Column: Darlington Raceway Presents A Unique Challenge For NASCAR Competitors
Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – Last weekend, Denny Hamlin became the ninth driver to score a 2023 NASCAR Cup Series victory and he shows up at the historic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the track’s winningest active driver.
Part of the allure of the 1.366-mile oval is the tight and challenging racing on a track like no other on the circuit. It’s tough. And a driver hasn’t earned back-to-back wins at Darlington since 2005-06 (Greg Biffle). But Hamlin’s four-win total – the last coming in 2021 – and his trophy hoist just last week would make him an easy favorite this weekend.
“It’s a tough track mentally and physically,” said Hamlin, who drives the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota. “It’s a driver’s track because the driver can make a difference at Darlington. You can manipulate the way your car is handling based on the line you choose to run. There’s something about it that has always matched my style of driving no matter what type of car we’re racing, so I anticipate we’ll have a really good shot at contending this weekend.”
Three of the seven former Darlington winners in Sunday’s field are still looking for their first trophy of the year, including three-time Darlington winner Kevin Harvick, two-time Darlington winner Erik Jones and one-time winner Brad Keselowski.
Jones is the most recent winner at the track, taking a slight .252-second win over Hamlin in last year’s Playoff opener. He could certainly use a boost in both confidence and the standings. The driver of the No. 43 LEGACY MOTOR CLUB Chevrolet is currently ranked 23rd – with only a pair of top 10s through the opening 12 races of the season.
Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has the resume to score his first win of 2023 at Darlington. He finished fourth in this race last year. The 2014 series champion – who is retiring at the end of this season – is ranked fifth in the standings, 46 points behind leader Ross Chastain and one of four ranked in the top-10 without a victory yet this season (also including Chastain, Ryan Blaney and Keselowski). He not only has the three Darlington wins but his two pole positions tie him with defending Darlington race winner Joey Logano for most among the active drivers.
Keselowski, owner-driver of the No. 6 RFK Racing Ford, is 10th in the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings. He and teammate Chris Buescher have both finished in the top-10 in two of the last three races (at Talladega, Ala. and Dover, Del.) and Keselowski has a season-best runner-up effort at Atlanta. The second-year owner-driver’s five top-10s is one-off his entire 2022 season in that category.
Most notable among those still racing for that first trophy of 2022 is the series championship leader, Trackhouse Racing’s Chastain. He is coming off a third-place finish at Kansas and has five top-five finishes on the year – including a runner-up at Dover, where he led 98 laps. Darlington Raceway hasn’t been among the 29-year-old Floridian’s resume highlights in the past. The driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet has only one top-10 in seven starts – a third-place finish in the 2021 Playoff race. He led 26 laps in this race last year but brought out a caution about 100 laps shy of the checkered flag.
He has the ultimate in full schedules this weekend – competing in all three NASCAR national series races.
Team Penske’s Logano and 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick scored top-five finishes in both 2022 Darlington races. In fact, Logano edged Reddick by a slight .775-seconds to take the victory in this Spring race last year.
The intensity of the competition is not only gaining strength atop the standings. The 16th and final Playoff position currently belongs to Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe by a slight three-point edge on 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace. Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Ty Gibbs is only seven points off Briscoe.
The hugely popular “Throwback” theme of the Darlington race weekend will include appearances by several of “NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers.” Seven-time champion and inaugural NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty and his son Kyle, along with Carl Edwards and five-time Darlington winner, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott will all spend time in the FOX television booth as commentators.
Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett will serve as the Honorary Pace Car driver for the race and join Grand Marshals Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch along with former NASCAR stars Ernie Irvan, Biffle, Ryan Newman and NASCAR Hall of Fame brothers Terry and Bobby Labonte in a parade Saturday afternoon through downtown Darlington.
A half hour NASCAR Cup Series practice gets under way Saturday at 10:35 a.m. followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying. Both sessions will be televised live on FS1.
XFINITY SERIES IS THROWING IT BACK AT DARLINGTON
The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to competition at Darlington Raceway with the Saturday’s Shriners Children’s 200 (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) after a rare season off-week.
Unquestionably the team to beat this week is JR Motorsports, which has won the last four NASCAR Xfinity Series races at the notoriously tough 1.366-mile oval.
Veteran Justin Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 JRM Chevrolet, is the defending race winner – holding off his then-teammate Noah Gragson by a slight.259-second in this race last year to hoist his second Darlington trophy in as many years. Allgaier is the only two-time race winner in the field on Saturday and a victory – which would be his first of 2023 – would certainly be huge for him toward his championship run.
Among the title contenders, his two wins, six top-five and 11 top-10 efforts in 15 Darlington starts is easily tops. He’s currently ranked fifth in the standings, 49 points behind leader Austin Hill.
Hill, driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, leads the Xfinity Series with three wins and holds a slight 4-point edge over Joe Gibbs Racing’s John Hunter Nemechek atop the driver standings.
Darlington has been a solid venue for both Hill and his closest competitor in the standings, Nemechek. Both drivers finished inside the top-10 in both races there last year, although neither has won at the track. They are also the only two multiple time winners in 2023. And Nemechek’s 340 laps led this season is best by more than 100 laps over the next closest. … Hill.
There are three former Darlington winners in Saturday’s field, including the only multiple winner Allgaier and his first year JRM teammate Brandon Jones (2020) and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer (2019).
RCR driver Sheldon Creed finished runner-up in the Fall race at Darlington and has back-to-back NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series victories at the track and should be considered a favorite as well.
A handful of NASCAR Cup Series drivers are entered this week, including 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, who will drive the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. Current NASCAR Cup Series driver standings leader Ross Chastain will drive the No. 91 DGM Racing Chevrolet and Ty Dillon will steer the famed No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Several teams will be participating in the Darlington’s famed “Throwback Weekend.”
Both Hill’s and his RCR teammate Creed’s Chevrolets will honor former two-time Xfinity Series champion Kevin Harvick with paint schemes reminiscent to Harvick’s 2001 and 2006 title-winning seasons. Custer’s No. 00 Ford will pay tribute to the late driver Jason Leffler and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Riley Herbst’s No. 98 Ford will do the same for the late rally driver Ken Block.
Brett Moffitt’s No. 25 AM Racing Ford will honor the late Tim Richmond’s famous “Folger’s Coffee” car. And Jeffrey Earnhardt’s No. 45 Alpha Prime Racing Chevrolet will carry a paint scheme honoring his late grandfather Dale Earnhardt’s 1997 All-Star Race car.
Fittingly, for the “throwback” theme, it’s a NASCAR Hall of Famer that boasts all the most important Xfinity Series records at Darlington. Mark Martin holds the top mark for wins (eight), pole positions (eight), top fives (14), top 10s (18) and laps led (972).
The green flag for practice waves at 5:05 p.m. ET on Friday, followed immediately by qualifying. Both sessions will be aired live on FS1.
TIGHT COMPETITION IN THE NASCAR CRAFTSMAN TRUCK SERIES
Veteran Grant Enfinger essentially punched his entry card into the 2023 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs with a win last week at Kansas Speedway, leaving only two of the top-six ranked drivers still racing for their first trophy of 2023 as the series heads to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for Friday night’s Buckle Up South Carolina 200 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Enfinger led a dominating 65 laps in the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet to claim his first victory of the year at Kansas and he heads to Darlington with an impressive resume at the historically tough 1.366-miler. He’s finished sixth or better in all four career starts at the track, including a best showing of third-place last year. His 4.5 average finish is tops among those with at least four starts.
The championship battle between reigning series champ, Front Row Motorsports’ Zane Smith and ThorSport Racing’s Ty Majeski couldn’t be tighter. They are tied in points – but Smith’s two wins gives him the edge in a tiebreaker. Majeski is hoping to hoist his first trophy this weekend. They have similar statistics at Darlington. Smith has top-10 finishes in half of his four starts with a best showing of eighth-place last year but only nine total laps led. Majeski has one top five in two starts – a fourth place last year – and has never led a lap at Darlington.
Ben Rhodes is the only driver among the series regulars to have won at Darlington. In fact, Rhodes won in his very first start at the notoriously tough track in 2020 and answered that with a runner-up showing the next year. The last two races, however, have been a bit disappointing with 34th and 25th-place finishes, respectively. The 2021 series champion and driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Ford is ranked 41 points behind Smith and Majeski in third place. As with Majeski, Rhodes is still looking for that first victory of the season.
Rev Racing’s rookie Nick Sanchez, who is ranked ninth in the championship, leads the series with laps led (187) on the year – the only driver who has topped the 100-laps led mark.
Friday night’s race will include a full field, including former Truck Series champion Johnny Sauter (No. 04 Roper Racing Ford), NASCAR Cup Series stars Bubba Wallace (No. 1 TRICON Garage Toyota), Corey LaJoie (No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet), Ross Chastain (No. 41 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet) and William Byron (No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Chevrolet).
The NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series practice is scheduled for Friday at 3:05 p.m. followed immediately by qualifying. Both sessions will be aired on FS1.