Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – Hendrick Motorsports is poised to break 10-year Darlington drought.
On the positive side, Hendrick Motorsports has won five of the 11 NASCAR Cup Series races so far this season.
Further, Hendrick drivers collectively have 14 all-time Cup victories at Darlington Raceway, more than any other organization in the sport.
Here’s the negative, though: Hendrick hasn’t earned a trophy at the Lady in Black since Jimmie Johnson won the spring race in 2012, and no current driver in the Hendrick stable has a victory at the track.
Based on recent performance, however, that decade-long drought has a good chance to end in Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
After winning for the first time this season in last Sunday’s race at Dover Motor Speedway, 2020 Cup champion Chase Elliott comes to Darlington looking to go back-to-back. Though winless in the Cup Series at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped track, Elliott won at Darlington in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2014, the first time he raced on the track.
This weekend, Elliott will get extra seat time by running the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.
“I always look forward to going to Darlington,” Elliott said. “It’s really cool, and I feel like it’s really a driver’s race track. For some reason, I’ve kind of struggled there the last couple of years, so I’m looking forward to getting some practice on Saturday in the Xfinity race.
“Hopefully, that can help me come Sunday. I also feel like there are some things that we learned from Dover that we can take to Darlington. It’ll be interesting with the new car and how things go.”
Teammate William Byron, a two-time winner this year, also has shown speed at Darlington. The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet won the pole for the 2019 Southern 500 before falling to 21st at the finish. For Throwback Weekend at the ‘Track Too Tough to Tame’, Byron’s Camaro is sporting a paint scheme reminiscent of one his predecessors in the No. 24 car—NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, a seven-time winner at the track.
Recently, though, Darlington has been the nearly exclusive province of Toyota driver Denny Hamlin and Ford driver Kevin Harvick. In the five races since the coronavirus pandemic caused a 10-week hiatus in NASCAR competition, Hamlin and Harvick have won two events each, with Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. taking last year’s spring race.
In fact, a Chevrolet driver hasn’t won at Darlington since Harvick took the checkered flag in the 2014 spring race, the year before Stewart-Haas Racing switched to Ford.
Hamlin has a victory at Richmond to all but ensure a berth in this year’s Playoff, but the rest of his season has been fraught with error—notably an unattached wheel that sabotaged a potential race-winning car last Monday at Dover.
But Hamlin leads all active drivers with four Darlington wins, not to mention his five victories at the track in the Xfinity Series. Hamlin got a feel for the track in the Next Gen car during a March 15 Goodyear tire test that included Harvick and reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, a Hendrick driver seeking his second win of the season.
“We’re looking forward to this weekend.” Hamlin said. “Darlington has been a great track for us, and we feel like we learned a lot at the tire test, so that gives us confidence going back.
“Like all season, our biggest thing is just eliminating mistakes—whether that’s me or on pit road or something happening with the car. It seems like every week has been something, but our speed has been good most weeks, if we can just put everything together.”
JR Motorsports looks to continue Darlington success on Throwback Weekend
There are four former Darlington winners in the field for Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race—and three of them are driving for JR Motorsports.
Xfinity regulars Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson will be joined by double-duty driver Chase Elliott as they try to extend JRM’s winning streak at the Lady in Black in Saturday’s Mahindra ROXOR 200 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
JR Motorsports drivers swept last year’s races at the venerable 1.366-mile speedway, with Allgaier winning last spring and Gragson taking the checkered flag in the fall race. Gragson already has two victories to his credit this season. Allgaier is looking for his first.
“I can’t wait to get to Darlington this weekend,” said Allgaier, who finished a close second to teammate Sam Mayer last Saturday at Dover Motor Speedway. “We have an awesome throwback design for our Hellman’s Chevrolet, and hopefully we can replicate the same kind of success we had last year and get back into Victory Lane.
“I know this team is capable of doing it, and I’m ready to get down there and make it happen.”
As strong as the JRM Camaros have been at Darlington, it would be unwise to ignore the Joe Gibbs Racing contingent. Brandon Jones won the fall race in 2020, and 19-year-old Ty Gibbs already is a series-leading three-time winner this season.
Gibbs’ No. 54 Toyota features an Interstate Batteries paint scheme from the year he was born—2002.
Already qualified for the Xfinity Series Playoffs thanks to a win at Martinsville, Jones won the pole and finished seventh last Saturday at Dover.
Defending NASCAR Truck Series champ Ben Rhodes tries to double up at Darlington
There are two former Darlington winners in the field for Friday night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, and they’re both driving Toyotas.
But that’s about the only similarity between the two competitors in Friday’s Dead On Tools 200 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Twenty-five-year-old Ben Rhodes is the defending series champion. He won at Darlington in 2020 in the Truck Series’ return to the ‘Track Too Tough to Tame’ after a nine-year hiatus. Rhodes is fresh from an impressive April 16 victory at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt track.
Todd Bodine, 58, will make his 796th career start in NASCAR’s three national series combined when he takes the green flag. Bodine is driving the No. 62 Tundra for Halmar Friesen Racing.
Series regulars with hopes of winning and securing a Playoff berth will have to deal with a formidable obstacle. Two-time NASCAR Cup Series winner Ross Chastain will drive a fifth Chevrolet for Niece Motorsports.
Chastain began his rise to prominence at Darlington in 2018, when he won the pole and the first two stages in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.