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This is one of NASCAR’s most iconic races. When Darlington was originally built, the track and NASCAR wanted a cornerstone event early in their infancy and so on Labor Day weekend, in 1950, the Southern 500 was born. Run annually until 2005 – when the name was inexplicably dropped in favor of the spring event – it didn’t move back to its accustomed Labor Day slot until 2015 when it took its place in history once more.
Along with the Daytona 500 and World 600, this is one of the crown jewels that every driver wants to win.
Unlike last week’s race in which drivers could spin the competition out of the way, Darlington is a tough track built for rugged drivers and stout cars. They can beat and bang, but it won’t help much. The real competition is the track itself with a natural groove located about two feet outside of the retaining wall.
Races at Darlington take a weird mixture of patience, aggression, and intelligence. The rough surface takes a toll on tires the second one pulls out of the pits – and managing a run is a lot like playing a chess match. Martin Truex Jr. took the checkers in this race last year and also in 2016. Denny Hamlin has a Southern 500 win in 2017 with Erik Jones taking that trophy the following year and Kevin Harvick in 2018. This is not a race won by luck.
Kyle Larson (+320) has not yet won at Darlington, but that could very easily change this week. He missed the 2020 races while on suspension, so one has to go back to 2018 to witness the beginning of a three-race streak of top-three results. Larson also finished third in 2016 and has two other top-10s. That means he has been outside the top 10 only once in seven races.
And while Larson has not won on this unique track, he has a pair of rough-surfaced wins in his last two seasons. He won the inaugural Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway and the fall 2019 Dover 2 race. Dating back to the first race at Dover that year, he has six top-fives and a sixth-place finish in six starts on rough courses.
Larson is in the most enviable position in the field. He doesn’t need to win to advance out of the Round of 16. In all likelihood, he has a very clear path to the Championship 4, so all he really needs to do this week is go for the victory to further pad his bonus point total. There is a reason he is the heavy favorite to win the championship at +270
Best Bets for a top five
It is unclear if the playoffs will reset the seasons of two of this year’s biggest disappointments, but it’s worth a few units to find out. Kevin Harvick (+1100) has been the class of the field in recent years at Darlington. In 2020 while he was one of the two hottest drivers in the series, he won two of Darlington’s three races, including the Southern 500. That is part of nine top-fives on this track in the last 11 attempts. His other two efforts netted a ninth in 2017 and a sixth this spring. With relatively long odds of 11/1, he is a very interesting bet.
Kyle Busch (+625) does not have the same recent winning record at Darlington, but he has not missed by much. Since finishing in the runner-up position in 2017, he has been second or third in four of his last seven starts – including a second-place finish to teammate Truex this spring. Two of his other efforts in that span of races ended seventh, meaning he has failed to crack the top 10 just once. Busch won the 2008 Dodge Challenger 500 for his only victory on this track.
Statistically, this has not been a great track for Chase Elliott (+1000). That was going to turn around last year when the series returned from the COVID-19 break. Elliott finished fourth in the first race back and was headed for a certain victory when he was wrecked by Busch on the final restart. Last fall, he sustained damage in the Southern 500 and that seems to have taken a little wind from his sails. He finished seventh this spring, but all of that is part of why he is listed at 10/1. There is a good Return on Investment (ROI) with Elliott and he is highly motivated to win on an oval where his dad had so much success.
Denny Hamlin (+625) is another driver who needs a strong run this week. Like Harvick, he was one of the strongest drivers in the field last year. He made it all the way to the Championship 4 and when he lost that race, it took a toll on the team. He’s winless in 2021 – but the No. 11 has come much closer than the No. 4 team. He will clear the Round of 16 easily, but he needs the bonus points for a win to keep advancing. Since 2010, he has three Darlington wins and another six top-fives that includes a fifth this spring.
Best Bets for a top 10
There is something William Byron (+1400) must really like about rough-surfaced tracks. He finished fifth at Darlington in last year’s edition of this race and was fourth this spring. A couple of fourths at Dover and a third at Nashville underscore his ability to manage tires. It is not out of the question that he could win this weekend and automatically advance to the Round of 12.
Regan Smith in 2011 and Jones in 2019 are anomalies. The Southern 500 tends to go to veterans with a long history of success. Truex’s (+575) win in 2016 and another Darlington victory this spring shows that he has been capable of racing this track better than the competition on occasion. His Goodyear 400 win was the most recent of three victories, however, and in the 14 races he has only one oval top-five and two more on road courses. We’re just not sure if he has been experimenting or struggling recently, but with the second-lowest odds, it’s not worth risking an outright win bet to find out.
This has been a challenging year for many drivers and recent results have shuffled the order of some we thought were favorites a month ago. Looking back to 2020 is not always helpful, but on a track like Darlington that plays by a different set of rules, it can be. Joey Logano (+1800) finished third in the 2020 Southern 500, was second in 2018, and had back-to-back top-fives in 2015/2016. He certainly has the patience to get to the front of the pack.
Kurt Busch (+4000) has a tall hill to climb if he wants to advance out of the Round of 16. Consistency is not going to get him all the way to the end and probably not even the Round of 8, but it could keep him relevant for a few more races. Darlington has been a solid course for him. Dating back to 2010 and a third-place finish, he has top-10s in half his starts and top-15s 64.3 percent of the time. He crashed a third of the way through this spring’s race and lost some of his Darlington magic.
Winning three consecutive races is difficult, so we are not suggesting you bet on the outright win for Ryan Blaney (+2500). If you can find a plus line for a top-five, however, he is worth a unit or two depending on the depth of your betting strategy. Momentum means a lot in this sport. This has not traditionally been a strong track for Blaney with four results outside the top 20 and most of his efforts in the teens. He finished eighth this spring, however.
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