Darlington Raceway has never been a forgiving race track, sending drivers into walls and challenging competitors with its tight turns and narrow straightaways.
Then why is it that several former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions are hoping a race at Darlington in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX) will be the tonic they need?
Answer: It’s another chance for a win, and in this new era of NASCAR competition, that means everything. Under the new guidelines to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a win during the first 26 races would likely secure a driver his or her place in the postseason. Winning is everything … or at least it’s the most important thing when trying to make the Chase.
Through the first seven races, seven different winners have celebrated in Victory Lane, however, none of them are named Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth. For comparison purposes, after the first eight races of the 2013 season, Johnson and Kenseth had each notched two victories. The two finished 1-2 in the standings last season.
Kenseth finished the season with a season-high and career-best seven wins with Johnson collecting six.
Although Kenseth, who wheels the No. 20 Home Depot Husky Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, has yet to make a mark in the “Win” column this season, he’s run well enough to rank second in points, four points behind Jeff Gordon. Coincidentally, Gordon is another former champion still hunting down that first win.
After starting the season off with a solid sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500, Kenseth placed in the top 10 in four other races. His lowest finish is a respectable 13th-place showing in Bristol, where he led 165 of the 500 laps. Obviously, his stat line proves he’s run well and is certainly deserving of his second-place ranking, however, what it all boils down to is that he’s still missing the one thing that counts more than anything else this year – a win.
Will Kenseth finally get his chance to wave a checkered flag in 2014 at Darlington?
Possibly. He’s the reigning race winner. In 2013, Kenseth passed JGR teammate Kyle Busch with 13 laps to go and cruised to victory, beating his other JGR teammate Denny Hamlin to the finish line by 3.155 seconds. Kenseth led two other times for a race total of 17 laps led. His average speed of 141.383 mph is a track race record.
“Winning the Southern 500 last year was definitely special because that’s one of the biggest races of the year in my opinion,” Kenseth said. “It’s such a historic and prestigious race because the Southern 500 is one of the three or four races that you always hear people talking about.
“It’s certainly one you always want to win, and to say that we were able to get to Victory Lane last year was really a highlight for me.”
Prior to last year’s victory, however, the Wisconsin native had mixed results at the challenging 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval. In his first 19 races there, he collected eight top-10 finishes and one pole, but he also had seven finishes lower than 20th.
Kenseth’s average finish in 20 races at Darlington is a respectable, but not stellar 16.6. His driver rating is a decent 90.9.
In the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Kenseth has three victories at the South Carolina track, winning most recently in 2009. He will be pulling double-duty this weekend, driving for JGR in both series.
CAN SADLER DELIVER AT DARLINGTON?
As the only full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series driver in Joe Gibbs Racing’s stable, Elliott Sadler has high expectations for Friday night’s VFW Sports Clips Help A Hero 200 (8 p.m. ET on ESPN2) at Darlington Raceway.
Sadler has performed well through the first six races of 2014, compiling four top 10s and one pole. His best outings are a pair of fifth-places finishes (Daytona, Auto Club).
Although he’s never won at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval, his best result came last season when he finished runner-up to JGR teammate Kyle Busch, who started on the pole. Starting position is of the utmost importance at a track like Darlington Raceway where the narrow straightaways and tight turns place a premium on passing.
“If there’s anywhere qualifying will be important it’s definitely here this weekend,” said Sadler, who sits fourth in the standings, 16 points behind leader Chase Elliott. “It’s a short race. There’s no time for mistakes.”
Thirteen Nationwide races at the track have been won from the pole, more than any other spot on the starting grid. Five of the last eight races have been won from the pole, all by Sadler’s JGR teammates. In all, seven of the last eight races have been won by JGR drivers: Denny Hamlin (three), Kyle Busch (two), Tony Stewart (one) and Joey Logano (one).
Current JGR driver Matt Kenseth won the eighth race while driving for Roush Fenway Racing. He also won the race immediately prior to the seven-of-eight stretch.
Kenseth and Busch will join Sadler in JGR’s three entries Friday night at Darlington, where Sadler hopes to continue the trend and become the next JGR driver to visit Victory Lane.
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