Fantasy NASCAR preview: Southern 500

by C.J. Radune on May 6, 2009 @ 01:00:01 PDT


Darlington Raceway is the "original superspeedway," if you were to ask them, while also being known as 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 while most other tracks are symmetrical or close to it. The two different sets of 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 is notoriously difficult on tires, so a good handling car can become a bad one very quickly. Yellow flag stops to get four new treads are virtually mandatory, as any track position gained by staying out quickly disappears behind cars with fresher tires. Cars that can dial in their handling for the final section of the race will have the advantage if they can work their way through traffic.

Location: Darlington, S.C.
Shape: Oval
Length: 1.37 miles
Laps: 367
Turns 1-2: 25 degrees
Turns 3-4:
23 degrees
Front stretch: 3 degrees
Back stretch: 2 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Denny Hamlin | No. 11 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Hamlin led 148 laps at Richmond International Raceway last weekend, but he came up short yet again. He finished 14th. Darlington Raceway should be another good chance for Hamlin to find Victory Lane in 2009. In his three career starts at the track he has never finished outside of the top 10. He also led laps in two of those three starts and was the second-place finisher in the 2007 Dodge Avenger 500. In his few starts at Darlington, though, Hamlin has shown potential. Look for him to have another good opportunity in the Southern 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Earnhardt's style of driving lends itself very well to speed and strong finishes at Darlington. The cars typically ride very close against the wall through the turns, which is the preferred line for Earnhardt at most tracks. In his past five Darlington starts Earnhardt's average finish is 7.2 with just one of those finishes coming outside of the top 10. In total, he has earned three top-fives and seven top-10s in 14 career Darlington tries. With a team in need of a strong finish, Earnhardt needs to use his skill at Darlington to bring home the bacon.

Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Dewalt Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

In his last three races at Darlington, Kenseth hasn't qualified better than 31st. In none of those races did he finish worse than seventh, though. While his average finish in the last five starts there is rocky at 12.4, Kenseth led at least one lap in each of those races. Kenseth isn't coming off of the greatest string of results in the past few races, but Darlington presents the opportunity for him to turn it all around. He hasn't scored a top top-five or top-10 finish since the Samsung 500, but the Southern 500 could be a springboard for Kenseth's drive back to the front.

Mark Martin | No. 5 Cheez It/CARQUEST Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Aside from Talladega Superspeedway, Martin has been on a serious run of good form. He has scored two top-fives and five top-10s in the last six races. The poor result at Talladega proved to be an aberration after he scored his latest top-five at Richmond International Raceway last weekend. Considering that Martin virtually dominated Darlington Raceway in the 90s, it should be no surprise that he would be a top pick this weekend. In 32 career starts at the track his impressive resume displays a win, 12 top-fives and 18 top-10s. Look for another strong showing from Martin this weekend.

Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Unfortunately an engine failure knocked Biffle out of last year's Dodge Challenger 500. He led 95 laps up until that point and looked like he was in the same form that netted him two straight Darlington wins in the 2005 and 2006 Dodge Charger 500s. Obviously Biffle quite likes Darlington Raceway. If you skip the 43rd-place finish last year, his average finish in the last five Darlington races is 10.6. Biffle had been on a string of top-10 finishes prior to Richmond last weekend, too. There is no reason to think that his 17th-place finish there would be anything more than a small bump in the road. Biffle could be very strong in the Southern 500 as a result.

Temper your expectations

Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Harvick has had a very disappointing past few weeks with four straight finishes of 27th or worse. On top of that, Harvick hasn't scored a top-10 at Darlington since 2004. Switching the crews of the No. 29 and No. 07 teams may have worked quickly for teammate Casey Mears, but it definitely didn't pan out for Harvick. The jury is still out on the small success Mears found, but Harvick's struggles have definitely continued. His average finish in the last five Darlington starts is a lowly 27.8. For that reason fantasy owners may want to avoid Harvick in the Southern 500.

David Ragan | No. 6 UPS Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Ragan hasn't raced his way to a top-10 finish since the first race of the season. His best finish since the Daytona 500 was 12th in the Aaron's 499, the second superspeedway race. Other than that instance Ragan has struggled to even force his way into the top 20. He only has two starts under his belt at Darlington Raceway, and while one was a top-five, the other was a 27th-place finish. With Ragan's current lack of strong finishes, he just doesn't look likely to be a contender in the Southern 500. His teammates tend to be fast at the track, though, so keep an eye on him to see if he can leverage some of their speed.

Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

Busch finished second in the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 to Ricky Craven in one of NASCAR's most exciting and closest finishes. In his seven Darlington starts since that race, Busch has only scored two top-10 finishes. His average finish from the last five races there is 17.2. While Busch has been very strong this season, Darlington may not be a track where he is certain of a top-five finish. His recent results at the track suggest that while he may run solidly, a top-10 finish in the Southern 500 would seem like a victory. Busch may not be one you want to sit, but make sure you have someone more statistically promising in your lineup as well.

Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

Last weekend Busch became just the second NASCAR Sprint Cup driver to win on his birthday since Cale Yarborough who accomplished the same feat twice. Busch won the 2008 Dodge Challenger 500, but his average finish at Darlington is not too great. With poor runs plaguing two of his four career starts at the track, his average finish takes a beating and stands at 17.0. Like his brother, Busch is not a driver you want to leave out of your roster if you have the ability to play him. Just be cautious, though. He has demonstrated he can do well at Darlington, but has shown an equal amount of times the struggles that can creep up and ruin his day.

Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing

Vickers finds himself struggling a little in 2009. The prospects of breaking the slump don't seem likely to come to fruition in the Southern 500, either. His average finish at the track is terrible. In six career Darlington starts his average finish is 28.2. Vickers' best finish at the South Carolina track is 16th and that came in 2005. That was his only finish in the top 20 at the track so far. The combination of Vickers' poor runs at Darlington, in addition to the team's somewhat disappointing run of form, doesn't lead to high expectations for Vickers in the Southern 500. Fantasy owners may wish to save him for another week.

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About C.J. Radune

Radune has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.

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