Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Darlington Preview: Every Betting Strategy Should Start With Jeff Gordon

By Micah Roberts

The 'Lady in Black' can be a pretty mean spirited, nasty lady to drivers. 
Last week we saw drivers bumping and banging, taking their anger out on each other. This week at Darlington, we’ll see a little bit of the same at higher speeds, except many will be just plain upset with themselves. At Darlington Raceway, another element is added to the race where they're not only battling other drivers, but battling the track like no other on the circuit.

The 1.366 mile track egg shaped oval has been getting the best of NASCAR drivers since 1950. It’s a high banked track with each of the four turns being vastly different which has caused many drivers to earn their Darlington stripes over the years, a term used when drivers slam into the wall scraping up the right side of their car because of miscalculating the difficult turns.

“The Lady in Black” is an equal opportunity enforcer and even the most experienced of drivers are not immune to her wrath.

Over the years, only small group can say they have mastered the nuances of the track. Jeff Gordon is a seven-time winner on the track while it remains one of two tracks on the tour that Tony Stewart has never won on.

David Pearson is part of the history that sets it apart
As tough as the track that's too tough to tame is, it still remains as one of the drivers favorite tracks. Most drivers cite the history as being one of the reasons, but all agree that they love the challenge more than anything. Nothing against Las Vegas, Charlotte, Kansas or Michigan, but the level of difficulty and uniqueness of Darlington stands out among all NASCAR tracks. 2004 was the last season in which Darlington had two races a year which makes the one race a year even more special on a schedule littered with similar layouts.

Passing is a difficult chore for these drivers because of how narrow it is making all the other elements, such as pit stops, more important than ever to gain position. Even though the 43 cars on the track are technically racing each other, most will say that they're racing the track itself. Saving tires during a run isn't at the premium as it used to be before the repaving, but it's still an important factor to be quicker on the longer runs.

What tire compund will be used at Darlington?
Another element the drivers have to worry regarding the tires is only being able to have four sets of tires during Friday's two practice sessions. A few of the teams did a Goodyear test at Darlington in March, but as of now, the tire compound isn't known making it more difficult than ever for the teams to be fully prepared. Between having a tire limit and less time to prepare, it also makes it tougher to handicap like we do for most races based on practices.

Last week was a complete mess at Richmond just trying to keep up to date on what teams were doing -- running race or qualfying trim -- during the two practice sessions. On a normal race weekend, we would get to see the first practice with mostly qualifying trim and then there would be qualifying. Then we would get to see the final practices a day later and strategies for race day the teams were working on.

Friday's sessions this week will likely be similar to what we saw at Richmond which puts more emphasis on past history and chasis information as the top source to refer to when making betting decisions. I found last week that my best source of post-practice information was going by the top times of drivers running 10 consecutive laps rather than the overall practice times themselves.

Can we use what happened at Texas to help handicap?
If looking for similar tracks to help handicap the race, good luck. Just by looking at what cars teams have brought, and the other races those same cars have run on over the years, it looks like new Bristol is the closest in most crew chiefs estimation in regards to set-up. The length and banking of the track may suggest that we look at a few places like Las Vegas, Atlanta and Texas, but I haven't been completely sold on that theory like many do, but maybe I should jump into it a little more.

Las Vegas Hilton Super Book manager Ed Salmons, who sets their weekly auto racing odds, thinks there may be more relation to the 1.5-mile tracks now because of the repaving and higher speeds. And he made a great case. Salmons idenitified last seasons Texas spring race and Darlington with Denny Hamlin winning both as examples. In both of those races, the Busch brothers and Kevin Harvick also ran equally well.

If we take it step further and go back to Darlington 2009 where Mark Martin won, we see that he won at Phoenix, finished sixth at Texas and then later won at Michigan, Chicago and Loudon. It's hard to ignore the correlation that also saw Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart all finish in the top-five of both Texas and Darlington races.

While I initially scoffed somewhat at the notion of rating the Roush drivers too high, Salmons firmly believes that the Roush drivers will all do well this week because of Texas despite only Greg Biffle really having a good past performance at Darlington. When looking at Texas results, the top six is littered with each Roush driver, including Matt Kenseth winning.

I think I have been convinced somewhat by all this and will have to reconsider all of Salmons valid points in my betting equations for the week.

To recap, here's the formula for the week:
Past Track History + Chassis Selection + 10 Lap Average Practice Speeds + Texas 2011 Results + Sprinkling of Bristol, Las Vegas & Atlanta 2011 results/Current State of Team

Every driver should listen when Gordon talks Darlington.
Because this track is so tough on everyone, there aren't many drivers that we can say, "He's the one" like we can at other tracks. Jeff Gordon may be the exception.

Gordon has seemed to avoid the wrath of the Lady and it's become one of his most consistent tracks dating back to his glory years. We’ve seen Gordon go through different spurts at tracks in the post-Ray Evernham era with no real consistency except for Martinsville and Darlington. He’s currently on a streak of seven straight years finishing inside the top-five at Darlington that includes a win in 2007. No driver even comes close to that type of excellence.

Denny Hamlin won last year and it looks like his runner-up finish last week at Richmond may have been his team's wake up call for 2011. Hamlin is one of the few drivers who has never experienced a poor finish at Darlington. In five starts, his worst finish was 13th in 2009.

Kyle Busch looks like a new driver this season. Perhaps the combination of getting married and being older has made him mature to where he’s at now which is third in the standings, 30 points behind Carl Edwards. Busch is the perfect example of a good driver having high and lows when battling the Lady in Black. He won the 2008 race, but also finished 37th in 2007 and 34th in 2009 to mushroom his average finish to 18.2 in six career starts. With the way he’s running right now, and if the Lady shows a little mercy, he could be in store for another win. Busch also has the benefit of bringing a winning car this week, the one used at Bristol earlier this season.

Jimmie Johnson has proven that he can drive on any kind of track and showed it early on by sweeping the season there in 2004, the last year Darlington had two races a season. Since then he’s had three top-five finishes, but finished 36th last season. Johnson will be using a brand new chassis this week.

Two drivers who stood out the last two seasons were Penske Dodge teammates Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Busch finished third last year, but may best be remembered for his runner-up finish in 2003. The last 10 lap battle between he and eventual winner Ricky Craven has been called the greatest finish ever seen at Darlington in it’s 61 years of NASCAR racing as they bumped, banged and passed each other back and forth all the way to the finish line. Busch is currently in a battle with his team over not getting enough horsepower and let the entire NASCAR world hear his thoughts on radio during the Richmond race. Not sure that will inspire the team, but at least they know how he feels about the cars he's been getting.

Current RCR drivers have a tough time at Darlington
For some odd reason, this track hasn’t been very kind to the Childress group of drivers. Richard Childress has eight wins as an owner at Darlington which ties him for third most all-time, but they all came from Dale Earnhardt. The current crop hasn't come close to matching what they have done on all other tracks. It's almost like they're getting worse as the RCR team has improved everywhere else.

Jeff Burton won twice while driving for Jack Roush, but hasn’t had a top-five finish there since 2000. He is the most consistent of the group in recent history with several finishes in the eighth to 11th-place range.

Kevin Harvick had a couple top-three finishes early in his career, but has been victimized by the track more than most. In 14 career starts, Harvick has five finishes of 32nd or worse, but is bringing his sixth-place Bristol chassis with hopes of changing his luck there. Clint Bowyer has followed Harvick's trend in each of his last two starts there with poor finishes.

Greg Biffle leads the Roush charge with two Darlington wins with his best most recent performance coming in 2009 when he finished eighth. Carl Edwards has two top-five finishes, including runner-up in his magical 2008 season, a year where he swept Texas along with almost every other track like it. Edwards will be using his winning Las Vegas chassis this week giving more steam into Salmons theory.

Matt Kenseth has only one top-five finish at Darlington, but comes in with that Texas win. He'll be using his fourth-place Fontana car this week. David Ragan finished sixth at Texas and finished fifth at Darlington back in 2008. Ragan will be piloting his 16th-place car from Bristol.

Top-5 Finish prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
3) #17 Matt Kenseth (20/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
5) #99 Carl Edwards (8/1)

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