The Sprint Cup Series heads to Darlington Raceway this week for the Southern 500. Often one of the most exciting races on the schedule, Darlington’s unique shape causes teams trouble in finding the perfect set up. The ends of the track differ in radius as well as in banking, and often a high racing line, virtually grazing the wall, can be the fastest path around the 1.37 mile egg-shaped oval.
This track tends to favor veterans. It is notoriously difficult on tires, and drivers have to be wary of bouncing off the walls and collecting a "Darlington stripe" that could affect their day. This year’s race is in spring versus the heat of the summer, but the challenge of conquering the "track too tough to tame" remains as prestigious as ever.
Qualifying will be important this week. In the history of Darlington, 95 times the winner has come from the top-10 starting sports. Sixty-nine winners have started in the top 5, and only six times has someone started 21st or worse to take the checkered flag. Track position will be important, so while we expect most stops to be for four tires, don’t rule out a two-tire gamble late in the race.
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Here are some options for your five picks and team captain in the Fox Fantasy Racing game, followed by a drives to pass on and a long-shot pick.
Jeff Gordon – Gordon has the most wins at Darlington with seven. In the last nine races at the track, his average finish is 7.4 with the highest driver rating at 111.8. For an all-around great performer at Darlington, fantasy owners can rely on this veteran. His hunger for a win in the new Chase format is coming forward, and his speed is not in question this season. While he’ll have to battle a handful of drivers for the win Saturday, Gordon likely will lead laps and score a top finish, which is exactly what fantasy owners should be looking for, potentially even as the team captain.
Matt Kenseth – Last year’s Southern 500 winner, Kenseth brings a swagger to Darlington this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is second in points behind Gordon and has five top-10 finishes in the seven races this season, including three in a row after last week’s race in Texas. Kenseth’s average finish in the last nine Darlington races is 14.3 with a driver rating of 90.9. His average Darlington finish in 20 career tries is 16.6, and he makes for a confident fantasy option in the Southern 500.
Kyle Busch – Although he only claims one Darlington win in nine career tries, Busch could be considered a favorite this week. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota led 265 laps in last year’s Southern 500 before finishing sixth after fading deep in the distance. Busch has led nearly 600 laps at the track in those nine starts, leads the field in terms of quality passes in the same span and is fifth in the points. The 2014 season has yet to see its first repeat winner, but with a 106.2 driver rating in the last nine Darlington races, Busch could be the first to pull it off.
Greg Biffle – Biffle is a veteran driver that understands how to race Darlington. He picked up consecutive wins at the track in 2005 and 2006, landed the pole position in 2012’s race and has a 13.9 average finish in his Darlington career. His driver rating is among the best at 107.5 in the last nine races here, leading more than 600 laps in that time. Biffle demonstrated that he could threaten for a victory or two this season by running well in Texas, picking up his first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500 and ranking 16th in points. Biffle could be a good value in fantasy land this week.
Kurt Busch – The former champion was involved in one of NASCAR’s closest and most exciting finishes when he raced Ricky Craven to the line at Darlington in 2003. He already has a victory under his belt with his new team this season. Busch led 69 laps in this race last year before being passed by his brother, and he’ll look to improve on that effort after a trouble-filled weekend at Texas. Keep in mind that Busch was strong in this race last year with a smaller team, and is now with the frontrunners of Stewart-Haas Racing. He finished 14th last season and should improve on that given his surroundings.
Ryan Newman – The veteran driver, now with Richard Childress Racing, has an average Darlington start of 11.2 and finish of 11.4 in the last nine races. While he won’t be a fantasy owner’s top pick this week, he could be a good value, especially considering he isn’t a driver fantasy owners will use at every track on the schedule. Newman is 11th in points and searching for his first top-10 finish since Phoenix. This is a track from which he could turn around a dip in form.
Brian Vickers – Vickers hasn’t raced at Darlington since 2011, and his average finish in nine career tries is 28.6. His average start is 14.6, as he moves backward in this race more frequently than forward. The combination of having not raced here for so long and a questionable history at the track make for a poor fantasy combination this week. His driver rating at the circuit is 67.6, which could mean a big gamble for fantasy owners looking for reliable points this week. Although he does sit ninth in the points, this week may not be one we would expect to see Vickers with a breakthrough performance.
Marcos Ambrose – Ambrose has been qualifying and racing well at times so far this season. He has four top-10 qualifying efforts under the new format and has already picked up two top-5 finishes in 2014. Ambrose is a driver to pay attention to at certain tracks this year, but Darlington is not one. His driver rating in five career races is 59.7 with an average finish of 22.8. After only spending 17 percent of his total Darlington racing laps in the top 15 it is hard to recommend Ambrose as a quality fantasy option this week.
Paul Menard – Menard is on a run of three consecutive top-10 finishes, and is 10th in points. The driver of the No. 27 car has had a solid season, but that success may not translate to the uniqueness of Darlington. In seven career tries at the track Menard’s rating is 60.0, with an average start of 24.4, and finish of 23.7. In other weeks we would recommend Menard as a good fantasy option for most rosters, but our expectations this week are quite low. The driver will no doubt return to a better position for fantasy owners in the coming weeks, but anything more than a top-20 run this week would surprise.
Kyle Larson – The rookie has turned in some mature performances in 2014, and while Darlington is a track not suited for rookies, Larson could buck that trend. His lone Nationwide series start here in 2013 saw him finish sixth after qualifying seventh. Larson is 15th in points with two top-5 finishes in the last three races. He is demonstrating raw speed, plus consistent improvement from week to week. Darlington can bite quickly, so a rookie mistake could be an issue this week, but our confidence in this young driver continues to grow.