NASCAR looks to the past at Darlington while drivers try to find the front

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 04: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Yahoo! Toyota, lead the field on a pace lap prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Darlington is a unique stop for NASCAR. Not only does the 1.366-mile oval produce unusual racing, with a groove so close to the wall that the challenge has earned it the nickname “The Track Too Tough to Tame,” but Sunday’s Goodyear 400 (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the annual throwback weekend.

That means drivers and teams will be remembering NASCAR’s greats who’ve raced at the track with a storied history of its own. But once the race begins, throwback will be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Nine drivers have already won thus far in 2023, and, with a declining roster of points positions in the Playoffs, that means winless drivers will be increasingly committed.

Of the seven former Darlington winners in the field, three haven’t gone to victory lane this year: three-time Darlington winner Kevin Harvick, two-time Darlington winner Erik Jones and one-time winner Brad Keselowski. Harvick is confident in that experience getting him a win in his retirement season.

“It’s a place that I look forward to going to,” he said of the track. “It’s a place where I enjoy racing and love the challenges that go with it.”

“I think over the last several years we’ve been fortunate to have some success there, and the expectation is to go there and have a chance to race up front and put yourself in contention. So, that’ll be the expectation as we go back this time and, hopefully, we can do that and have some fun.”

As for Erik Jones, who’s won twice at the track, a third win might be the most significant. The most recent winner, having edged out Denny Hamlin in the fall Playoff race last season, he sits 23rd in points and could use a win after a difficult start to the year for his Legacy Motor Club team.

But Hamlin, who has a series-high four wins, doesn’t intend to let anyone, Jones or otherwise, beat him again. He knows the track and the style of racing required.

“It’s a tough track mentally and physically,” said Hamlin. “It’s a driver’s track because the driver can make a difference at Darlington. You can manipulate the way your car is handling based on the line you choose to run.”

“There’s something about it that has always matched my style of driving no matter what type of car we’re racing, so I anticipate we’ll have a really good shot at contending this weekend.”

Adding to that, Harvick said that “Darlington favors the guy who can be very disciplined and is able to push the car right to 99.9 percent of where that tire run is, and be able to put the car up against the wall and not overstep those boundaries.”

“You have to be very disciplined there to get everything out of the car and keep up with the tire fall-off and not tear anything up – on your own, let alone being around everybody else,” he added.

The driver who will know the track best this weekend is Ross Chastain, and that might be dangerous for the rest of the field. He’ll be driving in all three national series, running in the Xfinity and Truck series as well. He is currently the points leader, too, having put together a consistently-strong season, although he hasn’t made friends with everybody in the process.

“I like going to Darlington,” Chastain said. “Its such a unique track and I love how challenging it is. Every corner is so unique and its so challenging to get your car set to turn well at the track.”

“This weekend I’ll be able to get a lot of laps in by running all three series. It’s a fun weekend with it being throwback and all of the excitement that surrounds it,” he said.

As part of Throwback celebrations, seven-time champion and inaugural NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty and his son Kyle, along with Carl Edwards and five-time Darlington winner, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott will all spend time in the FOX television booth as commentators.

Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett will serve as the Honorary Pace Car driver for the race and join Grand Marshals Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch along with former NASCAR stars Ernie Irvan, Biffle, Ryan Newman and NASCAR Hall of Fame brothers Terry and Bobby Labonte in a parade Saturday afternoon through downtown Darlington.

A half hour NASCAR Cup Series practice gets under way Saturday at 10:35 a.m. followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying. Both sessions will be televised live on FS1

Xfinity Series is throwing it back at Darlington too

The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to competition at Darlington Raceway with the Saturday’s Shriners Children’s 200 (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) after a rare season off-week.

The series returns to what Cole Custer calls a driver’s track.

“There’s so much you can do as a driver at Darlington,” Custer said. “You can move your line around, and you can play with how you work the throttle and the brake. You can also experiment with how you run the wall.”

“There’s just a ton that you can do, but the tires fall off so much,” he added “You’re just slipping and sliding around. It’s such a unique racetrack with how it’s shaped. There’s a lot that drivers can control at Darlington that you can’t necessarily do at other tracks.”

Unquestionably the team to beat this week is JR Motorsports, which has won the last four NASCAR Xfinity Series races at the notoriously tough 1.366-mile oval.

Veteran Justin Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 JRM Chevrolet, is the defending race winner – holding off his then-teammate Noah Gragson by a slight .259-second in this race last year to hoist his second Darlington trophy in as many years. Allgaier is the only two-time race winner in the field on Saturday and a victory – which would be his first of 2023 – would certainly be huge for him toward his championship run.

Among the title contenders, his two wins, six top-five and 11 top-10 efforts in 15 Darlington starts is easily tops. He’s currently ranked fifth in the standings, 49 points behind leader Austin Hill.

Hill, driver of the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, leads the Xfinity Series with three wins and holds a slight 4-point edge over Joe Gibbs Racing’s John Hunter Nemechek atop the driver standings.

Darlington has been a solid venue for both Hill and his closest competitor in the standings, Nemechek. Both drivers finished inside the top-10 in both races there last year, although neither has won at the track. They are also the only two multiple time winners in 2023. And Nemechek’s 340 laps led this season is best by more than 100 laps over the next closest, Hill.

There are three former Darlington winners in Saturday’s field, including the only multiple winner Allgaier and his first year JRM teammate Brandon Jones, who won in 2020 and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer, who won in 2019.

RCR driver Sheldon Creed finished runner-up in the Fall race at Darlington and has back-to-back NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series victories at the track and should be considered a favorite as well.

A handful of NASCAR Cup Series drivers are entered this week, including 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, who will drive the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. Current NASCAR Cup Series driver standings leader Ross Chastain will drive the No. 91 DGM Racing Chevrolet and Ty Dillon will steer the famed No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

Several teams will be participating in the Darlington’s famed “Throwback Weekend.”

Both Hill’s and his RCR teammate Creed’s Chevrolets will honor former two-time Xfinity Series champion Kevin Harvick with paint schemes reminiscent to Harvick’s 2001 and 2006 title-winning seasons. Custer’s No. 00 Ford will pay tribute to the late driver Jason Leffler and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Riley Herbst’s No. 98 Ford will do the same for the late rally driver Ken Block.

“This means a lot to me,” Custer said of his paint scheme, “especially since I was able to be around this team growing up. He helped grow the team to another level. On top of that, he was a guy who just wasn’t going to take anything from others. He was a legend and one of my heroes growing up. We came from similar open-wheel and dirt-racing backgrounds, so I think it was just easy for me to look up to him.”

“This was a unique scenario,” Herbst said of his scheme. “I just hope it doesn’t get lost because people think we’re running it because it’s a ‘cool’ livery. We wanted to pay tribute to a man who changed the world of motorsports and had such a hand in getting it into mainstream media. This paint scheme means a lot to Monster Energy and to me, so I cannot be more grateful and honored to be the one to run it at Darlington.”

Brett Moffitt’s No. 25 AM Racing Ford will honor the late Tim Richmond’s famous “Folger’s Coffee” car. And Jeffrey Earnhardt’s No. 45 Alpha Prime Racing Chevrolet will carry a paint scheme honoring his late grandfather Dale Earnhardt’s 1997 All-Star Race car.

Fittingly, for the “throwback” theme, it’s a NASCAR Hall of Famer that boasts all the most important Xfinity Series records at Darlington. Mark Martin holds the top mark for wins and pole positions, with eight for both, top fives with 14, top 10s with 18 and laps led with 972.

The green flag for practice waves at 5:05 p.m. ET on Friday, followed immediately by qualifying. Both sessions will be aired live on FS1.

CRAFTSMAN Truck Series features tight competition and stars to beat.

Veteran Grant Enfinger essentially punched his entry card into the 2023 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs with a win last week at Kansas Speedway, leaving only two of the top-six ranked drivers still racing for their first trophy of 2023 as the series heads to Darlington Raceway for Friday night’s Buckle Up South Carolina 200 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Enfinger led a dominating 65 laps in the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet to claim his first victory of the year at Kansas and he heads to Darlington with an impressive resume at the historically tough 1.366-miler. He’s finished sixth or better in all four career starts at the track, including a best showing of third-place last year. His 4.5 average finish is tops among those with at least four starts.

The championship battle between reigning series champ, Front Row Motorsports’ Zane Smith and ThorSport Racing’s Ty Majeski couldn’t be tighter. They are tied in points – but Smith’s two wins gives him the edge in a tiebreaker. Majeski is hoping to hoist his first trophy this weekend. They have similar statistics at Darlington. Smith has top-10 finishes in half of his four starts with a best showing of eighth-place last year but only nine total laps led. Majeski has one top five in two starts – a fourth place last year – and has never led a lap at Darlington.

Ben Rhodes is the only driver among the series regulars to have won at Darlington. In fact, Rhodes won in his very first start at the notoriously tough track in 2020 and answered that with a runner-up showing the next year. The last two races, however, have been a bit disappointing with 34th and 25th-place finishes, respectively. The 2021 series champion and driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Ford is ranked 41 points behind Smith and Majeski in third place. As with Majeski, Rhodes is still looking for that first victory of the season.

Reve Racing’s rookie Nick Sanchez, who is ranked ninth in the championship, leads the series with laps led on the year – the only driver who has topped the 100-laps led mark.

Friday night’s race will include a full field, including former Truck Series champion Johnny Sauter in the No. 04 Roper Racing Ford, NASCAR Cup Series stars Bubba Wallace in the No. 1 TRICON Garage Toyota, Corey LaJoie in the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet, Ross Chastain in the No. 41 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet, and William Byron in the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Chevrolet.

The NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series practice is scheduled for Friday at 3:05 p.m. followed immediately by qualifying. Both sessions will be aired on FS1.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 03: Bayley Currey, driver of the #4 Hy-Vee Chevrolet, Ryan Ellis, driver of the #44 Chevrolet, Josh Williams, driver of the #36 Alloy Employer Services Chevrolet, and JJ Yeley, driver of the #66 Wild Willies Toyota, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Goodyear 400
The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Sunday, May 14
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,722,261
TV: FS1, 1:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.2 miles (293 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 90),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 185), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 293)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Shriners Children’s 200
The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Saturday, May 13
The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,399,187
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200.8 miles (147 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 147)

Next Race: Buckle Up South Carolina 200
The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Friday, May 12
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $690,259
TV: FS1, 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200.8 miles (147 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 147)

Owen Johnson