The Sprint Cup Series heads to South Carolina for the Bojangles Southern 500 at venerable Darlington Raceway, a.k.a. ‘The Lady in Black’ or the ‘Track Too Tough to Tame’. If you’re a fan of racing, and have never been to this track, do yourself a favor and add it to your bucket list. Don’t skimp and put out the extra cheddar for seats high up in the Tyler Towers for a great view of the start/finish line, pits, etc.
If you’re in the Tyler Towers this season you’ll see Kevin Harvick ($10,600) sitting on the pole. Practice was supposed to be set for Friday, but Tropical Storm Hermine had other plans. The two sessions were wiped out, moved to Saturday, and the starting grid for Sunday’s race is set by season points.
According to NASCAR’s Loop Data, Harvick leads all drivers with a 115.0 Driver Rating over the past five starts at the track, running 94.6 percent of his laps inside the Top 15 while leading 329 laps, second among all drivers. He didn’t win last season, but he did take checkers at the track in April 2014. None of Harvick’s Stewart-Haas teammates check into the Top 10 in Driver Rating over the past five races, however. Tony Stewart ($7,800) has never won at Darlington in 23 starts, but he does have a solid 12.0 Average-Finish Position (AFP). Kurt Busch ($8,800) is also winless in 19 tries with just six Top 10s and a mediocre 17.3 AFP. Smoke isn’t a bad DFS option at a mid-tier price, but Busch can be avoided.
Over the past nine Darlington starts, Ford hasn’t been to Victory Lane, or really even come close. Penske Racing’s Joey Logano ($10,000) has started seven of those races, turning in just one Top 5, three Top 10s and a terrible 20.3 AFP. Based on his price tag, he is a very risky DFS play. Teammate Brad Keselowski ($10,200) has been slightly better than his teammate, but he also has never tasted victory in South Carolina. Keselowski has finished in the Top 5 twice, while posting six Top 20s in seven starts with a 12.6 AFP. If you have to have a Penske driver, Kes is a little more favorable than ‘Sliced Bread’. And, as a result of the points, Keselowski goes off second Sunday, while Logano is fifth.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin ($9,600) loves Darlington Raceway, performing better than anyone over the years. Over the past five starts he has run 98.1 percent of his laps inside the Top 15, posting a 6.4 AFP which is second only to teammate Carl Edwards ($10,100) during the span. Hamlin hasn’t won at the track since May 10, but he has five Top 5s and eight Top 10s with 414 laps led in 10 starts with an impressive 6.5 AFP. Edwards won last season, and he has four Top 5s and eight Top 10s in 12 starts. Both JGR drivers are impressive DFS options. Hamlin starts seventh with Edwards in the third position.
JGR’s Matt Kenseth ($9,000) will start from the 10th spot in the lineup. He, too, is a solid DFS option at a good price. He won the 2013 race, but it was a bit of a surprise considering he has just three Top 5s in 22 starts. He has a 16.3 AFP with 10 Top 10 finishes so he isn’t the JGR car you’ll want to target. Kyle Busch ($10,400) has a 114.9 Driver Rating over the past five starts, leading all drivers with 390 laps led while running 92.3 percent of his laps inside the Top 15. With a 13.0 AFP and seven Top 10s in 11 tries at Darlington, Rowdy is a solid DFS play, albeit at a high salary.
The big news of the week came from the Hendrick Motorsports stable, as it was announced Dale Earnhardt Jr. (concussion) will be out for the rest of the season due to concussion-like symptoms. As such, Jeff Gordon ($8,700) gets another unexpected crack at Darlington. He leads all drivers with seven all-time wins in 35 career starts, posting an 11.5 AFP while leading 1,744 laps. The next closest guy is Greg Biffle ($7,200) with 718. Gordon’s last win at Darlington came in 2007, but he has been good there recently, too. Over the past five starts at the track he has managed a 103.6 Driver Rating while running 89.5 percent of his laps inside the Top 15. He starts in the 15th position Sunday.
Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson ($9,300) should be a popular pick this weekend due to a number of factors. Over the past five starts, he has a 106.4 Driver Rating at Darlington while leading 142 laps with an 8.4 AFP. He won this race back in May 2012, one of three career wins at the track. With a 9.1 AFP in 17 career starts, including 12 Top 10s with 551 laps led, the No. 48 is a nice DFS option at a price slightly more favorable than some of the other big-name drivers on the board.
Martin Truex Jr. ($9,800) will go off in the eighth position Sunday. Over the past five races at Darlington he has 26 laps led with a 93.8 Driver Rating while running 76.8 percent of his laps inside the Top 15. While those numbers are just so-so, in 10 career starts he has four Top 10s and a solid 12.7 AFP. He is quietly lurking and could be a surprise winner this weekend that no one is talking about.
Everyone is talking about Kyle Larson ($9,100) after his victory last weekend in Michigan, and it isn’t out of the realm of possibility he could win his second-career Sprint Cup Series race this weekend. In two career starts at Darlington he has finishes of eighth place and 10th place, improving from an Average Start spot of 16.5 to an AFP of 9.0. He starts in the 16th position and should be in line for plenty of Place Differential points.
ON THE DOWN LOW
As far as the lower-priced options are concerned, there is plenty of good picks for a high-low DFS lineup strategy.
Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Regan Smith ($5,300) will be a very popular DFS selection for his low price tag, allowing you to stack up plenty of high-priced drivers at the top of your lineup. Smith won the Showtime Southern 500 in May 2011, and he has three finishes inside the Top 20 in six career tries. Don’t expect a win this weekend, but a Top 20 finish more than pays for himself.
Biffle has two career wins under his belt, back-to-back checkered flags at the track May 2005-06. In 15 career starts he has three Top 5s with 12 Top 20s and a 13.6 AFP, and as mentioned he has 718 laps led, second-most among all drivers. Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne ($7,500) has slipped into the bargain basement, as far as salary is concerned. You’ll want to take advantage, as he checks in sixth in Driver Rating at 103.1 over the past five Darlington starts. He has led 182 laps over the span while running 79.0 percent of his laps inside the Top 15.
In the same price neighborhood, Jamie McMurray ($7,400) has three Top 5s with five Top 10s in 15 career starts with a 15.9 AFP. As a No. 5 or 6 DFS option Jamie Mac is a solid play. With a slightly cheaper price tag, Aric Almirola ($6,400) could surprise at Darlington. He has a respectable 18.5 AFP in four career starts, posting three Top 20s and, most importantly, no DNFs. In fact, Almirola has never finished worse than 24th. At this price tag he is a solid sleeper. HScott Motorsports driver Clint Bowyer ($7,300) has never won at Darlington, but he has six Top 20 finishes in 10 career starts with a 19.8 AFP. As a No. 5 or 6 DFS option, you could do much worse.
Lastly, Landon Cassill ($5,800) goes off from the 29th spot and he might be a solid sleeper at a cheap DFS option. While he has just one Top 20 in five starts at Darlington, he has led a lap and never finished worse than 30th. You can expect a handful of Place Differential points and a potential career-best finish at the track in Sunday’s race as Cassill’s slow ascension continues.