Darlington Raceway is known as the "original superspeedway," the track that's "Too Tough to Tame" and the "Lady in Black." It is unique in that it has two very different sets of turns - many tracks are symmetrical or close to it. The differing turns can make finding the right setup difficult. Cars that are even a little off will wind up with "Darlington Stripes," or marks on the right side of the car from their contact with the wall. To further the problem, Darlington eats tires, so a car that handles well can become a bad one very quickly. Four new treads are pretty much mandatory when the caution comes out, as any track position gained by staying out, quickly disappears behind cars with fresher tires.
Almost every car will touch the wall, blackening it with their tire marks, hence the "Lady in Black" moniker, but the team that can persevere has every chance of finishing on top. Proper tire management brought about by a well-handling car will make the difference in the Dodge Challenger 500.
Location: Darlington, S.C.
Length: 1.366 miles
Banking: Turns 1 and 2: 25 degrees; Turns 3 and 4: 23 degrees; front and back stretch: 2 degrees
Leading the pack
Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle is currently ninth in the Cup standings, ahead of teammate Carl Edwards, who has three wins to Biffle's none. With three top-fives and five top-10s in the first 10 starts of the season, it isn't difficult to see why Biffle is in a solid position. Unfortunately, he has only led 17 laps this season. Biffle has two wins in his last three starts at Darlington Raceway and hasn't started worse than eighth in that time. In seven career starts at the track, he has one other top-10 finish and an average finish of 10.7. His average start at the track is 8.9, so look to Biffle in the Dodge Challenger 500 to both qualify and finish well.
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Johnson is not the highest placed Hendrick driver in the series points at the moment; teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is. While Johnson does have a win this season, he hasn't been as consistent as Earnhardt and struggled in the beginning of the season. He stumbled last weekend at Richmond International Raceway with a dismal 30th-place finish. The weekend at Darlington should energize Johnson and the No. 48 team. He has made a great impression at the track with two wins, five top-fives and eight top-10s in nine career starts. His average start over that time is an impressive 9.7, and his finishing average is even more impressive at 6.8. Fantasy owners should be expecting great things from Johnson this weekend in the Dodge Challenger 500.
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Lurking just outside the Chase standings is Gordon (13th). One track where Gordon has made his mark is Darlington Raceway - and not just with "Darlington Stripes." Gordon has not finished worse than third in his last four starts at the "Track too Tough to Tame." However, he has had some poor results in his 27 starts at Darlington (six DNFs). His record stands at four poles, seven wins, 15 top-fives and 18 top-10s. He has an exceptional qualifying record with an average starting position of 6.9 and an equally astonishing finishing average of 11.8. With Gordon's past results at the track, it could not be more obvious that he needs to be in fantasy lineups for the Dodge Challenger 500.
Ryan Newman | No. 12 Alltel Dodge | Penske Racing
Newman has been on somewhat of a streak in the past four races. He has three top-10 finishes in that time but managed a DNF due to an engine failure at Phoenix. Newman has performed well at the intimidating Darlington Raceway. In his last five starts at the track, he has three top-five finishes and one other top-10 result. His average finish at the track in nine starts is 10.7, and in typical Newman fashion, his qualifying average does not disappoint (7.1). Newman seems to have all the luck in the Penske stables this season, and there is no reason that should change at Darlington. Newman would be a solid addition to any fantasy lineup this weekend.
Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Having run exceptionally well in nearly every race this season, Hamlin hit a huge snag at Richmond International Raceway last week. He dominated the race and set a track record for leading the most laps (381) until a slow-leaking tire failed, forcing him to stop on the track. He would end the race with a 24th-place finish. Hamlin has taken to Darlington Raceway like a fish to water in his two career starts, where he has a top-five and another top-10 finish; he also qualified in the top 10 in those two races. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have produced one of the fastest engines in the series this year, and Hamlin should continue to benefit from the power advantage over his competitors. While the sample size isn't big, Hamlin should be considered one of the top drivers in Darlington due to his current prowess.
Drivers to keep an eye on
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Mountain Dew/AMP Energy Drink/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Earnhardt could have had his first win of the season at Richmond International Raceway, were it not for contact with Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch late in the race. Earnhardt was among the fastest in the closing stages and had put himself in a position to win. However, "Earnhardt Nation" shouldn't be too disappointed with his 15th-place finish. Earnhardt appears primed to get into Victory Lane soon, and when he does, a watershed of wins could follow. That could happen at Darlington Raceway, where he has recorded two top-fives and six top-10s in 13 starts while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Fantasy owners should continue to ride with Earnhardt, who could be good for a top-10 finish or better at Darlington.
Clint Bowyer | No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
A fortuitous win at Richmond International Raceway may have solidified Bowyer as the driver with the most surprising start to the 2008 season. Prior to Richmond, he had two top-fives and four other top-10 finishes. He is fourth in the Cup standings and is making a run for the Chase. We don't have much history to go by with Bowyer at Darlington Raceway, but he has qualified well at the track. In two career starts, he has started third and from the pole, which resulted in a ninth-place finish in last year's Dodge Avenger 500. Bowyer has been on a wave of top-10s since the fourth race of the season and should be a good choice for your fantasy team this weekend at Darlington.
Kasey Kahne | No. 9 Budweiser Dodge | Gillett Evernham Motorsports
Kahne's 10th-place finish in the Crown Royal Presents the Dan Lowry 400 was his fifth top-10 of the year. At Darlington Raceway, Kahne is quintessentially fast. He has started from the pole three times in five starts. He also has two top-fives in those starts with an average finish of 12.4. While Gillett Evernham has a lot of work ahead of them to catch the leaders, Kahne is not giving up on the ship. Kahne isn't a certified choice for fantasy lineups this weekend, but he is certainly one to consider and should produce another solid result that could signify the end of his early season slump.
Tony Stewart | No. 20 The Home Depot Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Stewart continues to be the quietest of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers. He came close to a win in the Aaron's 499 before bad luck forced him to finish 38th. Aside from that poor result, Stewart has four top-fives and six top-10s this season. Stewart has finished well in 15 starts at Darlington Raceway. His average finish is 11.9; he has two top-fives and eight top-10s. Again, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have been one of the strongest in the field and, if Stewart is able to go easy on the tires, he should finish the day among the leaders. Stewart has upside this week, even though his teammates continue to outshine him.
Mark Martin | No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet | Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Martin is a part-time driver with two top-fives and four top-10 finishes in just seven starts this season. His pairing with Dale Earnhardt Inc. has been a good match, and one could wonder if he wishes he hadn't decided to only race part time. The team is improving with the feedback that Martin is providing, and that should help co-driver Aric Almirola. Martin's last three starts in the car haven't produced anything worse than an eighth-place finish. At Darlington Raceway, Martin has a strong record of top finishes. In 31 career starts, he has one win, 12 top-fives and 18 top-10 finishes. Martin's strong showings, coupled with his stout historical performance at Darlington, make him a driver fantasy owners should not overlook.