This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
The Track Too Tough to Tame is the next stop on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval, and is really unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway, but somewhere in between. The course has two distinctly different sets of turns. Turns 3 and 4 are much narrower than turns 1 and 2. This is a challenging aspect for crew chiefs as the handling setup for the stock cars is a bit more complex. You have to find a happy "middle ground" for your handling set up so that one set of turns doesn't upset the car. All this combined with the 23 – 25-degree variable banking, and wide racing grooves makes for some of the most exciting, side-by-side racing that NASCAR has to offer. The first thing that the casual fan will notice when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the turns. On most ovals, the preferred line is low and tight to the inside lines, but Darlington is a very unique facility. Most drivers prefer to run the high line right out next to the wall and carry that momentum into the straight-aways as they accelerate coming out of the turns. This historic oval's unique configuration almost always makes the high groove the fastest way around the race track. Considering that we just came from the multi-groove racing at Kansas, we're in for a big change
The Track Too Tough to Tame is the next stop on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Darlington Raceway is an egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval, and is really unlike any other race track on the circuit. It's not an intermediate oval and not a superspeedway, but somewhere in between. The course has two distinctly different sets of turns. Turns 3 and 4 are much narrower than turns 1 and 2. This is a challenging aspect for crew chiefs as the handling setup for the stock cars is a bit more complex. You have to find a happy "middle ground" for your handling set up so that one set of turns doesn't upset the car. All this combined with the 23 – 25-degree variable banking, and wide racing grooves makes for some of the most exciting, side-by-side racing that NASCAR has to offer. The first thing that the casual fan will notice when watching a race at Darlington Raceway is how high the cars run through the turns. On most ovals, the preferred line is low and tight to the inside lines, but Darlington is a very unique facility. Most drivers prefer to run the high line right out next to the wall and carry that momentum into the straight-aways as they accelerate coming out of the turns. This historic oval's unique configuration almost always makes the high groove the fastest way around the race track. Considering that we just came from the multi-groove racing at Kansas, we're in for a big change this weekend. The rim-riding action of Darlington this Sunday afternoon can be as entertaining as any event in the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.
Nearly all the tracks that the NASCAR Cup Series has visited to this point will not be of much help in figuring out Darlington Raceway this weekend. While Darlington is considered a super speedway, the racing is not like any other super speedway on the circuit. So this for this race, the loop data from Darlington Raceway will be an extremely important component in developing a list of fantasy racing drivers. The recent hot streaks coming into the weekend will prove to be a bit of a wrinkle as well, but historical trends should run pretty true. There is small group of drivers that perform well at the South Carolina oval, and as you will see in the table below, they're quite easy to identify. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 17 years or 22 races at Darlington Raceway.
|Driver||Avg. Finish||Quality Passes||# of Fastest Laps||Laps Led||Laps in Top 15||Driver Rating|
|Martin Truex Jr.||12.4||710||523||769||5,532||103.3|
When we take a look at the loop stats in the table above, we immediately notice that there is quite a bit of parity between the different manufacturers and super stables in the NASCAR Cup Series at Darlington. Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota have each visited victory lane in the last four races at the South Carolina oval. Chevrolet halted an 11-race winless streak at the Track Too Tough to Tame with Erik Jones' victory here last September. Joey Logano and Ford visited victory lane at Darlington in this event one year ago and at least temporarily ended Toyota's brief run of wins at the track. Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin had split the 2021 wins at Darlington Raceway, so those two veterans will be pulling out all the stops to get back to their winning ways at the South Carolina oval.
If Ford hopes to get back into victory lane at Darlington Raceway, those hopes will largely ride with Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. The Penske Racing duo have only combined to win one race this season, but they've been painfully close on more than one occasion. If Chevrolet looks to build on their success here, it will most likely be one of the Hendrick drivers such as Kyle Larson or William Byron. Larson in particular loves the high-line racing groove of Darlington and is a strong candidate to win. The picks below are our best bets for fantasy racing success at Darlington Raceway.
The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win
Kyle Larson – Larson has never won at the Track Too Tough to Tame, but he's been painfully close in recent starts. The Hendrick Motorsports star has three runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes at the South Carolina oval since 2016. Larson has led close to 700 laps for his career at Darlington Raceway, so it's a real head scratcher that he's not won here to this point. These recent performances have lowered his career average finish at Darlington to a sparkling 9.2 average. Winning here just seems to be a matter of time for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson is fresh off a runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway this past week, and running in race-winning form. He loves high-line oval racing, and this track plays to that strength.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is a four-time Darlington winner and sports a strong 76-percent Top-10 rate at this track. The 7.5-career average finish leads all active drivers at the Track Too Tough to Tame. The last of Hamlin's four victories at the South Carolina oval came as recently as 2021 and he finished an impressive runner-up there in his last start of September last year. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has been heating up over the last month and it all culminated in his convincing victory at Kansas Speedway this past Sunday. We don't believe for a second that Hamlin is done just yet. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is just too good at Darlington Raceway and whatever performance issues plagued Toyota earlier this season seem to be lifting away.
Martin Truex Jr. – Truex's Darlington history shows two wins and 10 Top 10's in 21-career starts or a steady 48-percent rate. He's led 769 laps at this South Carolina oval, including 76 laps combined in the two events at Darlington one season ago. Truex has been heating up of late and boasts one victory and four Top 10's in his last five races coming to South Carolina this week. He's been one of the hottest drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series in recent weeks. The veteran driver's experience and long history at this challenging raceway will be a real plus this Sunday afternoon. The No. 19 Toyota team has overcome some of the inconsistency issues they had earlier this season and now Truex appears ready to challenge for wins on these mid-size and smaller ovals.
William Byron – Riding a three-race Top-10 streak into Darlington Raceway, Byron has to be confident ahead of Sunday's Goodyear 400. The Hendrick Motorsports youngster won the pole last weekend at Kansas Speedway, led 10 laps and finished an impressive third-place in the AdventHealth 400. That's a good last look heading into Darlington weekend. Byron now has nine-career starts at Darlington Raceway with one pole position and three Top 10's in his last five visits. Last season alone, Byron led 74 combined laps in the two Darlington races. While the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has yet to scratch the win column at the Track Too Tough to Tame, he's been flirting with that prospect. Also, this may be the most momentum he and his team have brought into a Goodyear 400.
Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win
Ross Chastain – The Trackhouse Racing veteran rides a two-race Top-5 streak into South Carolina this week, coming off runner-up and fifth-place finishes at Dover and Kansas. It's clear that the No. 1 Chevrolet team is heating up. Chastain hasn't had stellar success at Darlington Raceway, but he's just one season removed from his career-best third-place finish in the fall of 2021. He's been rounding into shape ever since the NASCAR Cup Series departed the short track portion of the spring schedule and resumed racing on intermediate and larger ovals. That's a good sign heading into Sunday's Goodyear 400. Chastain and this race team have what it takes to challenge the Top 5 at the Track Too Tough to Tame.
Kyle Busch – Busch's recent inconsistency has seemed to be immune to the intermediate and larger ovals. Those are the tracks where he's had the most success this season. This oval has not been his best over the years, but recent visits have been attention-getting. Busch led 174 combined laps in the two Darlington races last season, but an engine failure and crash would nullify those efforts. Looking back at his history at Darlington, we see a strong 59-percent Top-10 rate and nearly 900-career laps led with a respectable average finish of 13.7. He would seem poised to rebound at Darlington Raceway. We have a lot of expectations for Busch and the No. 8 team this Sunday afternoon.
Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports star is now four starts into his comeback from a broken leg and has been getting sharper with each start. Elliott earned his second Top 10 in those four starts with his strong seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway this past week. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has just a pedestrian 42-percent career Top-10 rate at Darlington Raceway, but he did finish a strong fifth-place in this event one year ago. Those notes will surely come in handy for the No. 9 Chevrolet team. We don't expect Elliott to be a big lap leader or stage winner this Sunday afternoon, but he should have little trouble sticking inside the Top 10 and mixing it up among the lead pack.
Joey Logano – Logano has been a decent performer so far on the intermediate ovals, but not a world beater, so we've slid him into the sleepers list this week. The driver of the No. 22 Ford most recently forged a strong sixth-place finish at the Kansas oval this past weekend. Logano has 10 Top 10's in 18-career starts at Darlington Raceway for a strong 56-percent rate and 13.0 average finish. The Penske Racing star rides a three-race Darlington Top-10 streak into this weekend at the Track Too Tough to Tame, so he's been a bit better here of late. Coming off an encouraging sixth-place finish at Kansas Speedway this past weekend, we really like Logano and the No. 22 team to keep it rolling in South Carolina.
Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Darlington & solid upside
Christopher Bell – Bell comes to South Carolina this week with a win and three Top-10 finishes in the last five events, and he's climbed from seventh- to second-place in the driver standings as a result. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster was looking good at Kansas this past week, but fell prey to someone else's mistake and crashed out. Bell should rebound solidly at Darlington Raceway. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota claimed his best-career finishes at the Track Too Tough to Tame last season. Bell earned sixth- and fifth-place finishes in his two starts. Up until those efforts, he really hadn't distinguished himself at the egg-shaped oval. We're willing to bet those races and the lessons learned will be employed by Bell this Sunday.
Tyler Reddick – The driver of the No. 45 Toyota has put together a nice two-race Top-10 streak entering the Goodyear 400. With Dover and Kansas having produced those results, we're quite optimistic about Reddick's prospects for Darlington Raceway. In seven-career starts at the South Carolina oval, Reddick has nabbed two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes. The two Top 5's are noteworthy as they both came in last season's two races at the egg-shaped oval. He now boasts and average finish of 11.1 at the Track Too Tough to Tame, and that puts Reddick at the upper tier of drivers in terms of performance here. The 23XI Racing youngster is on a roll and visiting one of his favorite ovals this weekend.
Josh Berry – Berry will once again race in relief of the injured Alex Bowman in the No. 48 Chevrolet this weekend. The young driver had a subpar performance at Kansas this past week, but when we look back to two weeks ago, he nabbed a steady 10th-place finish at the high banks of Dover. He's cracking the Top 10 this season in 43-percent of his stars, and that's not bad for a driver will as little Cup Series experience as Berry. The No. 48 team and Bowman racked up a 10th-place finish in their last Darlington performance in last September's Southern 500. That team experience will be valuable for young driver Berry. He'll once again present great fantasy racing value in the deeper tier drivers.
Austin Dillon – The Richard Childress Racing veteran has always liked the high-groove racing style at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Dillon has five Top 10's and eight Top 15's in 13-career starts at Darlington Raceway. His 12.3-career average finish at this facility really tells the tale. Dillon has not been stellar on intermediate tracks in 2023, but he did post a respectable 10th-place at Kansas Speedway this past weekend. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet boasts a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last three Darlington starts. One of those was a strong ninth-place finish in this event one year ago. We believe Dillon and his team presents steady value and a lot of upside in this 400-mile battle in South Carolina.
Daniel Suarez – Inconsistency has been the word for Suarez so far this season, but he's been quite steady on the intermediate and larger ovals. The driver of the No. 99 Chevrolet is coming off a steady Top-15 at Kansas this past Sunday and he boasts a Top-10 finish at Las Vegas earlier this season. In his last three Darlington Raceway starts, Suarez has earned one Top-10 and two Top-15 finishes for an average finish of 13.7 across the span. He's been racing and maintaining the lead lap in these Darlington races and getting good results. This event one year ago saw Suarez qualify mid-pack and cruise to an easy 10th-place finish in last season's Goodyear 400.
Chris Buescher – The Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing veteran has two Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in his last four events entering Darlington weekend. That level of competitive racing has helped him climb from 16th- to 13th-place in the championship driver standings. Buescher's best tracks this season have been the intermediate and larger ovals. He doesn't have the career-long success at Darlington Raceway that we'd like to see, but his recent visits have been encouraging. Two of his last four starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame have netted a pair of ninth-place finishes. We believe Buescher and the No. 17 Ford team present some deeper driver tier value for the Goodyear 400.
Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week
Ryan Blaney – Blaney had a three-race Top-10 streak snapped at Kansas this past week with his subpar 16th-place finish in the AdventHealth 400. The Penske Racing youngster will look to bounce back at the Track Too Tough to Tame. It could be a very tall order though. Darlington Raceway has been one of the stubbornest and challenging ovals of his nine-season career. Blaney's 12 starts at Darlington have netted just one Top-10 finish and five Top-15 finishes. His average finish for his career at this oval is an inflated 18.6. The driver of the No. 12 Ford collected 17th- and 13th-place finishes in his two Darlington starts last season. We believe it's a good weekend to move Blaney to the bench this round.
Ryan Preece – Preece has not found the transition back into the Cup Series an easy one this year. We're 12 races into the season, and he's yet to find the Top 10. Preece limps into Darlington weekend a distant 28th-place in the driver point standings. The Track Too Tough to Tame promises to be a tough animal for this struggling driver. With no Top-20 finishes on the intermediate and larger ovals this season, the No. 41 Ford team are suspect coming to South Carolina this week. Preece just posted a disappointing 27th-place finish at Kansas Speedway this past Sunday. His six-career starts at Darlington Raceway have netted just one Top-15 finish and a subpar 22.5 average finish. We're recommending the bench for Preece until he can turn things around.
Aric Almirola – The 13-percent career Top-10 rate and 17.3 average finish for Almirola at Darlington speak volumes. While he's been steadier later in his career at this facility, it's still not one of his better ovals. Almirola has struggled this season with consistency and the intermediate and larger ovals have been a part of those struggles. The Stewart Haas veteran has a 23.2 average finish this year on the mid- and larger ovals. Almirola has had some success this season on the short tracks, however, that's not what we're engaged in this weekend. His prospects for a Top-15 finish at Darlington Raceway are pretty low indeed.
Michael McDowell – After a stellar 2022 season, McDowell and the No. 34 team seem to have run headlong into the wall this year. With just one Top-10 finish to this point and an average finish that's three spots higher than last season's average finish of 16.7, McDowell is struggling. The veteran Front Row Motorsports driver is mired in a five-race Top-10 drought and looking for answers coming into Darlington. McDowell just posted a subpar 26th-place finish at Kansas this past week, so his prospects aren't great. The Track Too Tough to Tame has been stingy for him as well. While he did enjoy a pair of Top 10's there last season, that was clearly a different campaign compared to this one. Those are the only Top 10's of his career at the oval in 15 starts (13-percent). The 26.0 average finish for McDowell at Darlington seems to be a spot-on indicator for Sunday.