Capsules for the top 20 drivers in the Sprint Cup stands, plus five additional drivers of note.
By Jerry Bonkowski and Bob Moore
48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Jimmie Johnson remained in first place for the fifth straight week after Talladega. He leads second-ranked Carl Edwards by 41 points and third-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 59 points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 14 career starts, 3 wins, 7 top-5s, 10 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: first in spring 2004, fall 2004 and 2012. Finished first there last year after finishing 15th the year before (2011).
LOOKING AHEAD: Johnson has had uncanny success at Darlington, including being the defending champion, having won last year's race there, which just happened to be the 200th career Sprint Cup win of team owner Rick Hendrick's career. Here's Johnson's thoughts on Saturday night's race: "I love tracks with character and Darlington certainly has it. Tire wear used to be a big deal there but not so much now with the track trying to come back in. It's aging slowly. It's still not quite like the old track. Track position and strategy will be very important. It actually has the highest sensation of speed. It was built in the 40's and 50's for cars to go 120 miles per hour and we are going 200. It's also very narrow. I'm looking forward to it. It's one of my favorite tracks."
LOOKING BACK: Johnson had a strong run at Talladega, including leading 16 laps, but faded on the final lap to a fifth-place finish.
ETC.: Johnson has completed 96.1 percent (4,733) of the 4,923 total laps contested in 14 career starts at Darlington. His average start is 12.5 and average finish is 9.1. He has one DNF there.
99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Carl Edwards remained in second place for the second consecutive week. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 41 points and is 18 points ahead of third-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 9 career starts, 0 wins, 3 top-fives, 6 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Second in 2008 and 2011. Finished seventh there last year and second in 2011.
LOOKING AHEAD: Darlington has been a good place for Edwards, with six top-10 finishes in nine starts. However, he's still seeking his first career win at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Here's his thoughts about Saturday night's race there: "You can ruin your day a lot of ways at Darlington on your own. You can overdrive Turn 1 and hit the fence there. We've all done that. You can overdrive Turn 3 really easily, especially with the sun setting down there, and you can hit the fence there. You can definitely get caught up racing someone too hard like I did in the Nationwide Series in 2007 or 2008. I drove down into Turn 3 with Clint Bowyer and tried to out-brake him into Turn 3 and went straight into the fence, which was really stupid. So when your spotter is saying 'race the race track,' he means just race your own race. The race track is difficult enough on its own. You can't really race someone really hard there. You've got to be careful."
LOOKING BACK: Edwards looked like he was going to win at Talladega until David Ragan literally came out of nowhere, pushed by teammate David Gilliland to victory lane, leaving Edwards to finish with a still-strong third-place showing.
ETC.: Edwards has completed 95.8 percent (3,171) of the 3,310 total laps contested in nine career starts at Darlington. His average start is 15.8 and average finish is 13.1. He has one DNF there.
88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained in third place for the second consecutive week after Talladega. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 59 points, is 18 points behind second-ranked Carl Edwards and leads fourth-ranked Clint Bowyer by eight points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 18 career starts, 0 wins, 3 top-fives, 7 top-10s and 0 poles. Best career finish: Fourth in spring 2002 and 2008. Finished 17th last year and 14th in 2011.
LOOKING AHEAD: Earnhardt has long sought his first career Sprint Cup win at Darlington and he'll try once again this Saturday night. Here's his thoughts on returning to arguably the toughest track in NASCAR: "I like running at Darlington, especially since they repaved the track. It's always been a fun track to race on. It's a frustrating track at the same time. The challenge is really what's interesting and fun about it. You don't really race your competitors as much as you are really in a battle with the track itself all night long. You just have to work every lap. You can't take any time off. You're right against the fence all around the racetrack so you always have to concentrate 100 percent on what you're doing, where the car is, what you're doing with your car and the speed of your car to keep it out of the fence. You have to run as hard as you can to be competitive. It's just a very challenging place. It's one of the more physical racetracks that we go to."
LOOKING BACK: After making several runs up towards the front, Earnhardt fell behind later in the race and wound up with a 17th-place finish Sunday at Talladega.
ETC.: Earnhardt has completed 98.3 percent (6,100) of the 6,204 total laps contested in 18 career starts at Darlington. His average start is 17.3 and average finish is 15.3. He has one DNF there.
20 MATT KENSETH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Fourth place after winning his appeal of a 50-point penalty.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Finished sixth a year ago for his eighth top-10 finish in 19 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Kenseth said "Darlington is certainly on my list of places I'd like to win at because of the Southern 500. To me, it's one of the most prestigious and historic places on the circuit, which makes it a race that everyone wants to win. Darlington is a very narrow track and a uniquely-shaped track. It's hard enough to drive around there by yourself without putting your car into the fence, let alone when there's 42 other cars racing alongside you trying to pass. Darlington is a place that we only get to race once a year, so any opportunity you have to race there is something that I always look forward to."
LOOKING BACK: After leading eight times for a whopping 142 laps and being the leader on the restart with two to go, Kenseth was "bummed out" after ending up eighth. "It was a really disappointing finish," said Kenseth. "I had the best restart I could. But Carl (Edwards) got a rocket restart and he cleared me down the backstretch. He just got a huge run, but I was still second. I tried to get right on Carl and he blocked, which you should, and we got real wide. They (David Ragan and David Gilliland) just got a huge run up the middle. I saw David (Ragan) at the last minute, but he was going too fast so if I pulled in front of him I was just going to get wrecked so I just had to bite the bullet and finish the best we could. It was a disappointing end to the day, but man, we had a great car again."
ETC.: Kenseth feels he could have won a lot more than two races so far this season. "I don't mean to sound greedy but I just feel like we could've had more," said Kenseth. "I feel like we've had one of the fastest cars more weeks than not this year. I feel like they're giving me what I need to win. I guess that is why I was so disappointed last week. I just feel like I kind of let everybody (at JGR) down because you take off leading on the green-white-checkered and you came back eighth and that's always disappointing even though I don't really know what I would've done different."
15 CLINT BOWYER, Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Clint Bowyer climbed one spot, from fifth to fourth, after Talladega, then dropped back to fifth with the Kenseth ruling. He is 67 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson, trails third-ranked Dale Earnhardt Jr. eight points and leads sixth-ranked Brad Keselowski by two points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 7 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-fives, 1 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: Ninth in 2007. Was 11th in last year's race and 31st in 2011.
LOOKING AHEAD: Bowyer has struggled at Darlington, with just one top-10 finish (ninth in 2007) in seven career starts there. Will his eighth start be different? Here's Bowyer's thoughts on Saturday night's race: "I like the uniqueness of the racetrack. I've struggled to have good finishes there, but we've always raced well. We just can't seem to seal the deal at the end. Something always goes haywire at the end, but I'm looking forward to overcoming that and having a good weekend. I remember going there for the first time - I actually sat won the pole there the first time I was ever there. Truth be told it scared the daylights out of me."
LOOKING BACK: After finishing second at Richmond, Bowyer struggled at Talladega, ultimately finishing 18th.
ETC.: Bowyer has completed 92.6 percent (2,382) of the 2,573 total laps contested in seven career starts at Darlington. His average start is 19.7 and average finish is 22.6. He has two DNFs there.
2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Ford
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: After falling four places in the previous two weeks, Brad Keselowski began his rebound, moving up one spot from sixth to fifth after Talladega before the Kenseth ruling. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 69 points, fifth-ranked Clint Bowyer by two points and leads seventh-ranked Kasey Kahne by 15 points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 4 career starts, 0 wins, 1 top-fives, 2 top-10s and 0 poles. Best career finish: Third in 2011. Finished 15th there in last year's race and was third in 2011.
LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski has made racing at Darlington - considered by many drivers as the toughest track on the Sprint Cup circuit - seem too easy at times. In just four starts there, he already has a third- and seventh-place finish, along with a 12th- and 15th-place showing. Not bad at all.
LOOKING BACK: After a terrible showing at Richmond (finished 33rd), Keselowski finished 15th at Talladega. He needs a big bounce back this Saturday at Darlington. Here are his thoughts about being able to stay out of trouble at Talladega: "I don't know if it's a skill. It's really just about common sense and slowing down when the caution comes out. There was definitely a lot happening all around me today. That's just the nature of restrictor-plate racing. These cars move around so much in the draft that it doesn't take a very big miscue by someone to trigger a massive wreck. You really have to be aware of everything going on around you at Talladega. If you can do that you can minimize your chances of being in the 'Big One.'"
ETC.: Keselowski has completed an impressive 100 percent (1,472) of the 1,472 total laps contested in four career starts at Darlington. His average start is 16.2 and average finish is an impressive 9.2. He has zero DNFs there.
5 KASEY KAHNE, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Kasey Kahne fell four spots after Talladega, from a tie for third to seventh place. He trails points leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson by 84 points, is 15 points behind sixth-ranked Brad Keselowski and lead eighth-ranked Aric Almirola by six points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 10 career starts, 0 wins, 3 top-five, 4 top-10s, 4 poles. Best career finish: Third in 2005. Finished eighth in last year's race and was fourth in 2011.
LOOKING AHEAD: Kahne gives credit where it's due for the success he's had thus far this season, not to mention the success he hopes for Saturday night at Darlington. Here's who he gives credit to: "The crew is a huge part of this. The whole team thing and the preparation that comes into play each weekend. It's all about them and how well they prepare and my guys do a really nice job so it's a lot of fun driving the car I drive."
LOOKING BACK: Kahne couldn't leave Talladega quick enough after wrecking just 42 laps into the 192-lap event, ultimately finishing a very disappointing 42nd-place.
ETC.: Kahne has completed an outstanding 99.9 percent (3,599) of the 3,603 total laps contested in 10 career starts at Darlington. His average start is an outstanding 8.4 (due primarily to his four poles there) and average finish is 13.9. He has zero DNFs there.
43 ARIC ALMIROLA, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: Aric Almirola made the biggest jump of any driver in the top 15 after Talladega, climbing four spots from 11th to seventh (and back to eighth with the Kenseth ruling). He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 90 points, is six points behind seventh-ranked Kasey Kahne and leads ninth-ranked Paul Menard by three points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 1 career start, 0 wins, 0 top-fives, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 19th in 2012. Finished 19th in 2012, which was his first and only start thus far at Darlington.
LOOKING AHEAD: Almirola is looking to make history at Darlington this Saturday, seeking a fifth consecutive top-10 finish this season. If he does so, it will be the first time in 30 seasons that the famous No. 43 has achieved such a lofty feat, the last time being done by, of course, The King, Richard Petty. Here's Almirola's thoughts on Saturday's race: "We sure are on a roll lately. I think we are the only people that aren't surprised we are seventh in points and have the longest current top-10 streak in the series. Todd (crew chief Todd Parrott), the guys and I are really clicking. We worked hard over the off-season to maintain our momentum, and it worked. We just need to keep it up and start moving to top-fives and hopefully a win soon."
LOOKING BEHIND: Almirola was among the big surprises at Talladega, holding his own and finishing a strong 10th. He even led one lap.
ETC.: Almirola has completed an outstanding 100 percent (368) of the 368 total laps contested in his first and only Sprint Cup start thus far at Darlington last season. His average start is 13th and average finish is 19th. He has zero DNFs there.
27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Paul Menard moved up one spot, from a tie for ninth place and into eighth after Talladega, and then back to ninth with the Kenseth ruling. He trails series leader Jimmie Johnson by 93 points, is three points behind eighth-ranked Aric Almirola and leads 10th-ranked Kyle Busch by five points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 6 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-fives, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 13th in 2012. Finished 13th in last year's race and was 22nd in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Menard is mired in a series of tracks that are among his worst. First it was Richmond, then Talladega and now this Saturday night at Darlington. Still, he has high hopes: "It a great track, and a lot of fun to drive. Since the repave we haven't seen the tire wear that Darlington (Raceway) is known for. With the new pavement it has lost some of its character and drives a lot like any other 1.5-mile track. It's still a really cool track to race on and I'm anxious to see what our Pittsburgh Paints/Menards Chevrolet has when we unload on Friday for practice. Turns one and two are really fast and turns three and four you've got to slow the car up a lot which makes it tough to gauge how you want to lay your splitter down. You've just got to decide which end you want to set up for."
LOOKING BACK: Menard completed 188 of the 192 laps in Sunday's race at Talladega, but struggled to a 26th-place finish.
ETC.: Menard has completed 98.0 percent (2,161) of the 2,206 total laps contested in six career starts at Darlington. His average start is 26.0 and his average finish is 24.5. He has zero DNFs there.
18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: Kyle Busch dropped two positions, from seventh to ninth, after Talladega and then to 10th with the Kenseth ruling. He trails points leader Jimmie Johnson by 98 points, is five points behind ninth-ranked Paul Menard and leads 11th-ranked Greg Biffle by five points.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 8 career starts, 1 wins, 2 top-five, 4 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in 2008. Finished fourth in last year's race, and was 11th in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: Busch is looking to make up for the costly mistake he committed at Talladega, knocking himself and several other cars out of the race. Here are his thoughts about Saturday night's race at Darlington: "Going back to Darlington, it's a place that's really tough, really challenging. I won there the first year it was repaved, and it's been really fast. Last couple of years there, we had a really good car. We ended up with a solid finish with our Doublemint Camry there last year and, after the three week stretch we've had, I hope we can bring home a solid finish this weekend. But, I'm looking forward to going back there and seeing what Darlington has got in store for us again. I'm hearing that the track color has changed a little bit more with another year for the surface to mature, so maybe the grip level is not going to be old Darlington, but something similar."
LOOKING BACK: Busch would likely rather forget about Sunday at Talladega. While he started out strong, he didn't finish that way, ultimately ending up 37th in the 43-car field due to a big wreck that he admitted he caused.
ETC.: Busch has completed 96.8 percent (2,849) of the 2,943 total laps contested in eight career starts at Darlington. His average start is 18.6 and average finish is 15.5. He has zero DNFs there.
16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: After dropping four spots after Richmond, Greg Biffle dropped two more spots after Talladega and another with the Kenseth ruling, meaning he's dropped seven places in the last two races. He's now in 11th place heading into Darlington. He trails series leader Jimmie Johnson by 103 points (after being just 47 points behind heading into Richmond), is five points behind 10th-ranked Kyle Busch and leads 12th-ranked Matt Kenseth by one point.
DARLINGTON RECORD: 12 career starts, 2 wins, 2 top-fives, 5 top-10s and 2 poles. Best career finish: First in 2005 and again in 2006. Finished 12th in last year's race and was eighth in the 2011 race there.
LOOKING AHEAD: After back-to-back poor 36th-place finishes at Richmond and Talladega, Biffle needs a big bounce back, and Darlington could very well be that kind of place, given he's earned two wins there. Here's his thoughts on Saturday night's race: "I love the Darlington race track, I've got a couple of wins there and I'm ready to put Talladega behind us. This will be the first time there with the new car, so we don't know what to expect. There should be a lot of grip. I'm excited, the team is excited, we are looking for a win to get back some points. The last two weeks have been really rough on us. I can't wait to race the black Meguiar's car under the lights Saturday night at Darlington."
LOOKING BACK: Biffle has had two terrible 36th-place finishes in the last two races, first at Richmond and then this past Sunday at Talladega, where he wound up completing just 141 of the event's 192 laps.
ETC.: Biffle has completed 96.8 percent (4,126) of the 4,263 total laps contested in 12 career starts at Darlington. His average start is an impressive 9.5 and average finish is 14.0. He has one DNF there.
29 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, only four points out of the top 10. Lost three spots to fall out of the top 10.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Five top-10 finishes in 16 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Harvick said, "There is a lot of history at Darlington. I've been fortunate to win a lot of marquee races on the schedule and I mark the Southern 500 on my calendar every year as one I want to win. There is so much history behind this event. The track was originally not designed for the cars to be running as fast as they are today. That's why it is so challenging. It's very challenging just to keep the car off the wall, but also a lot of fun to drive, too."
LOOKING BACK: Harvick was in the wrong place at the wrong time as he got caught up in "The Big One" on lap 42 of the scheduled 188-lap event. The damage to his car was too severe to continue as he finished 40th at Talladega. "I feel like this race was a flashback to Daytona (in February)," said Harvick. "We had a great run last weekend (winning at Richmond) and I was really hoping that we could carry that momentum into this weekend, but we didn't have a chance to make it to the end."
ETC.: Harvick laughs as he talks about his first Mother's Day as a father. "My biggest plan is to not screw up Sunday in the first year," said Harvick. "You don't want to screw up the first Mother's Day. Obviously, my mom has always been there and has always been supportive of everything I do. That is something you don't want to forget as well. You want to make sure you don't forget on either front."
56 MARTIN TRUEX, JR., Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, 11 points out of the top 10. Gained two spots last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Will be seeking his third straight top-10 finish and fourth in the last five races. Finished fifth last year after leading 25 laps.
LOOKING AHEAD: Truex said he can't wait to get to Darlington. "We have really run well there the last three or four years," said Truex. "We've led laps and run up front. Any win right now would be special, but a win at Darlington would be extra special because of its long history and the impressive list of drivers that have won there. That is certainly our goal this weekend - get to victory lane."
LOOKING BACK: Truex rallied from a late-race pit-road speeding penalty to finish seventh at Talladega. "It was a very eventful day," said Truex. "We were in the middle of both of those big wrecks and we managed to make it through both of them which was great - that was the key to the day, obviously. At the end we had a huge run up the middle. Got a little work to do (on the team's restrictor-plate program), but anytime you come out of here in one piece with a decent finish you can't complain too much."
ETC.: After a disappointing start to the season, Truex has three top-seven finishes in the last four races as the series heads to Darlington. "We are finally getting the results this team deserves," said Truex. "If we can keep it up - and I don't see why we can't, we can make the Chase again. We aren't that far out of the top 10 now." Truex is only 11 points back of 10th-place Greg Biffle.
24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, 11 points out of the top 10.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Seven wins and 21 top-10 finishes including 18 top-five's in 32 starts. Also won three poles.
LOOKING AHEAD: Gordon will make the 700th start of his illustrious career Saturday night at Darlington. "I always look forward to racing there," said Gordon. "It's a great track that is fast and exciting, but it's one you must respect. We've run well there, so I'm looking forward to the event. I've been fortunate to race this long and have the type of career I've had. It's really cool to see that this will be my 700th start, but it's not something I really paid much attention to."
LOOKING BACK: Despite being involved in "The Big One," as well as another multi-car accident late in the race, Gordon was able to rally and finish 11th at Talladega. "What a day," said Gordon. "The crew did a great job with us being caught up in two wrecks. To almost get a top-10 on a day like this - shows how strong this team is."
ETC.: Gordon said he would "love" to see Indianapolis put up lights and hold its annual Sprint Cup race at night. Gordon, who tested at Indy last week, reached the top speed of 214 miles per hour during the tire test. "The track has a lot of grip, it was really fast," added Gordon. "Like we've seen there in the past, the (tire) wear can be a real issue. We definitely wore through some tires trying to lay some rubber down and it started to wear a little better."
1 JAMIE MCMURRAY, Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, 13 points out of the top 10. Lost three spots last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Has finished in the top nine in two of the last three races including a second in 2010 when he won the pole and led 71 laps.
LOOKING AHEAD: McMurray said, "I'm ready to head to Darlington. I'm even more ready to put the last two races behind us and go to a track where I feel that we can have a solid run. Darlington has been a good track for me, and a place that I really like to race at. It is a place that you really have to race the track as much as the other cars."
LOOKING BACK: McMurray was another driver who was involved in the two biggest wrecks of the race. For that reason, he was just happy to finish the Aaron's 499 at Talladega in 23rd place. "We had a good car, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time twice," said McMurray. "All it takes is one miscue by someone and The Big One happens."
ETC.: A quick look at the standings convinces McMurray that he just needs to put together "a few good runs" and he will be part of the top 10. "Only 26 points separate seventh from 15th," points out McMurray. "Our cars have been a lot better this year so I know with a little luck that we can string together a good run and get up there (the top 10)."
17 RICKY STENHOUSE, JR., Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, 24 points out of the top 10. Gained two spots last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Will be making his Sprint Cup debut. Won the pole and finished sixth in the Nationwide Series race in 2012.
LOOKING AHEAD: Stenhouse noted "We have led in two of the last three races so things are looking up for our 17 team. I really enjoy racing at Darlington because it's a driver's race track where you can drive your car really hard and up by the wall which is why so many earn the 'Darlington stripe.' I think every driver wants to win at Darlington because of its rich history."
LOOKING BACK: Stenhouse finished 13th in the wreck-filled Aaron's 499 at Talladega. And Stenhouse was right in the middle of the controversy-filled event when he triggered the last wreck with five laps to go. "I felt like if I could get to the outside, I had a lot of cars that were going to come with me there and just didn't quite end up having enough room after we got to his (J J Yeley) door," said Stenhouse. "It was pretty dark so I don't know if his spotter could really see or not but I felt I got up to his door and got pinched in the wall." Stenhouse clipped Yeley to start the 13-car melee that included Kurt Busch becoming airborne and flipping completely over before landing on the top of Ryan Newman's car. All drivers escaped injury.
ETC.: Darlington is Stenhouse's last chance to earn his way into the Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18. "Make no mistake, my clear intention is to race my win in (by winning Darlington)," said Stenhouse. "However, I've learned it never hurts to have a solid backup plan and if that is relying on my great fans to help a little, then I have no problem with taking it. The folks at Best Buy have set up this link to help 'rally the troops,' and if we don't get that win, hopefully that will be the difference maker." The final spot in the All-Star race will be determined by the fans vote.
39 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, 38 points out of the top 10. Lost one spot last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Three top-nine finishes in the last four races including two top-five's. Overall has nine top-10 finishes including seven top-five's in 14 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Newman is another driver who calls Darlington "one of my favorite race tracks. I really look forward to it, just racing the race track and the competition. The way you drive this race track, it's rewarding in several different aspects, but it can reach out and bite you at any second. It has always been my favorite track because you're always adjusting. You adjust to the tire, the bumps, the character of the track. The fact that you're running right next to the wall is challenging. It's the most challenging track we have and that's why I enjoy it the most."
LOOKING BACK: Newman was quite upset after seeing his day end with just five laps left in the scheduled 188-lap event at Talladega. Newman was caught up in the late-race accident when Kurt Busch was sent airborne and landed on top of Newman's car. Both drivers escaped injury. "I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm all right," said Newman. "They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls, but they (NASCAR) can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out 'they' is. That's just poor judgment in restarting the race (after the wreck), poor judgment. I mean, you got what you wanted (a green-white-checkered flag finish), but poor judgment is running in the dark and running in the rain."
ETC.: Newman said that for most of the race at Darlington "you're racing the race track - like 90 percent and 10 percent racing the competition. But there are times when it can be almost 50 percent racing the competition, like on restarts. You have to just be respectful of the race track, respectful of the wall. Any kind of slip-up and you can get in trouble. If you are in the second lane, your right side is (only) six inches from the wall. It's just demanding. You have to race the race track the entire time."
22 JOEY LOGANO, Ford
Team: Penske Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, 43 points out of the top 10. Lost one spot last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Finished 10th last year for his second top-10 finish in four starts. Won the Nationwide Series race in 2012.
LOOKING AHEAD: Logano hopes to get back on the right track at Darlington. "We've had one good race followed by something bad happening the next one - I think that has happened the last six races," said Logano. "Hopefully that means this will be a good week. But we need to follow it up with another good week and another good week to get back up there (in the standings). We've had good cars all year; we just haven't had good luck all year."
LOOKING BACK: Logano was third when it started raining at Talladega. But when the day ended, he was in 35th place. "It looked like we were going to have a real good day," said Logano. "But then the engine started to lay over and we had to come into the pits. We looked it over and it was terminal. It was a frustrating end to what looked like it could have been a promising day. It's a bummer when you're sitting third when it was raining and now you don't finish the race. I wish it would have kept raining."
ETC.: At the team's final appeal of the penalties imposed by NASCAR after the sanctioning body said the rear suspension parts and components the organization had on their cars at Texas were not approved, John Middlebrook, Chief Appellate Officer, decided Tuesday to uphold the 25-point penalty against Logano and the $100,000 fine for crew chief Todd Gordon. But Middlebrook reduced the suspensions for Gordon, car chief Raymond Fox and team engineer Samuel Stanley from six races plus the All-Star race to two races and the All-Star race. This means Gordon, Fox and Stanley will only miss the point-paying races at Darlington and Charlotte as well as the All-Star race - a non-points special event -- on May 18.
31 JEFF BURTON, Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 19th, 45 points out of the top 10.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Two wins and 16 top-10 finishes including eight top-five's in 30 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Burton has always had "love affair" with Darlington. But he admits, "I liked it more before the repave a few years ago. The fresh pavement has put a lot of grip into the track. Handling is still important, but not in the same kind of way. The track is much faster now and you don't have that dramatic fall off with tire wear. It's still a great race through. To me, with no disrespect to any other race, winning that 500-mile race is huge. The Southern 500 is a big deal to me. It's the race I circle on the schedule every year."
LOOKING BACK: Burton decided to play it safe and run at the back of the pack early in the Talladega race. But his plan backfired when he got caught up in an early accident and ended the day in 28th place. "There really isn't too much to say about the wreck except we were very close to making it through without damage," said Burton. "It makes you think whether or not we should ride around in the back of the pack at these types of race tracks to stay out of trouble."
ETC.: Richard Childress Racing received the Business Family of the Year award from Wake Forest University last week. "When we were going through the nominations, it became clear we needed to recognize RCR for all they've accomplished on and off the race track as a family," said Kathy Baker, Director, Family Business Center for Wake Forest. "They have had such a great economic and growth impact on their community through the years."
78 KURT BUSCH, Chevrolet
Team: Furniture Row Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 49 points out of the top 10.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Five top-10 finishes in 16 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ten years ago, Busch was involved in the closest finish in NASCAR history since the sanctioning body began electronic timing and scoring in 1993 when he lost a last-lap battle at Darlington to Ricky Craven by two-thousandths of second. "The memory is vivid," said Busch. "I feel each time I tell the story I am getting closer to winning it. Two drivers putting it on the line and not wrecking each other (as they slammed hard into each other). We gave it our all. It was wild, crazy and fun. I loved every second it. It's a memory that will last forever."
LOOKING BACK: Busch was uninjured in a wild wreck with five laps to go, but he was quite upset about having a good day ruined by "typical Talladega racing." Busch was running in the top five when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clipped J J Yeley, who spun hard into Busch. The contact caused Busch to become airborne as he flipped completely over before landing on the top of Ryan Newman's car. After a quick visit to the infield hospital, Busch replied "just lovely" when asked how he was. "Good runs don't pay well when you finish on the hook," added Busch. "I got probably seven points (actually 15) today. My mom doesn't come to four races a year - two at Daytona and two at Talladega. I wonder why."
ETC.: After coming so close to winning Darlington in 2003, Busch hopes that elusive victory comes 10 years later. "It's the Southern 500, one of the most prestigious races on the NASCAR schedule," said Busch. "It's a grueling track and a tough 500 miles. You have to dance with 'The Lady in Black' all day and she'll wear you if you're not careful. If you're good in turn four - those are the guys usually hoisting the trophy at the end of the day."
9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 21st, 55 points out of the top 10. Gained two spots last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Finished ninth a year ago for his first top-10 finish in four starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose said, "Darlington is a tough track. Last year, we finished ninth, and that was a very hard-earned top-10. Handling is so important at Darlington. We will have to work really hard on Friday to find a good setup and speed for Saturday's race. If we can get a string of good runs put together, we're going to be in a good spot (in the battle to qualify for the Chase for the Championship)."
LOOKING BACK: Ambrose was caught up in in two wrecks and still came home 14th at Talladega. "I'm just really proud of my team for keeping me going," said Ambrose. "We were involved in two big wrecks and still managed to finish 14th with the car as damaged as it was. It's not the day we wanted, but it's a day we're proud of."
ETC.: Ambrose spent the first part of the week testing at the road course at Sonoma, Calif. Ambrose will be one of the favorites to win the June 23 road race. "We really want to have everything go perfect when we go back for the race," said Ambrose. "But, we want to have a few wins before that, too. So many times this season we have come back from some sort of damage, and it shows how strong this team really is. We've had fast cars, but our luck has been pretty bad."
14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 22nd, 56 points out of the top 10.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Finished third in 2012 for his second straight top-seven finish. Overall has 11 top-10 finishes in 20 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Stewart said, "Darlington is such a tough track to get a handle on and to be good at all day. You don't see a lot of guys who have a lot of success there. You see only a handful of guys who religiously run well there. That just shows you how difficult Darlington is to a handle on. If you can say you won a race at Darlington - that's a feather in your cap. That's something to be proud of, knowing that you're in a group of drivers with names like Pearson (David) and Petty (Richard)."
LOOKING BACK: Stewart was one of 16 cars caught up in "The Big One" early in the Talladega race. After his crew repaired the damage to his car, Stewart spent the rest of the race "just riding to get points" as he finished 27th. Stewart, who is not a big race of restrictor-plate racing, just shook his head when asked to talk about his day.
ETC.: Stewart admits he is "definitely not happy with where we are (in the standings). But I don't think everybody really is. I think everybody feels like there are things they can do better, and some of those organizations are questioning what they have to do to get better. We're one of those teams right now."
55 MARK MARTIN, Toyota
Team: Michael Waltrip Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 23rd, 73 points out of the top 10. Lost two spots last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Two wins and 26 top-10 finishes including 17 top-five's in 46 starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Martin will be back behind the wheel of the 55 car this weekend at Darlington. "It was great seeing Michael and the 55 car running up front and challenging for the win at Talladega," said Martin. "Hopefully, we can do the same at Darlington. I know Rodney (Childers, crew chief) and the guys will have a great car for me. It's always a challenge to run Darlington, but a challenge as a driver you love."
LOOKING BACK: Car owner Michael Waltrip drove the car at Talladega. And he was all smiles at the end of the long day and night as he finished fourth. "We had a great run," said Waltrip. "It was a fun day for me. I don't get to do this very often and to be able to hop in a car and - I'm a TV guy and I got to learn what these boys are doing and you know what? They're crazy out there. They go all over the place. I ain't as good as I once was (as a restrictor-plate racer), but I'm as good once as I ever was. I had a ball. I love being at Talladega and I love racing."
ETC.: Waltrip said the team has "targeted Brian Vickers as the guy that we want to drive our car (in 2014). We think that Brian is a future champion of the Cup Series so we want Brian to drive it and we want Aaron's to sponsor it. I think both Aaron's and Brian are very into making that happen. It would just be a matter of getting the details worked out in order to be able to announce it soon. So, when it happens it won't be a surprise because that's what we're after."
34 DAVID RAGAN, Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
WHERE HE STANDS: 26th, 88 points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: One top-10 finish in six starts.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ragan is still flying high from his last-lap pass for the win at Talladega. "It has been a great three or four days, but it is time to turn our attention to Darlington," said Ragan. "I always enjoy racing there because it is such a challenging track and a track with so much history. We hope we can back up Talladega with another good run this weekend."
LOOKING BACK: Ragan, with drafting help from his teammate David Gilliland, came from out of nowhere to win the Talladega race in one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history. "This is a true David vs. Goliath moments," said Ragan. "If it wasn't for that final push from David Gilliland, I don't know what to say. This is so special to get Front Row Motorsports their first win. It feels like I've never been here (victory lane) before." Ragan won his first Sprint Cup race at Daytona in July 2011 while driving for the powerhouse Roush Fenway team.
ETC.: Ragan, who was released by Roush Fenway after the 2011 season because the organization did not have the funding to keep his 6 team alive, said he actually talked about winning the Talladega race "on the grid before the race and even at the halfway point. You always believe that it can happen. I didn't think about it that much, but you absolutely believe in yourself and your team. We thought we could win at one of these superspeedway races or a road course." Added crew chief Jay Guy, "we've worked really hard at Front Row on our speedway program because it's a great equalizer racing at Daytona and Talladega. This is our chance to shine, so we always put a little extra effort into these races."
11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
WHERE HE STANDS: 31st, 125 points out of the top 10. Lost three spots last week.
DARLINGTON RECORD: Has finished first, sixth and second in the last three races. Has finished in the top 10 in six of his seven starts. His average finish of 5.857 is the best in track history.
LOOKING AHEAD: Hamlin said "Last week was all about getting the process of making a comeback started - this week at Darlington, it's all about completing all the laps and being there at the end to have a shot at the win. We know what we have to do if we want to make the Chase, and this week is the first step, first race in that comeback. I'm ready to get to Darlington in the number 11 Sports Clip Toyota and compete for the win Saturday night."
LOOKING BACK: After four races on the sidelines with a compressed fracture in his back, Hamlin started the race and ran the first 25 laps before being relieved - as was the plan - by Brian Vickers. But 17 laps later, Vickers was caught up in "The Big One." As a result, the Hamlin-Vickers duo ended the day in 34th place. "I feel good," said Hamlin after climbing out of the car. "Every week I feel a lot better and really this is the best I've felt physically in, gosh, months since I felt this good. So, I'm definitely looking forward to going back to full competition next week."
ETC.: If Hamlin is to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship this year, he must rank in the top 20 in the standings after the 26th race of the year and win at least one race. Entering Darlington, he is 76 points out of the top 20. He knows his chances of being in the top 10 after Richmond are "not very good." But Hamlin and his team believe they can win a couple of races and be in the top 20 by the time the circuit reaches Richmond in September. To qualify for the Chase, a driver must be in the top 10 in the standings after 26 races. The final two wild card spots go to the two drivers with the most wins that rank between 11th and 20th in the standings.