Darlington Raceway is the site of this weekend's Goodyear 400, the perfect setting for NASCAR's annual Throwback Weekend. Here to preview the Cup Series' version of Halloween is Frontstretch.com's Zach Sturniolo.
Cars will be donned in paint schemes of eras gone by in stock-car racing's history, from Corey LaJoie's No. 7 Zerex Chevrolet in honor of 1992 champion owner and driver Alan Kulwicki all the way to Bubba Wallace's No. 23 Toyota which will honor Wendell Scott, NASCAR's pioneering Black driver.
The vehicles will even be running a throwback package, so to speak, as this year's Darlington events feature the 750 horsepower package as opposed to the 2020 races which used 550 HP motors. More power and less downforce mean drivers will be fighting for grip — and to avoid contacting the wall for a Darlington stripe — around the harrowing narrow lanes of the South Carolinian stock car staple.
NASCAR ran an unprecedented three races around the egg-shaped 1.336-mile track in 2020 to accommodate for canceled races across the schedule amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Defending series champion Chase Elliott was fast in all three contests but left with only one top five to show for it, a fourth-place finish in NASCAR's first race back from a 10-week hiatus. Four days later, Elliott was wrecked by Kyle Busch just before the race was ended for rain before a 20th-place result in the Labor Day Southern 500.
Perhaps, though, Kevin Harvick should be the driver we focus on heading into Sunday's (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1) race. Harvick won two of the three races at Darlington last season, and despite his uncharacteristically rough start to 2021, rebounded last week at Kansas Speedway for a season-best second-place finish. Any time Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers have some semblance of momentum, the field should be on high alert.
Winning the second and shortest Darlington race last year, of course, was Denny Hamlin. The current Cup Series points leader is a true ace of "The Lady in Black," posting three victories, nine top fives and 13 top 10s in 17 Darlington starts with wins in two of the last four years.
Surely those three will be strong contenders come Sunday. Yet Elliott, Harvick and Hamlin all remain winless through 11 races of the 2021 season while 10 others have already found ways to victory lane.
Pencil those three into the playoffs now — there is zero chance any of those guys miss the postseason. Certainly, though, time is moving right along. We're nearly halfway through the regular season, and chances to add playoff points — a cushion throughout a playoff run — are dwindling rapidly. That could mean an early exit if other drivers start racking up multiple victories before they claim their first.
Those are the guys who know what it's like to win. What about a guy who is looking for his first taste of triumph in the Cup Series? A guy like Tyler Reddick?
Reddick was the unfortunate victim of an uncontrolled tire penalty last weekend at Kansas, the tire of which became a hot-button topic across NASCAR fans and media members after officials waited 15 laps to display the caution flag for debris.
With that in his rearview mirror, Reddick looks to excel this weekend at a track that perfectly fits his driving style: ripping the high line against the wall on a track with an abrasive surface. That technique earned him a second-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway in March. Can it work for him this weekend at Darlington?
So what's it going to be this weekend? Will we get a throwback winner with a veteran who's been there before? Or will we get a look at NASCAR's future with a new victor instead?
Date: Sunday, May 9
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin knows how to get around Darlington better than almost anybody in the field. Being in elite equipment helps too. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six of the last 13 races at this notoriously difficult track. And while Hamlin hasn't found a way to victory lane yet this year, his stat lines have been ludicrously good: eight top fives and only three finishes outside the top 10: 11th at Homestead, 12th at Kansas and 32nd at Talladega Superspeedway.
Good runs elsewhere don't often equate to strong performances at Darlington. But Hamlin may just be an exception to that rule.
Who's at the Back: Joey Logano
What a rough two weeks it has been for Logano. On April 25, he was sent flying through the air before landing on his roof at Talladega and finished 39th. At Kansas, the No. 22 team was a complete non-factor while his Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney were contenders all day. On top of battling food poisoning, Logano finished 17th. Even Matt DiBenedetto, Wood Brothers Racing's driver and a Team Penske affiliate, came home with a top five.
Logano will need a bounce-back run this weekend at Darlington to regain some traction after his worst two races of 2021. Luckily for him, he's already got a victory at the Bristol dirt race to lock him into the playoffs.
NASCAR unveiled its look of the future on Wednesday with the Next Gen versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang and Toyota Camry. The looks are radically different, as are the specifications of the cars as a majority of parts will now come from common vendors as opposed to being made in-house.
Four tracks announced this week they will be back to full capacity next time the Cup Series hits town. Pocono Raceway announced Tuesday its June 26-27 doubleheader weekend will operate under 100 percent capacity. On Friday, Daytona International Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Darlington announced its COVID capacity limits would also be lifted for their events later this season.
In sad news, former NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Eric McClurepassed away Sunday at the age of 42. The nephew of famed former Cup Series team co-owner Larry McClure, Eric McClure made 288 career starts in the sport's second-tier Xfinity Series with a career-best finish of eighth at Daytona in 2013.
NASCAR By the Numbers
Sunday's race marks the seventh year of NASCAR's throwback celebration. Since then, four throwback schemes have found their ways into victory lane: Hamlin twice, Erik Jones in 2019 and Harvick one year ago.
The Goodyear 400 will be the 12th race of the season and already 10 drivers have punched their tickets into the postseason. That means only six spots remain unclaimed with over half the regular seasons still remaining. One, of course, will go to the regular-season champion. The other five may come from winners we've yet to see.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick is the driver that needs to be on your fantasy lineup this weekend. The 2014 Cup Series champion has an unbelievable streak of nine straight top 10s at Darlington dating back to 2013, a period that includes three wins (2014, 2020 twice) and eight top fives. In fact, Harvick has five straight top-five finishes and with 201 laps led over that span at the track "Too Tough to Tame." I think someone forgot to tell Harvick.
You also may be tired of reading Denny Hamlin's name in this preview, but with a win and two top fives in his last three Darlington starts, Hamlin should be on your radar this weekend. His recent laps-led total isn't impressive — just 31 laps led over the past four races — but somehow, the No. 11 Toyota finds its way to the front.
Consider throwing Kyle Busch onto your list as well. In 18 starts, the two-time Cup champion has finished in the top 10 an astounding 12 times, including in five of the last seven races. Busch led 118 laps in 2019, but don't expect him to lead a ton this year. Those were his only laps led in the last four Darlington races. Nonetheless, Busch will be up front this weekend.
Related: Best Darlington Raceway Drivers for DraftKings
William Byron has found amazing consistency with rookie Cup crew chief Rudy Fugle atop the pit box, becoming the youngest driver in NASCAR history to claim nine straight top-10 finishes after last week's ninth-place run at Kansas. Darlington has proved tricky for the driver of the No. 24 car, but he earned his best finish at the track in last year's Southern 500 by coming home fifth. With newfound confidence and momentum, keep Byron as an option this week.
Tyler Reddick may be another guy to keep an eye on this weekend. As a rookie in 2020, Reddick posted an excellent top-10 run in his Darlington debut by finishing seventh. However, the following two races at "The Lady in Black" resulted in finishes of 13th and 23rd respectively. He and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon have shown recent speed though, and Dillon finished second here last fall. Both may sneak their way toward the front this weekend.
Erik Jones found his way to this section last week at Kansas, but Darlington is one of the two tracks at which Jones has won. The 2019 Southern 500 winner has one win, four top fives and six top 10s in six Darlington starts. You read that right. Jones has never finished outside the top 10 in his Cup career at one of the most treacherous tracks on the circuit. His streak is in jeopardy in Richard Petty Motorsports equipment, but a win in Wednesday night's eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series shouldn't hurt momentum.
Ryan Newman is worth your consideration too. In his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Newman was extraordinarily consistent last year, finishing 15th, 14th and 15th at Darlington. He's also finished in the top 20 in nine of his last Darlington starts, which should nicely pad your fantasy lineup this week.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson is the odds-on favorite at 9/2 according to vegasinsider.com. That shouldn't come as a surprise considering Larson has finishes of third, 14th, second and third in his last four Darlington starts. Keep in mind, though, that he missed all three Darlington races in 2020 after his suspension. Behind Larson are Denny Hamlin at 6/1, Kevin Harvick at 7/1 and Martin Truex Jr. at 15/2 odds.
Looking for a long shot? Austin Dillon, who finished second here in September, is listed at 50/1 odds.
What I Think
Kevin Harvick will be in the mix, but winning a third Darlington race in four tries seems unlikely. Give me Denny Hamlin to finally close out a race and lock himself into the playoffs.