Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Darlington Southern 500 Preview: Gordon Gets Back on Track This Week

By Micah Roberts

Look for Gordon to get season started in right direction this week (Getty)
This week the drivers head to Darlington, South Carolina for a Saturday night race at the most storied track in NASCAR. Since 1950, NASCAR drivers have been racing at Darlington and along the way a few names have been attached to it such as ‘The Track Too Tough to Tame‘ and ‘The Lady in Black‘. Just by those names alone, it should tell you that it’s a pretty unforgiving track that presents some of toughest challenges drivers have on the circuit.

The difficult challenge the drivers have comes from the four differing turns around this 1.366-mile egg-shaped track. Turns one and two are different from three and four in distance and banking creating a dilemma for the teams in how they set up the car. It’s nearly impossible for a car to be set up perfect for all four turns, so they have pick where they want to be the best at which is usually turns three and four.

Turn four is where the ’Lady in Black’ issues most of her ‘Darlington Stripes‘, which is when a driver smacks the wall and their car gets stamped with a little piece of Darlington on it for the rest of the race, if able to still run. This Lady a mean old angry woman, but commands respects from each and every one of the drivers like no other track.

One lady that gets a chance at meeting the Lady for the first time is Danica Patrick who makes her second Cup appearance of the season. The hype from Daytona when she made her Cup debut in February is long gone, but the publicity machine will start churning out some releases on Wednesday to help make Saturday’s race one that attracts a broader audience than usual.

“I know it’s going to be hard," Patrick said last week regarding Darlington. "I know there’s going to be some frustrating moments and some moments that I’m probably going to feel a little embarrassed, but I’m there to get my Darlington stripes and move along.”

Patrick finished 38th in the Daytona 500 and is having some moderate success during her learning period while driving in the Nationwide series where she‘s 11th in points with one top-10 finish. Although she’s driven on almost every type of track around the world in Indy and stock cars, nothing will be able to prepare her for the ’Lady in Black” Saturday night.

Darlington isn’t know for having surprise winners, but last year Regan Smith won with odds of 500-to-1. It was the largest odds of any winner in the history of NASCAR betting in Las Vegas. There weren’t many takers in the odds and the few that did make the wagers didn’t bet over $5, but nevertheless, Regan Smith proved to all bettors that a long shot can have a shot against the odds ’The Lady in Black’ stacks against them.

The driver to key on this week is Denny Hamlin who currently sits fourth in points, 27 behind points leader Greg Biffle. Hamlin not only has a great past history at Darlington, but also comes in as one of the more formidable drivers on all tracks. He’s got two wins already through 10 races and has a 6.5 average finish at Darlington that includes a win in 2010.

On the same note, Biffle has to be considered as well. He has finished fifth or better six times in 10 races this season. Biffle also won back-to-back years at Darlington in 2005 and 2006. Biffle’s run this year is reminiscent of his 2005 season when he won six races and finished runner-up in the standings.

“I’m really excited about Darlington this weekend," said Biffle who will be running the chassis he finished 13th with at Bristol. "It’s been a good track for us and we always run well there. We run inches off the wall at speeds we run at mile and a half tracks. It’s a tough race track, which may mean a little bit more for us in the points if we can have a good night.”

If you had to pick one driver who ’The Lady in Black’ treated as her favorite, it would probably be Jeff Gordon who has won at Darlington seven times, including being the only driver to ever win four straight Southern 500‘s when the race was considered one of the crown jewels of the sport.

“I’m always excited about the trip to Darlington,” Gordon said earlier this week. “This has been one of my favorites since I started racing in NASCAR.

“It’s a track you have to attack. It’s a track you have to respect because you are on the edge. Those ingredients have suited me and our team well over the years. This is a very tough track and it’s a challenge just to stay off the walls. It’s a big transition (from straightaway to apron to turn) that is very narrow. The track can reach out and bite you in a hurry.”

Beyond just the wins, Gordon has figured a way better than most to get around the track and avoid the wrath of it with minimal Darlington stripes. Until his 12th-place finish last season, Gordon was on an unbelievable run of seven straight top-5 finishes at Darlington.

This season Gordon has had a terrible stretch of bad luck sitting 23rd in points with only two top-10 finishes on the season. It would almost seem appropriate that the Lady’s favorite driver get better on her track. If Gordon does so, it would be the 200th win for Hendrick Motorsports. It would only seem fitting that Gordon be the driver to get the win since he posted 85 of those Hendrick wins.

It could be said that Dale Earnhardt Jr is having a career year even though he hasn’t won any of the last 139 races. He’s currently third in points and has chance to finish in the top-10 for the seventh straight race which would be an all-time best for him. He has never won at Darlington, but does have the advantage of having crew chief Steve Letarte’s Darlington knowledge. Letarte was Gordon’s crew chief and never finished worst than fifth while in charge, including Gordon’s last win there.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (8/1)
3) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (14/1)
4) #16 Greg Biffle (8/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (15/1)

NASCAR Awards to Stay in Vegas
NASCAR announced Monday that the annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards – and all of Champion’s Week – will return to Las Vegas, Nev., and remain there for the next three years. For the fourth-consecutive season, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards will take place at Wynn Las Vegas on Friday, Nov. 30, a culmination of a week-long celebration for the series champion – and NASCAR fans. As in past years, fans can expect the traditionally exciting and interactive week of activities.

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