There is a lot to like about Darlington.
We are in an age of cookie-cutter racetracks and for nearly every venue the Sprint Cup Series visits, it is easy to draw comparisons to another track on the schedule. This is especially true with intermediate tracks. Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta feature practically the exact same layout. A driver that is strong at Texas will usually be pretty good at Atlanta too, and the series visits these tracks a combined six times.
The series only visits Darlington once a year, and no other track on the schedule rivals what we see there. First off, Darlington is an egg-shaped oval and is 1.366 miles. No other track can boast either one of those traits. However, what separates Darlington the most from the other 35 races on the schedule is the racing. It is truly a driver’s racetrack. The fastest line is just inches from the wall where drivers tiptoe all race, trying to avoid the inevitable Darlington stripe.
Since the series only visits the Lady in Black once a season and there is nothing to compare her to, picking the right fantasy drivers can be tricky. Only two drivers (Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman) have finished in the top 10 in the last two races there, making picking this weekend’s standouts even tougher.
Gordon’s consistency at Darlington can’t be compared to any other driver, making him the top choice to pick up his second victory of the year this weekend. Newman is the only other driver to finish in the top 10 in the last two years. Meanwhile, Gordon has finished in the top-five seven consecutive years. The No. 24 seemed to be the top car last year, but a late-race pit stop and caution falling at the wrong time cost him the win. He still fought his way to a fourth-place finish. Gordon has seven wins and 18 top fives at the South Carolina track.
The guy who ended up beating Gordon last spring was Denny Hamlin. Hamlin has looked out of sorts for most of 2011 (currently 17th in points), but he recorded his strongest run of the season last week at Richmond (second) and Hamlin finally seems ready to return to the front of the field. Darlington would be a pretty good place to do it, as he has the best average finish (6.6) of all active drivers with four top-10 finishes in five races. Gordon and Hamlin are definitely expected to be the class of the field on Saturday.
Much like Gordon, Jeff Burton was ready to contend for the win last spring. However, a late-race pit stop and caution took him out of contention and Burton wound up eighth. Burton has two wins and 16 top 10s in 28 starts at Darlington. He should be a solid mid-level pick this weekend.
Sometimes a driver’s past results can be over analyzed and a driver’s momentum needs to be looked at a little more closely. Momentum is as important as anything else in fantasy NASCAR and right now Kasey Kahne has it on his side.
Kahne is coming off of his best run of the season (third) at Richmond and heads into the weekend as the only NASCAR driver to win at Darlington this season. Kahne powered Kyle Busch’s No. 18 truck to a dominant win there earlier this season. By the way, he has three poles in eight starts at the track. At the least, put him in your lineup for the qualifying bonus points.
Brad Keselowski has the fourth best average finish of all active drivers at Darlington. The only problem is it is in only two starts. However, the Penske Racing driver placed a solid 12th there last season. He is mired back in 28th points with no top-10 finishes and will be pressing for a good run at one of his better tracks this weekend. If you can get Keselowski at a decent value, he should pay dividends.
I put Burton in the starting lineup for Darlington, but the rest of Richard Childress Racing team will be on the Fantasy Insider bench. I will highlight Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer in particular. Harvick scored a top-five finish last season, but has only five top-10s in 14 starts at the Lady in Black. He’s only led 16 laps in those races and has an average finish of 19.07.
Bowyer’s average finish is even worse (23.20). He has only one top-10 finish to show in his five career starts at Darlington and in his last two, he was 32nd and 37th. There are much safer picks than Bowyer and it would be wise to save a pick with him since he is so valuable as a mid-level driver at most other venues.
Until next week, good luck my friends!
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