Bojangles’ Southern 500 Preview

After a weekend off, the final 2 races of the regular season resume under the lights in Darlington, SC on Sunday, 9/2. Like any night race starting with a hot track and ending under the lights, expect the conditions to drastically change along with the track temperature. Some of the cars that seemed dominant in the first 100 laps will gradually fade, and some of the “where did they come from?” cars will begin to creep forward in the second half of the race.


Darlington Raceway is nicknamed “The Lady in Black” and “The Track Too Tough to Tame” by many NASCAR fans and drivers. The track features a unique, egg-shaped design, with different configurations at each end of the track. Turns 1-2 are long, sweeping turns, whereas turns 3-4 are tight with a particularly tricky entrance and exit. The contrast can make it a nightmare for crews to set up their cars’ handling in a way that will be effective at both ends. Many drivers have earned their “Darlington stripe” from misjudging a turn and scraping the wall. The old adage here is to race the track, not the other drivers.

At 1.366 miles, Darlington is considered an “intermediate” track, but is vastly different than its prototypical 1.5 mile cousins. The surface is known to be abrasive and tremendously tough on tires, so expect to see teams pitting much earlier than the stated fuel window would suggest. The turns feature 23-25 degrees of progressive banking, making for very fast speeds, and the preferred groove typically runs right up against the wall in turns 1-2, and varies throughout the race in turns 3-4.

The first NASCAR cup series race at Darlington was held back in 1950, and a win here is one of the most sought after prizes in the sport. The official “throwback” paint schemes at this year’s Bojangles Southern 500 will be celebrating NASCAR’s 70th birthday.


This section is less about prognostication, and more about highlighting drivers catching my eye at a given moment. We all play in different formats and have different strategies, but hopefully this adds some value to your results. Harvick, Truex, and Kyle Busch have been purposely omitted because they are obvious options each week. Good luck!

THE DOWNFORCE (start ’em)

Denny Hamlin – There’s something to be said for experience at Darlington, and Hamlin is a wily veteran who knows how to get around this circuit. Aside from a 19th place finish in 2014, Hamlin’s worst finish since 2011 is 6th, and he’s the defending champion of this race.

Kyle Larson – Kyle will be making his 5th career start at Darlington, but his finishes in the first 4 races are somewhat average (8th, 10th, 3rd, 14th). From that standpoint, I feel like I’m going out on a limb, because the truth is that the talent drops off swiftly after Harvick, Hamlin, Truex, and Kyle Busch are off the board. I think Larson is the best of the rest, and I feel like things might go his way this weekend.

Erik Jones – After I just got done promoting experience, let’s do the exact opposite. Jones has 1 career start at Darlington, and he finished 5th, which alone is impressive. Given his recent form and transition to JGR equipment in 2018, I don’t see any reason he cannot replicate or improve upon last season’s effort. Normally I’d make him a dark horse, but that spot is occupied… [ominous foreshadowing]

Ryan Newman – Depending on where you’re at in your league, you may want to play it conservatively with someone who can get some points and be there at the end. Look no further than Ryan Newman, who can reliably deliver the 30-35 points you’re looking for. In the last 5 races, Newman has finished 10th, 10th, 13th, 8th, and 7th. Newman has finished 68% of his races in the top-ten at Darlington, his highest rate at any track.

Wild Card – Throw a towel over Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, and Chase Elliott for this third tier. Each presents considerable risk to the potential reward.

THE DRAFT (dark horse)

Matt Kenseth – What?!?! Yes, I’m backing the #6 Roush Fenway Ford. I place a high premium on driver skill this weekend (patience being one of those skills), and Matt is one of the best. Matt won this race in 2013, and has 5 top-sixes in the last six years. Yeah, the team/car situation detracts from Matt’s typical luster, but I feel the extra preparation time is going to help this team earn a surprising result.

THE DRAG (use caution)

Ryan Blaney – I love this kid, but he’s got a long way to go to figure out Darlington. When I think of patient and methodical drivers, Blaney is the last to come to mind, so tread lightly. Ryan is quickly accumulating a Darlington stripe collection with finishes of 30th, 13th, and 31st on his resume.


4.4, #4 Kevin Harvick
5.0, #20 Erik Jones (1 race)
5.8, #11 Denny Hamlin
6.4, #18 Kyle Busch
7.6, #6 Matt Kenseth

AVERAGE LOOP RATING @ DARLINGTON (last 5 track events)

125.9, #4 Kevin Harvick
111.4 #11 Denny Hamlin
109.6, #18 Kyle Busch
104.6, #2 Brad Keselowski
104.5, #6 Matt Kenseth

2018 PTS MOMENTUM (last 5 overall races this season)

46.0, #4 Kevin Harvick
45.6, #9 Chase Elliott
40.8, #18 Kyle Busch
39.0, #41 Kurt Busch
37.4, #12 Ryan Blaney

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