Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions – Southern 500: Rookies No Match For … Gordon?

Historic Darlington Raceway is the site of Round 8 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and tonight, the best stock car drivers in the world will contest one of the most prestigious races in NASCAR, the Southern 500. They’ve tried to kill it, but like cockroaches after nuclear war, the Southern 500 continues to live on after years of schedule changes, name changes, and lawsuits. Veteran drivers tend to excel at this facility, and rookies tend to, uh, not do so well. The dichotomy of success between those two groups, along with a multitude of other storylines, will keep fans plenty busy in what is sure to be one of the more compelling races of this still young 2014 season.

1. Will the rookies turn the race into a wreckfest?

It’s been quite a while since a rookie class as large as the 2014 group has debuted for a race at Darlington, so I will forgive you all if you forgot some of the past rookie-laden races at Darlington. Just know one thing, they weren’t very pretty.

Historically speaking, Darlington has traditionally been the race track that has given rookie drivers the most fits. It only makes sense given the fact that Darlington is the most unforgiving track on the NASCAR circuit. The fast and narrow egg-shaped configuration is tricky enough to bite even the most experienced of drivers, so you can only imagine what sorts of perils the 2014 rookies may endure after the green flag drops tonight.

Darlington Raceway is a fan favorite, but perhaps not so loved by the sport’s rookies.
Darlington Raceway is a fan favorite, but perhaps not so loved by the sport’s rookies.

In Friday’s practice, the most talented driver of the ’14 class, Kyle Larson, wrecked hard enough to warrant a backup car, while fellow rookies Alex Bowman and Justin Allgaier earned some Darlington stripes of their own. And that was just in practice. Put 43 cars on the track, with eight of them being piloted by rookies, and you have a recipe for a wreckfest.

Keep an eye on the caution count tonight, and be extra mindful of who is causing those cautions. It is very likely that cars driven by young drivers will be in the wall quite a bit, and if the trend comes to fruition (spoiler alert, it probably will), you can say you heard it here first.

2. Will Jeff Gordon finally bust through with a victory?

Jeff Gordon enters tonight’s race with an awful lot of momentum. Gordon has been the most consistent driver in the series in 2014, and as a result he has inherited the points lead. But for all of Gordon’s speed and consistency this season, he hasn’t been able to close out a race effectively enough to grab an all-important victory. Oh, he’s been mighty close, as everything from blown tires to losing pit strategy calls have kept the #24 team from victory lane.

Such close-but-no-cigar kinds of outcomes have been a hallmark of the latter half of Jeff Gordon’s career (notably, the start to Gordon’s 2010 season was eerily similar to that of his 2014 performance thus far), and for as consistent as the California Kid has been up to this point, it will all be for naught if he can’t start finding victory circle.

Luckily for Jeff, this weekend’s race at Darlington seems like the perfect race for Gordon to snatch up a victory. One of the big factors behind Gordon’s success this season has been the increased tire wear exhibited in 2014 races, and with Darlington expected to be yet another tire management affair, one can expect Gordon to be a challenger all night long. His raw experience certainly doesn’t hurt his chances either, as Darlington’s tricky, old-school nature very much suits an old-school driver like Gordon.

In my view, tonight ought to be Gordon’s best chance to win at least until the series reaches Dover (another tire management track), so my guess is that he’ll be up on the wheel all night long.

3. Will Kasey Kahne finally show some strength?

Its been tough sledding for Kasey Kahne in 2014. The Washingtonian driver has been largely a non-factor in 2014, and frankly, this slump he is in stretches all the way back to the beginning of the 2013 Chase. Even at tracks where Kahne is traditionally strong, Kahne has been mediocre at best, and as such he sits mired in 19th in points while his teammates all run circles around him. What gives?

It is conceivable that in an effort to get Jeff Gordon back up to speed, some of the focus that made Kahne so strong during the first half of 2013 has been shifted back towards Gordon’s No. 24 car. Its also conceivable that Kahne’s disastrous 2013 Chase performance is continuing to impact him mentally. It could be a combination of any number of factors.

Whatever the deal is, Kahne needs to step it up, because, true or not, rumors have already begun cropping up about Kahne being ousted at Hendrick before 2016 in order to make room for Chase Elliott. I highly doubt there’s any truth to those rumors, but they can and will be a major distraction until Kahne returns to his previous form.

All told, Darlington ought to be a good opportunity for Kahne to bounce back. He could have won this event last year had it not been for a spin courtesy of Kyle Busch’s car’s air disturbance, and he has been strong here in the past. If Kahnedoesn’t step up for yet another week in a row, serious questions need to be raised as to what is going on in the No. 5 camp.

4. Will passing be as difficult as it usually is at Darlington?

For many years, Darlington was lauded as the most difficult place to make passes inNASCAR. For the most part, that record has held true all the way through to the present day. The track is far too narrow to run two-wide into the corners safely, and the corners themselves are shaped in such a way that a special line—a line that is not very conducive to passing—is the line that must be run to make speed. The 2005 repave of the facility only served to make passes harder to accomplish, as the fresh surface removed the tire-wear aspect from the unique equation that forever defined Darlington.

However, tonight, you can expect a much different race than the Darlington of late has traditionally provided. All of the drivers have reported that the track has now sufficiently aged enough to start chewing up tires effectively enough to make tire wear a factor once again. The new open setup rules ought to only compound that tire wear effect further. In addition to this, the increased speeds and grip of the Gen 6 car has allowed the drivers to run multiple grooves through turns 3 and 4, something that has never been done until the advent of the super-grippy Gen 6-era.

Both of these factors will almost certainly lead to a more pass-happy race, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see the record for lead-changes challenged tonight. That may be a brash prediction, but with how unpredictable the 2014 season has been, such a record doesn’t seem so out of reach, does it?

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Bojangles’ Southern 500:

Gordon finally picks up a victory and locks himself into the 2014 Chase, extending the unique race winner’s streak to 8.

1. 24 – Jeff Gordon
2. 2 – Brad Keselowski
3. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
4. 18 – Kyle Busch
5. 22 – Joey Logano
6. 20-Matt Kenseth
7. 88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
8. 16 – Greg Biffle
9. 55 – Brian Vickers
10. 5 – Kasey Kahne

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