Last week was tough on nerves, tough on equipment, and tough on points for several drivers who did not need any more obstructions to their Chase hopes. Physically, Talladega is one of the easiest tracks on drivers. Other than muscle strain from tensing up for 500 miles while waiting for someone in front of them to make a mistake that triggers the Big One, there is little movement inside the cockpit, but that all changes this week as the series visits the Track Too Tough to Tame.
Darlington is just plain tough. It requires the same precision as Talladega, only instead of banging into another car, drivers run the risk of scrapping the wall. Other cars have some flexibility built into the sheet metal; the Darlington wall is unyielding. Today's stock car is extremely durable, but even they can take only so much damage. One problem is that the natural groove on this 1.366-mile track is located about three feet outside the retaining wall -- and that was before the instillation of SAFER barriers that took even more race track away from the drivers.
Another problem is the surface is abrasive and the tight radius of the corners put a heavy load on tires. Even after a recent repaving in 2007, tires wear out quickly and conventional wisdom says that it's time to come for a fresh set of rubber every time the yellow flag waves. That conventional wisdom was wrong last year; Regan Smith stayed on track with old tires to hold off a determined charge of Carl Edwards and that will only add to the headache this week as crew chiefs wrack their brains for the correct strategy.
Crew chiefs will have a unique set of problems this weekend, but so do fantasy owners. Prior to 2004, players had as much data on this track as they did on restrictor-plate superspeedways because the senior series ran four races on rough-surfaced tracks at Rockingham and Darlington. North Carolina Speedway was down to one date in 2004 and off the schedule completely in 2005, while Darlington's schedule was trimmed to one race that year. Suddenly, the data pool all but evaporated.
Players may find a little inspiration in Dover with its concrete corners. Drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman have similar records on those tracks, but this track is unparalleled in toughness. Because it is easy to make mistakes at Darlington, streaks can be hard to sustain. Last year, only three of the top-10 finishers also finished that well in the 2010 event. That was marked by a long green flag segment near the end of the race that allowed Edwards to lap all but 18 drivers. When caution waved to determine if Jeff Burton had dropped fluid on the track with a strained engine, the gloves came off and a shoving match on the penultimate restart jumbled the lineup. Perennial favorites like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lost ground in the pits and on track, while aggressive drivers like Brad Keselowski and Truex surged forward.
By the numbers, this should be a relatively easy race to handicap. Concentrate on veterans with a history of success, leave the young guns in the garage, don't roll the dice on dark horses, and then all should be well. But there is still that little voice in the back of one's head that whispers: "What about Smith? What about Keselowski? Who will be this week's surprise?" Of course, listening to little voices in one's head often signals madness.
Jeff Gordon finished 12th in last year's edition of this race. Some excuse could be made for how the ending evolved because he has struggled on restarts in recent seasons and there were two quick yellows at the end of the race. Before the final cycle of green flag stops, Gordon was running comfortably in fourth and that has significance. If the race had continued without a caution, he would probably have scored his eighth consecutive top-five, which is remarkable on a track where streaks are hard to sustain. Gordon won the 2007 race on the newly repaved circuit and that was his seventh victory on this track. Following his accident in Talladega, he absolutely needs to reverse the No. 24 team's fortune or his Chase is going to be determined by his ability to win multiple races in the race to the Chase for the Championship -- the final 10 regular season events. NASCAR awards the most markers to the winner, and Gordon needs every point he can get.
Ryan Newman is at his best on rough-surfaced tracks. His career-best average finish of 11.5 in 20 races came on the concrete canyons of Dover, but he is almost as good at Darlington with an 11.6 in 13 starts. North Carolina Speedway was his fifth strongest track and those numbers all contribute to his being one of this week's favorites. Newman lacks the long streak that Gordon had, but not by much. His last nine attempts at Darlington have resulted in seven top-10s, which were interrupted by a blown engine in 2004 and some trouble on the track in 2008. Since winning at Martinsville five weeks ago, he has slipped off your competition's radar screen with four consecutive results of 15th or worse, but that only makes him a better value since he will be underutilized.
Denny Hamlin is best known as a flat track master and in games where he can only be started a limited number of times, he should be saved for tracks like Martinsville, Phoenix, New Hampshire, Pocono and other minimally-banked courses. In the NASCAR Live game, however, he's going to be one of this week's best values. In six previous starts on this track, he has never stumbled. Even a 13th-place finish in 2009 showed an improvement of 10 positions from his qualification of 23rd. Hamlin has finished on the lead lap in every one of his Darlington starts, which helps put him in a position to win -- and that is precisely what he did in the 2010 event.
It may very well be an indication of insanity, but players might want to listen to one of those voices in their head. Keselowski climbed from 12th on Lap 348 to third at the checkers last year. He did that with a little strategy and a lot of aggressive driving that kept drivers with fresher tires from simply gobbling him up on this one-groove track. His confidence level has grown exponentially in the races since then by making the 2011 Chase and winning last week at Talladega. The only negative about his potential this week is Darlington has a way of humbling drivers who are too cocky, but Keselowski has avoided that fate in three starts and has a perfect sweep of the top 15 to show for his self-assurance.
Jamie McMurray has been knocking on the door of a top-10 in recent races and he may be welcomed inside by the Lady in Black this week. He finished 14th in three consecutive events from Texas through Richmond and then stayed out of trouble in Talladega to finish 11th. Even with that solid performance, he is not getting the same amount of media attention as some other drivers in the field and that could make him a great differentiator. He is one of only three drivers with back-to-back top-10s on this track -- Hamlin and Newman are favorites in part because they are the other two -- and McMurray came close to adding his name to the record books as a Darlington winner in 2010 by finishing in the runner-up position.
Clint Bowyer survived a late-race incident last week in Talladega to finish in the top 10. That was expected of him after entering the week with three consecutive first- or second-place results on that track -- and in fact, a sixth-place finish was probably a little disappointing for the driver of the No. 15 -- that would seem like a gift from the gods compared to his past three Darlington races. The Lady in Black has been aloof since 2009; his best effort in that span of time came on this track last year when he crashed out of the race four laps from the scheduled distance to set up a green-white-checkered finish. He was an innocent bystander in a dustup between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, but luck is a part of this game.
Kevin Harvick also came out on the short end of the late-race incident last year when he, Busch, and another driver tried to go three-wide in a corner that was originally designed for about three-fourths of one car. It would be easy to write that off as bad luck, which could make Harvick a dark horse since they were battling for eighth at the time. But the driver of the No. 29 has rarely been stellar on this track. He finished second in the 2003 race, but in the nine races held at Darlington since then, he has failed to score another top-five, has only two top-10s, and enough misery to give him an average finish of 20th.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Darlington (past three years)|
|1.||Jeff Gordon||5.90||16.||David Reutimann||18.48||30.||Casey Mears||31.94|
|2.||Kyle Busch||7.80||17.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||19.48||31.||Scott Speed||32.12|
|3.||Kasey Kahne||8.18||18.||Matt Kenseth||20.04||32.||Travis Kvapil||33.35|
|4.||Ryan Newman||8.21||19.||Kurt Busch||20.46||33.||David Gilliland||35.68|
|5.||Jamie McMurray||8.44||20.||Joey Logano||21.08||34.||David Stremme||35.72|
|6.||Tony Stewart||8.93||21.||Clint Bowyer||21.48||35.||Scott Riggs||35.80|
|7.||Denny Hamlin||8.96||22.||Juan Montoya||21.54||36.||Reed Sorenson||35.88|
|8.||Martin Truex Jr.||9.00||23.||Regan Smith||24.04||37.||Dave Blaney||37.88|
|9.||Kevin Harvick||9.79||24.||David Ragan||26.20||38.||Landon Cassill||37.89|
|10.||Jeff Burton||14.32||25.||Bobby Labonte||26.92||39.||Mike Bliss||38.00|
|11.||Brad Keselowski||14.65||26.||Marcos Ambrose||27.64||40.||Joe Nemechek||40.00|
|12.||Greg Biffle||14.75||27.||Aric Almirola||28.00||41.||Michael McDowell||40.65|
|13.||Mark Martin||15.07||28.||Paul Menard||29.88||42.||Mike Skinner||40.89|
|14.||Jimmie Johnson||16.35||29.||AJ Allmendinger||30.12||43.||JJ Yeley||40.94|