FANTASY NASCAR PREVIEW: Bojangles' Southern 500 Driver Picks

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The track "Too Tough to Tame" is the next stop on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway, but somewhere in between. The course has two distinctly different sets of turns. Turns 3 and 4 are much narrower than turns 1 and 2. This is a challenging aspect for crew chiefs as the handling setup for the stock cars is a bit more complex. You have to find a happy "middle ground" for your handling set up so that one set of turns doesn't upset the car. All this combined with the 23 - 25 degree banking, and wide racing grooves makes for some of the most exciting, side-by-side racing that NASCAR has to offer. The first thing that the casual fan will notice when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the turns. On most tracks, the preferred line is low and tight to the inside lines, but Darlington is a very unique facility. Most drivers prefer to run the high line right out next to the wall and carry that momentum into the straight-aways as they accelerate coming out of the turns. This historic oval's unique configuration almost always makes the high groove the fastest way around the race track. Considering that we just came from short track racing at Bristol, we're in for a big change this weekend. The rim-riding action under the lights of Darlington on Saturday night can be as entertaining as any event in the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

Nearly all the tracks that the Sprint Cup Series has visited to this point will not be of much help in figuring out Darlington Raceway this weekend. While Darlington is a super speedway, the racing is not like any other super speedway on the circuit. So this for this race, the loop data from Darlington Raceway will be an extremely important component in developing a list of fantasy racing drivers. The recent hot streaks coming into the weekend will prove to be a bit of a wrinkle, but historical trends should run pretty true. There is small group of drivers that perform well at the South Carolina oval, and as you will see in the table below, they're quite easy to identify. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 10 years or 10 races at Darlington Raceway.

Jeff Gordon 7.4 314 262 211 3,356 112.7
Denny Hamlin 6.9 303 186 357 2,849 107.1
Jimmie Johnson 8.8 291 256 324 2,789 106.8
Kyle Busch 13.6 374 236 588 3,134 106.1
Greg Biffle 12.8 326 296 637 2,642 105.7
Kasey Kahne 17.5 233 230 327 2,597 97.9
Ryan Newman 11.3 259 64 164 2,778 95.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 11.2 312 110 41 2,650 94.3
Matt Kenseth 10.1 264 123 142 2,382 93.2
Kevin Harvick 16.3 267 167 287 2,531 93.1
Martin Truex Jr. 13.1 278 127 98 2,153 92.1
Carl Edwards 13.1 287 151 94 2,262 91.0
Tony Stewart 10.9 311 105 12 2,153 88.1
Brad Keselowski 14.3 154 34 4 1,185 84.7
Jamie McMurray 17.4 195 53 87 1,991 82.6
Kyle Larson 8.0 21 5 0 131 81.7
Kurt Busch 19.2 297 78 70 2,365 81.6
Clint Bowyer 20.1 203 60 16 1,698 78.8
Joey Logano 23.0 124 20 56 1,173 77.9
Austin Dillon 11.0 11 5 0 26 77.6

When we take a look at the loop stats in the table above, we immediately notice that there is quite a bit of parity between the different manufacturers and super stables in the Sprint Cup Series at Darlington. Chevrolet and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last eight races at the South Carolina oval. Ford has been shut out since 2005-06 when Greg Biffle took the Southern 500 two seasons in a row. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have had the most success at the facility in the last few seasons. Between Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, this stable has racked up three of the last seven victories at the 1.366-mile oval. The last three seasons, JGR dominance at Darlington came under fire from the Chevrolet teams. Surprising Chevrolet driver Regan Smith outsmarted the field and took his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team to victory lane for the first time in NASCAR's top division in the 2011 installment of this event. In 2012 it was six-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his No. 48 Chevrolet claiming his third Darlington trophy and first since the 2004 season. Last season we saw Kevin Harvick finally break through to victory lane at the Track Too Tough to Tame with a dominant victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr. Ford is looking to snap an eight-year winless drought at the speedway. Biffle leads the way for this camp, with two career Darlington victories, but we believe Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski could be more dangerous in this event as Biffle's No. 16 team is in a terrible slump. Considering how well the teams of Penske Racing are performing right now, we wouldn't rule either of them out in vying for the victory this weekend. Assuming this duo of Ford drivers and the other contenders can avoid the "Darlington Stripe", a NASCAR term for scraping the outside wall at this historic oval, then anything could happen in this 500-mile event. Here are the fantasy racing drivers you need to put in your lineups for Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch - Busch's career stats at the Darlington oval may not be the greatest, but it's his most recent work at this oval that we need to pay attention to this weekend. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has flexed his muscles the last several weeks, and already has four victories to his credit this season. Busch won this event in 2008, and he's led well over 500 laps in his last seven trips to Darlington Raceway. Considering that he's riding a three-race Darlington Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, Busch and his team have this oval dialed-in on the setup. The driver that we saw lead 192 laps at Bristol two weekends ago will likely show up again this Saturday night.

Kevin Harvick - It took the Stewart Haas Racing star several years to finally nab his first Darlington victory, but Harvick finally got that monkey off his back in last year's Bojangles' Southern 500. He won the pole position, led 238 laps and made the field look helpless in dominating his way to the win last season. For what Harvick lacked in excellence earlier in his career, he's very quickly making up for in the present. The veteran driver now has two Top-5 finishes in his last two trips to the South Carolina oval. Given that Harvick is coming off his record 10th runner-up finish of the season at Bristol last time out, the No. 4 team is firing on all cylinders right now.

Matt Kenseth - Kenseth has been one of the hottest drivers in the series over the last five races leading up to this weekend. He has one pole position, two victories, three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes since the Brickyard race. Darlington Raceway should provide the No. 20 Toyota team with another great opportunity to win. Kenseth enters this event with a strong 93.2 driver rating at the historic raceway, but those numbers are sure to improve after Saturday night. Joe Gibbs Racing teams have always fared well at Darlington, and that should bode well for the veteran driver this week. In this race one year ago, Kenseth led 12 laps and finished fourth in the Bojangles' Southern 500.

Joey Logano - The Penske Racing driver is fresh off a big victory at Bristol Motor Speedway. We have good reason to believe the No. 22 Ford team will be a desirable fantasy racing play at Darlington this Saturday night. He represents Ford's best chance at breaking the long dry spell. Logano has only six career starts at the South Carolina speedway, but two of those efforts have netted Top-10 finishes. He won the outside pole and led 37 laps in this event one year ago, but was saddled with a DNF due to a front hub problem. Logano still has a lot to prove at this particular oval, but he comes to Darlington one of the hottest drivers in the series right now.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Jimmie Johnson - The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion brings a good racing resume with him to Darlington this Saturday night. Johnson is a three-time winner at the egg-shaped oval, and he has an impressive 75-percent rate of cracking the Top 10 at Darlington Raceway. In the 2012 installment of this event at the South Carolina speedway, it was the No. 48 Chevrolet team that led 134 laps and held off Denny Hamlin to win the Bojangles' Southern 500. Johnson qualified 26th, led 8 laps and finished third in this race one year ago. Each season we come to Darlington, Johnson races with the leaders and makes a run at victory lane.

Denny Hamlin - Hamlin is the x-factor in fantasy leagues this week. After an up-and-down performance for most of the season, the last few weeks have seen this veteran driver get it together. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has claimed a pole position and a pair of Top-5 finishes in his last two starts prior to this weekend. Hamlin has a victory and two runner-up finishes in his last five trips to Darlington. With 357 laps led in nine-career starts, it's clear that Hamlin knows how to race this tricky oval. Saturday night's 500-mile race could be where the season continues to turn positive heading into the Chase for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. - For most of his career Earnhardt has struggled at the Track Too Tough to Tame. With a career average finish of 14.3 and lowly 45-percent Top-10 rate at Darlington, this venue has ranked as one of his more difficult tracks in the Sprint Cup Series lineup. However, things have begun to turn for the No. 88 team at Darlington Raceway in the last two seasons. A ninth-place finish in 2013 followed by a runner-up finish in last season's Bojangles' Southern 500, Earnhardt seems to have found a grip at the high-line rim-riding oval. Next to Jimmie Johnson, this driver is one of the top performers in the currently struggling Hendrick Motorsports camp. He should put on a good show this Saturday night.

Carl Edwards - The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a great historical play at Darlington Raceway and he's riding some decent momentum as he rolls into the South Carolina oval with four-straight Top-10 finishes entering the weekend. Edwards has seven Top 10s in 11 career starts at the 1.366-mile oval, and that includes three Top 10s in the last four starts at the South Carolina raceway. We expect the driver of the No. 19 Toyota to stay on a roll at the South Carolina oval this weekend. Edwards comes to Darlington climbing the championship standings, and with a lot to race for in this 500-mile battle with the Track Too Tough to Tame.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Darlington who can provide a solid finish

Brad Keselowski - The Penske Racing star has only six career starts at Darlington Raceway, and the results have been more down than up. The driver of the No. 2 Ford will look to up his game considerably in Saturday's Bojangles' Southern 500. Right now, he's one of the hottest drivers in the series on these larger ovals. With 51 laps led and five Top-10 finishes in the last five events, Keselowski rides a torrid hot streak into Darlington. With a steady ninth-place finish in his last start on a larger oval (Michigan), there is good reason to believe he'll up his performance on this historic South Carolina oval. Saturday night promises a career-best effort at the Track Too Tough to Tame.

Martin Truex Jr. - The Furniture Row Racing veteran has run into some tough times of late, but he should shake those off with a good performance in the Bojangles' Southern 500. Truex's Darlington history shows three Top 10s in nine career starts or a less-than-impressive 33-percent rate. While his career average finish is a more respectable 13.1 and that's the number to keep in mind this weekend. Even when Truex is not at his best, he's still a Top-15 finisher and on the lead lap at this track. He's never had a DNF at this oval, and that's a measure of security for your fantasy racing lineup.

Clint Bowyer - The driver of the No. 15 Toyota is racing for a job in 2016. With the news over the off-week that Michael Waltrip Racing will be closing its doors at the end of this season, Bowyer is fully in audition mode right now. That motivation coupled with his current momentum should be good enough to ensure a great start in this 500-mile battle. Bowyer has Top-10 finishes in four of his last five races and is coming off a strong fifth-place finish at Bristol. This veteran driver's last three Darlington efforts have yielded 11th-, 11th- and 12th-place finishes. He'll be at least that good this time around, and probably better.

Ryan Newman - Newman had a steady 10th-place finish at the Bristol oval in his last outing, so we know he'll be looking to keep his momentum going in this week's Bojangles' Southern 500. The loop stats and historical numbers show his love of this super speedway. The Richard Childress Racing driver's recent history at the 1.366-mile oval has been pretty spotless. He's led 325 career laps and finished in the Top 10 in 11 of 16 races at this facility. The No. 31 team should have no trouble duplicating Newman's success at Darlington Raceway. The veteran driver should backup that impressive 69-percent career Top-10 rate at Darlington.

Austin Dillon - Despite his very brief history at Darlington (one race), Dillon makes an intriguing fantasy racing play this Saturday night. He enters the Bojangles' Southern 500 in good running order. The young RCR driver has three Top 10s in the last eight races. That includes a brilliant fourth-place finish at Michigan just two races ago. His lone Darlington start came last season and he logged a steady 11th-place finish in his debut at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Considering that this oval is tough on young drivers, Dillon should buck that trend in Saturday's 500-mile race at Darlington Raceway.

Kyle Larson - The young Chip Ganassi Racing driver continues to race like a veteran 10-years his senior. Larson has posted four Top-15 finishes in his last five races entering the weekend. That includes a steady 13th-place finish at the big oval in Michigan. That bodes well for the CGR No. 42 team coming into the Bojangles' Southern 500. His only career start at this oval netted an impressive eighth-place finish in his rookie season. Larson should have learned a lot in that outing. We expect the young driver to stay on a roll this weekend in South Carolina.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jeff Gordon - Despite his seven-career Darlington victories, we have to recommend sitting Gordon on the bench this Saturday night in the Bojangles' Southern 500. Times have gotten pretty tough for the No. 24 team of late and his farewell tour has taken a turn for the worse. After three-straight disappointing finishes at Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol, Gordon limps into South Carolina this weekend. While the Hendrick Motorsports legend has the definite skills to turn things around in a big way this Saturday night, odds are he's a far riskier fantasy racing selection than other drivers at Darlington Raceway.

Greg Biffle - Despite two-career wins at the Darlington oval, Biffle has a lot of struggles to overcome if he's to succeed this Saturday night. The veteran driver has only three Top-10 finishes to this point in the season and he sits a lowly 18th in the overall driver standings coming to Darlington Raceway. Considering that he has six Top-10 finishes in 14 starts at this facility, it's hard to believe that he won't have much success Saturday night. However, the current state of the No. 16 team cannot be underscored enough. With only one Top 10 in the last 12 races, optimism isn't running high in this camp right now.

Sam Hornish Jr. - Hornish will be making his first Darlington start since the 2010 season. Although he has three-career starts at the tough oval, the long layoff won't be very helpful. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver had his struggles earlier in his career at Darlington Raceway. Three finishes outside the Top 30 and an average finish of 33.0 aren't indicative of improvement on this oval. The driver of the No. 9 Ford has his work cut out for him in this 500-mile races, and the cards are stacked highly against him. Hornish should be avoided this weekend in weekly lineup leagues.

Tony Stewart - With only one Top-10 finish since May, we have to keep Smoke in the Slow Down list yet again at Darlington Raceway. The No. 14 team has been mired deep in the worst slump of Stewart's career this season. The Track Too Tough to Tame has never been a great venue for the three-time champion, just an oval of consistency. With no victories but 12 Top 10s in 22 starts, the 55-percent Top-10 rate would normally endorse a fantasy racing start. However, his lone pair of Top 10s this season would indicate otherwise. Keep Stewart on the bench for this one.

Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.

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