The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns from its final break of the year this weekend, with the field back in action for one of the crown jewels of the NASCAR; the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. This weekend is the third annual throwback weekend for NASCAR, with teams and drivers paying tribute to the history of the sport by running tribute liveries for this race only. Behind the fun, however, lies a growing intensity in the championship as only two races remain until the playoffs begin.
Darlington Raceway was opened in 1950 and is a 1.366-mile speedway. The oval is of a unique egg shape, with turns one and two at 25° of banking whilst turns three and four are at 23°. This makes the track tough for the teams to setup for, as one end of the circuit will always have different needs than the other. With the track renowned for being ‘too tough to tame’ let’s take a look at who could possibly in contention under the lights on Sunday. Here are my five picks.
Of the last few years, a number of drivers have seemed to be constantly featuring at the sharp end of the order come the end of the Southern 500. One of those is Kevin Harvick. Kevin has finished inside the top five at the Southern 500 for the last five years in a row; one of those being his race win at the circuit in 2014.
Harvick started on pole position for the race a year ago after qualifying was rained out. However, he stayed at the front all race long in his #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet and only lost the chance at victory after multiple problems on pit-road that gave the lead to Martin Truex Jr when it mattered at the end. Harvick recovered to take second place, but he will be itching to go one better this time around and get his second victory at the historic circuit and his second victory of 2017 in the new SHR Ford.
Martin Truex Jr seems to be one of my picks week in, week out. But the fact of the matter is, the driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry is on a rampage this year. Sixteen of the twenty-four races held so far in 2017 have seen Truex end the race in the top ten, with four wins already to his name. He leads both the points standings and the playoff grid and has a chance of claiming the regular season championship this weekend; with over 100 points between him and Kyle Busch.
If those weren’t enough of a reason to bet on Truex being a factor for the win on Sunday, consider that he is also the defending race winner at Darlington. He won the Southern 500 one year ago after holding off Harvick in the closing laps; giving the team their second victory at Darlington having previously gone to victory lane with Regan Smith in 2011. If Truex and his #78 crew have a trouble-free race, you can absolutely expect him to be at the front when the laps are winding down.
Another driver that seems to feature in my picks every week is Kyle Larson. The #42 Chip Ganassi Racing driver seems to have a car and team with him that can challenge at almost every track, showcased by his superbly strong start to the season that came before his mid-season slump. However, Larson returned to victory lane two races ago at Michigan and will now be hoping to continue to build momentum over the next two races to enter the playoffs with confidence.
Larson has also shown excellent form at Darlington in his short NASCAR Cup Series career so far. Since joining the series full-time in 2014, Larson has raced Darlington three times and finished inside the top ten on every occasion. His best finish came a year ago when Kyle drove to third place – largely whilst using his famed high line that he has become known for during the last few years. If momentum is on his side and he can keep it out of the wall, he could very well be on course to take his fourth win of 2017.
My final two picks for this weekend at Darlington both belong to the Joe Gibbs Racing squad. The team are second on the all-time wins list at Darlington, with five victories to the team’s name; three of which coming within the last seven years. One of those wins belongs to Denny Hamlin. The #11 FedEx Camry driver won at Darlington back in 2010 and has had six top five finishes in his NASCAR Cup Series career at the venue.
Hamlin has quietly been having a solid year. He’s had thirteen top ten finishes so far in 2017 and has slowly been getting faster and faster; most likely due to the increase in pace that Joe Gibbs Racing has undergone over the recent races; starting with Hamlin’s win at New Hampshire a handful of months ago. A second win of the season for Hamlin under the floodlights on Sunday night would further aid the #11 team’s hopes to challenge for a championship once the playoffs begin in just over a fortnight.
My final pick for the race win this weekend is the only driver on my list to have not taken a win already in 2017. Matt Kenseth helped his hopes of qualifying for the playoffs majorly last time out in Bristol. His strong fourth place finish allowed him to leapfrog ahead of Jamie McMurray in the playoff standings; meaning that Kenseth is no longer on the cut-line in sixteenth place and has a buffer in case we get another new race winner in the next two races.
Of course, aiming to qualify for the playoffs on points will always come with risks. So the #20 JGR team are undoubtedly aiming to bag a race win to assure themselves of a spot once and for all. Matt has been getting closer and closer over the last few races and Darlington could well be the place where he finally takes his victory. He’s won at Darlington before in 2013 and has had eleven total top ten finishes throughout his NASCAR Cup Series career. Of course, Kenseth is still in search of a drive for next year after Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Erik Jones would be replacing him in 2018. So if Kenseth can get a win and earn a spot in the playoffs, it’d be a great way to remind everyone of what he can do and the undoubted speed he has.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series takes to Darlington Raceway on Friday for two practice sessions, with qualifying taking place on Saturday. From there, all attention will turn to Sunday night’s Southern 500.