Will We See Another New Winner?
Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin combined to win each of the three Cup races at Darlington last year. Both are winless thus far in 2021. In fact, both combined to win 16 of the 36 races a year ago including 13 of the 26 in the regular season and all 16 wins in the opening 31 races. They’re 0-for-16 since.
Can they pick up a win on Sunday at the Darlington Raceway and become the 11th different winner in 12 races run this season?
If not them, you can’t leave out Chase Elliott either. He’s the defending series champion and won five times in 2020. Combined between three, that’s 21 wins in 36 races in 2020. They’re 0-for-11 in 2021.
Elliott, should have won the final two Darlington races last year as he was crashed while being in second place, the top car on new tires, inside of 20 to go last May and then led 114 laps last September and crashed again while leading in a battle with Martin Truex Jr. for the Southern 500 victory.
These three are arguably the top favorites and neither have surprisingly won yet in 2021.
Also, don’t count out the RCR duo of Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick as the top sleepers either. Reddick excels on tracks like this while Dillon finished runner-up in the Southern 500 last season. He has 3 top 11 results in his last four Darlington starts. They’ve both also finished in the top 10 in each of the last two races on the season as well.
What about a past winner this season though?
The odds are low of a Michael McDowell win. Joey Logano has three top six results in his last six Darlington starts. He was sixth and third respectively over the final two races of 2020. His Penske teammate of Ryan Blaney struggles on the track with a best result of 13th in 8 starts. Brad Keselowski won the 2018 Southern 500 but the rest of his races have really been forgetful.
Martin Truex Jr. is a past Darlington winner and led 196 laps while crashing while going for the win with Elliott last Labor Day weekend. He was only sixth and 10th respectively in the other two races as he’s not had a top five finish in his last six Darlington starts to go along with his Southern 500 win being his only top five in the last 10 starts on the Lady in Black overall. His teammate Christopher Bell didn’t score a top 10 in any of his three tries last year. Their other teammate, Kyle Busch, has five top seven finishes in his last six Darlington tries.
The Hendrick Motorsports trio that have all won this year are likely the top ones among past winners this season to watch. Alex Bowman was runner-up in the day race last May and sixth in the Southern 500 last September. William Byron was fifth last September too. Kyle Larson has an average finish of 6.67 at Darlington with three top three finishes in his last four Darlington tries. He led 45 laps in 2016, 124 in 2017, 284 in 2018 and 44 more in 2019. Now, he’s in a Hendrick car there.
Which grouping are you taking on Sunday?
Can SHR/Ganassi Get Going Sunday?
Darlington hasn’t typically been a very good track for Stewart-Haas Racing. Kevin Harvick has been en fuego while his teammates haven’t lived up to his billing on the Lady in Black. But, all of SHR did respectable last year which is why the question has to be asked, can they get their season going in a positive way on Sunday?
Harvick led a grand total of 64 laps in 16 Darlington starts with RCR. In nine starts at SHR, Harvick has led 719 laps with a top 10 in all nine tries including eight of which being in the top five.
The problem is, he’s only led 29 laps all season. He’s struggling in the speed department. While he won 2 of the 3 races last year at Darlington, can he do so this weekend?
His former teammate Clint Bowyer struggled in his Darlington past but he looked good last year. He even swept both stages in the second race. Chase Briscoe won an Xfinity Series race over Kyle Busch there last May and has had some good success on the 1.33 mile oval. Cole Custer finished 12th as a rookie in the Southern 500.
Then you have Aric Almirola who didn’t have a top 10 result in his previous 8 Darlington starts entering last year. He’d go out and finish 12th in the first race in May, seventh in the second one and ninth in the Southern 500.
Can this group rally behind that and get their season going in a better direction this weekend?
What about Chip Ganassi Racing? They have 3 combined top 10’s all season. Ross Chastain has struggled this year with 1 of them in the first 11 races. That top 10 came in the season opening Daytona 500 at that. The positive news is though that his No. 42 Chevrolet that he’s driving this weekend has had a ton of success at Darlington in the past with Kyle Larson.
Larson, had five top 10 finishes in six Darlington starts including three top three finishes over his last four. He led 45, 124, 284 and 44 laps respectively in each of his last four starts there. Can Chastain take this car to a better result?
Kurt Busch has the other 2 top 10s in the same 11 races this year, but the Las Vegas native also has five top eight results in his last six Darlington starts too.
It’s time for these two organizations to get going. Can they this weekend?
Will Sunday Be a Better Race?
It’s no secret, the Cup Series’ races at Darlington in recent years have been the worst ones on the track. The Xfinity Series has consistently put on a far better show. There were only 18 lead changes in 501 miles of racing in the Southern 500 last Fall. By comparison, the Xfinity Series has one fewer in 300 miles less of racing. In fact, the Xfinity Series’ May race had as many lead changes in 201 miles of racing than the Cup one did in 400.
So, why the difference?
Well that’s because the Xfinity Series has been racing at Darlington in the heat of the day and the Cup races mostly at night. On top of that, the NXS races have been run with more horsepower and less downforce. Combine an abrasive track with these other two factors and you can see why the NXS competition has just been better.
Well, the Cup Series has adapted. They’ll have less downforce this weekend. They’ll also race in the heat of the day too. Will that help?
Will This Race Look Different Than The Southern 500?
Most would think Sunday’s race will be a precursor for the playoff race this Fall. But, I don’t think you can take much from this weekend and apply it to when they come back in September. See, for starters, this race is being run at 3:30 p.m. ET while the Southern 500 doesn’t typically start until 6 p.m. ET. Also, this race is a full 100 miles shorter than the one in the playoffs.
In saying that, by time Sunday’s race ends, the Southern 500 would just be getting started or at the very least in the early portions of it. That makes it very hard to compare the two and take setup info over.
Plus, don’t discredit the race being 400 miles instead of 500. That is a big difference in itself.
For some reason, Darlington has always produced some late race drama. We saw it in 2 of the 3 Cup races last year. Kyle Busch tried to slide in behind Chase Elliott in the May night race and made a mistake and clipped him instead. Elliott crashed while running second, the first car on new tires then rain fell. In the Southern 500, Elliott was leading with 15 laps-to-go and trying to hold off Martin Truex Jr. Between them, Elliott had just led 114th lap while Truex had 196 laps led up until that point himself. They wrecked each other in the process.
Even the two NXS races had some late race drama. Last May it was Chase Briscoe vs. Kyle Busch. In September it was Brandon Jones passing Ross Chastain for the win in the end.
Will we see more of that this weekend?