almirola
Almirola has finished 19th and 20th in two starts at Darlington, but he could be on his way to a career-best performance at the track this weekend. After all, he ranked sixth on the charts in final practice Friday, and he qualified an impressive third. It's also worth noting that Almirola heads into the Bojangles' Southern 500 with three top-12s in the last four races. Another solid run could be on tap Saturday, and he is definitely worth a flier, especially in deeper formats.
Big names outside the top 10
18) Greg Biffle
He is actually a two-time winner at Darlington, and he is even riding a streak of three-straight top-15s at the track. However, Biffle ranked outside the top 20 in both practices Friday, and his 19th-place effort in qualifying wasn't much better. It looks like Biffle could be playing damage control this weekend, and based on the below average speed he has shown thus far, a top-15 is probably the best-case scenario.
21) Tony Stewart
Darlington is one of the few tracks where Stewart has never won, and while he still delivered solid finishes for the most part, it appears that could even be tough for "Smoke" to achieve this weekend. He ranked well outside the top 20 in both practices, and he also qualified outside the top 20. Stewart is talented enough to turn things around on race day, but he is a risky pick to say the least.