There is ample reason for Darlington Raceway’s nickname of “Too Tough to Tame.” While other tracks have played around schemes to make the racing better, that is not something the egg-shaped oddity ever needed to do. With a groove that naturally occurs inches from the wall, drivers have to thread the needle lap after lap. Almost every one of them will miss at least once during the weekend and earn a famed Darlington Stripe. Minor damage and tire wear create a lot of comers and goers.
Today’s cars are durable, but they are also aerodynamically sensitive. Last week, Matt DiBenedetto believed he lost his chance to win the Night Race at Bristol because of minor damage to the nose of his car that was sustained trying to pass Ryan Newman. Notably, both of those drivers are battling for a spot in the playoffs. The intensity witnessed last week with only get stronger – and Darlington is not a track that rewards over-commitment.
The only saving grace for fantasy owners is: Because of its difficulty and stature, this is a track the often rewards veteran racers with a great degree of patience. More than half a dozen drivers have accumulated consecutive top-10 streaks of three or more races in the recent past. Success predicts success.
1. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin is the hottest driver on the circuit at the moment and his 2017 Southern 500 victory proves he knows how to find Victory Lane on this track.
2. Kevin Harvick
It is time to trust Harvick once more. The team is starting to perform the way we expected and he enters the weekend with five top-fives in his last six Darlington attempts.
3. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski won last year's edition of this race and finished second in 2015. He was ninth in 2016, but those are his only top-10s at Darlington in seven years.
4. Kyle Busch
After an uneven start at Darlington in his first five races (he won once, finished seventh once, and outside the top 20 three times), Busch has finished 11th or better since 2010.
5. Kyle Larson
With the line inches from the wall, it should come as no surprise that Larson has a near-perfect record at Darlington with four top-10s and a 14th in five races.
6. Erik Jones
He has only two starts, but Jones has shown an immediate affinity for Darlington with a fifth in 2017 and an eighth in 2018.
7. Joey Logano
Logano desperately needs to get some momentum before the playoffs begin. In his last four Darlington starts, he has finished in the top five three times with a best of second last year to his teammate Keselowski.
8. Kurt Busch
With a pair of 30-something finishes in his last five Darlington races, Busch is anything but a surety. On the plus side, his other three attempts ended in results of sixth or better.
9. Chase Elliott
This has not been Elliott's best track during his career, but he's finished worse than 11th only once and earned a top-five in last year's Southern 500.
10. Martin Truex Jr.
It would seem that Truex's victory in the 2016 Southern 500 is an outlier because that is one of only two Darlington top-fives in his career.
11. William Byron
Last week was the first time since Dover in the spring that Byron finished outside the top 20 on an unrestricted oval; he was 21st at Bristol, which caused him to fall out of the Fantasy Power Rankings top 10.
12. Matt DiBenedetto
Darlington is a driver's track and DiBenedetto showed what he could do last week with his career on the line. Who knows? With a little luck, he could be a surprise winner.
13. Ryan Blaney
In four previous starts at Darlington, the closest Blaney has come to breaking into the top 10 was his 13th in 2016. There will be better places to start him in the coming weeks.
14. Ryan Newman
One will forgive Newman if he runs a safe race this week and refuses to put his car in a position to sustain damage because he is one of the Bubble Boys vying for one of the last playoff berths.
15. Alex Bowman
Fantasy players should not expect too much from Bowman this week. In three Darlington starts, he has not cracked the top 20 yet and one wants more from a driver who has shown so much promise this year.
16. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson will be racing with intensity this week as he has only two more races to qualify for the playoffs. That can be a double-edged sword if it causes him to jump the cushion and contact the wall too hard.
17. Austin Dillon
Dillon has finished outside the top 15 only twice in five Darlington starts. One of these was a 16th in last year's edition of this race, but it is offset by a fourth in 2017.
18. Chris Buescher
For some reason Buescher took to Darlington immediately. He finished 17th in his first two attempts and was 13th in last year's Southern 500.
19. Daniel Suarez
As one of the drivers on the cusp of making the playoffs, Suarez will try to run a smooth safe race, but if he sees Bowyer, Newman, or Almirola ahead of him, that could cause an un-forced error.
20. Aric Almirola
This may be a good week to let Almirola rest. He has not scored a top-10 in seven starts at Darlington and his average finish of 20th is not enough to recommend him.
21. Paul Menard
Last week we predicted Menard would be a decent value based on his short track performance. This week, we will point out that he finished 16th or 17th in his last three Southern 500s.
22. Clint Bowyer
We would like to give Bowyer better odds this week, but his last two Southern 500s have ended in disaster and he has been a little snake bit in regard to his recent 2019 efforts.
23. Daniel Hemric
While he has been solid on occasion since the series hit the summer months, Hemric has also made a few mistakes. His recent record on unrestricted ovals is evenly flavored with results on either side of 20.
24. David Ragan
Ragan has not been particularly strong in his last few races this season, but he seems to rise to the occasion at Darlington with three consecutive top-25s capped by an 18th last year.
25. Ryan Preece
Darlington is not particularly kind to dark horses, but Preece has shown a lot of speed in the six unrestricted oval races and netted an average finish of 22nd.
26. Bubba Wallace
Wallace is coming off his best finish of the season with a 14th at Bristol. In fact, three of his four top-10s have come on short tracks and Darlington has some of those same characteristics by requiring intense concentration and precise placement of one’s car.
27. Ty Dillon
Dillon will be working with a new crew chief this week after the suspension of Matt Borland and that could make him an unpredictable pick.
28. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Things have not been going in Stenhouse's favor recently. His last two attempts ended outside the top 25 and he has not scored a top 20 on an oval since Kentucky.
29. Michael McDowell
If you are looking for a dark horse, McDowell may just fit the bill. His last two Darlington attempts in similar equipment ended in top-20 results.
30. Corey LaJoie
LaJoie has been a remarkable value on unrestricted tracks ever since the finished sixth at Daytona. That top-10 gave him the boost of confidence needed to finish in the 20s in every oval race since.
31. Matt Tifft
Tifft has not finished outside the top 30 in his last 10 attempts with the vast majority of his results landing in the mid-20s. We expect that pattern to repeat this week.
32. Ross Chastain
In his last three oval starts, Chastain has gotten progressively better from 30th at Pocono, to 29th at Michigan, and finally 26th at Bristol.
33. Joey Gase
Gase has not competed on an unrestricted oval since he finished 32nd in this summer's Coke 600 at Charlotte. Last year he was 40th in the Southern 500.
34. Landon Cassill
Last year while racing for this same team, Cassill finished 30th in the Southern 500. If he can repeat that feat, he will be a good value at his level.
35. JJ Yeley
Yeley has only made two starts on ovals since the July. He finished 12th at Daytona and had an impressive 28th at Bristol last week. He finished 31st in the 2018 Southern 500.
36. Reed Sorenson
Since the June running of Sonoma, Sorenson has made four starts on ovals and they have ranged from a 27th at New Hampshire to last week's 38th at Bristol.
37. BJ McLeod
With starts in five of the last seven oval races, McLeod is getting some seat time. His last start came at Bristol with a 32nd-place finish and his average is about 33rd.
38. Quin Houff
Houff will almost certainly stay on track until the race ends and that has allowed him to move up to 31st or 30th in his last four attempts when others fall to attrition.
39. Garrett Smithley
Smithley has mostly been utilized on unrestricted, intermediate speedways this year, so Darlington is going to be a tough and unique challenge.
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