by Micah Roberts
Friday’s practice sessions were supposed to be a simple, final tune-up for qualifying and Saturday’s race, but several cars had a rough time as they gained the first Darlington stripes of the weekend, forcing some, like Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr, into backup cars. The Darlington stripe refers to the streak that appears on the right side of a drivers car after getting too close to the wall. Because each turn is vastly different in size, drivers sometimes can’t catch up with the direction the "Lady in Black” takes the car in and then the “Lady“ slaps a stripe on it.
The driver that stood out the most during Friday’s combined practice sessions at Darlington was Denny Hamlin. In the first and more important session of the two, Hamlin had the fifth-fastest times. During the final session, which was used primarily by most to get their qualifying setup straight, Hamlin was second fastest and was fastest among all drivers using race trim. Hamlin has never won at Darlington in his four starts, but his consistency over that span indicates that it won’t be long before he cashes in. He has the third-best average finish of 8.0 on the track among all active drivers with a career best of second-place coming in 2007.
His overall tenacity and aggressive nature — mixed in with his great practice — make him one of the favorites to beat Saturday night. There was no better example of just how tenacious Hamlin is than when he stole the Martinsville race in late March in the final four laps, passing eight cars in front of him.
Jeff Gordon is a seven-time winner at Darlington and at one stretch had won the prestigious Southern 500 four straight years, something no one had ever done before or since. He’s on a current stretch at Darlington that has seen him finish six straight races in the top five, which includes a win in 2007.
Gordon’s been on a great run this season, having competitive cars in just about every race. He could have possibly had five wins already but still doesn’t own any, and hasn’t won since last April in Texas. That could all change this week as he has brought one of his better cars. The chassis he’s using had three runner-up finishes last season. The combination of a good car and great history make Gordon a strong candidate to win, and if being overdue counts for anything, he is way past due.
Kyle Busch won at Richmond last week and now finds himself third in the standings. After a sluggish start, it looks like Busch and his crew are finally dialed in and prepared for the stretch run. Busch had a good practice Friday finishing sixth in the first session and hopes that will be enough to carry him to his fifth straight top-10 finish on the season. Darlington has been tough on Kyle, though. He won the first race on the newly resurfaced smooth pavement in 2008, but it remains his only top-five finish there. His average finish position is 20.4, which include two finishes of 34th or worse.
Jimmie Johnson swept the 2004 Darlington season in the last year the track had two Cup race dates. His Southern 500 win that season was also the last time Darlington raced on Labor Day weekend, a tradition that began in 1950. Johnson brought a new chassis this week, and by the looks of it in practice, he doesn’t look to be one of the contenders. However, his history at the track may suggest otherwise. In 11 career starts, Johnson has nine top-10 finishes that include finishing in the top five in three of his last four starts. He is Darlington's active leader in average finish position at 6.9.
Jeff Burton has always been a steady contender at Darlington. He swept the season in 1999 while with Roush Racing and has found himself competitive in every race since. Burton will be using a new chassis this week.
Ryan Newman is someone to take a good look at this week just because of his track history. He’s finished no worse than sixth in four of his last five Darlington starts and has six top-five finishes in 11 career starts. He’s using his Pocono chassis from last season that finished fifth and practiced well with it Friday. If you're looking for a possible upset, Newman’s a great look.
Brad Keselowski doesn’t have a lot of experience at Darlington, but he does have that same type of tenacity and lack of fear like Hamlin does that could fare well. In his Cup track debut last season, Keselowski finished a very respectable seventh. During Friday’s practice, he was getting around the track pretty good while in both race and qualifying set-ups. He’s using a new chassis this week, one the team described as being the lightest Penske Racing has ever made for stock cars.