Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a possible Denny Hamlin rebound, a surging rookie, a less-than-traditional race date and Goodyear tires are just a few of the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 500-mile race at venerable Darlington Raceway.
Darlington a nice chance for Hamlin’s rebound
For all of the positive vibes Denny Hamlin showed at Daytona by winning the Sprint Unlimited, taking his qualifying race and then finishing second in the 500, the momentum seems gone from the No. 11 team.
Hamlin messed up a strong race at Texas with a speeding penalty and finished 13th as a result. Aside from Daytona, he has just one top-10 finish (sixth, Bristol) and came home an uncharacteristic 19th at Martinsville two weeks ago. He also was forced to miss the race at Auto Club Speedway in California after a metal shard in his eye caused vision issues on the day of the race.
Darlington could be his rebound.
Hamlin has finished no worse than 13th in eight career starts at the South Carolina track and nabbed a win in 2010. He’s finished runner-up in the last two Sprint Cup series races there.
A good finish would be timely for Hamlin. Since the sixth at Bristol, Hamlin’s missed race and consecutive mediocre finishes have pushed the No. 11 to 13th in points.
Kyle Larson outperforming 2013 Juan Pablo Montoya
For Kyle Larson — just over two years removed from his first pavement stock car experience — the expectation of his first season of Sprint Cup competition featuring numerous struggling results didn’t seem far-fetched. It made his first finishes of 2014 (38th, 20th and 19th) seem very understandable.
But since then, Larson has poured it on. The No. 42 has three top-10 finishes (and two top 5s) in the last four races. More impressive? Larson’s performance in the first seven races is far outpacing the driver who he replaced in the Chip Ganassi Racing stable — Juan Pablo Montoya.
After seven races a year ago, Montoya had an average running position of 25.6. Larson, to this point in 2014, is more than nine spots better each lap on average at 16.2. The difference is even wider in the last four races year-to-year with Larson’s average running position sitting at 12.7 while Montoya’s was 28.2 a year ago.
Those numerical differences could go a long, long way toward CGR putting a car back in the Chase for the first time since Montoya’s lone appearance in 2009.
Darlington’s date changed again
Consistency and tradition had been a hallmark of NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway since it opened on Labor Day in 1950. The weekend stuck as the traditional date of the Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500 until 2003 when a massive schedule realignment sent NASCAR to California on Labor Day weekend — and left traditionalists steamed.
The track, though, began to build something of a tradition anew. Starting in 2005, it had a consistent date once again as home to a Saturday night race each May during Mother’s Day weekend. Now, it’s been changed again.
Thanks to Kansas Speedway adding lights, NASCAR and ISC swapped the dates for the sister tracks. Kansas will run a night race for the first time during Mother’s Day weekend next month while Darlington moves forward on the scheduled to April.
It’ll be fascinating to see how the shift affects attendance. Not only is the date changed, but Darlington now races the same weekend as sports events nearby including The Masters as well as spring football games for Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.
Recent winners have Darlington poised to continue NASCAR’s streak
Another race, another winner.
A late caution for debris at Texas Motor Speedway nearly ruined Joey Logano’s dominant late-race performance that had him cruising easily to the checkered flag. But Logano made a last-lap pass around Jeff Gordon after the restart to take the win — continuing NASCAR’s quirky streak of a different winner in every race in 2014.
The recent returns at Darlington suggest the streak may just push to eight winners in eight races.
Just one winner in the last decade of Sprint Cup racing at Darlington — that’s 11 races — already has a win this season: Kyle Busch. Otherwise, that list of Darlington winners includes Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Regan Smith, Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle — all names (aside from the non-entered Martin and Smith) who figure to be worthy Darlington picks.
More telling of a potential streak continuation is the top 5 from last May at the track. Kenseth drove to the win with Hamlin second, Gordon third and Johnson fourth. Kevin Harvick, already a winner in 2014, finished fifth last year at Darlington.
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Tires an unlikely concern at Darlington
The buzz before last week’s race at Texas was all about teams concerned that the supplied race tires wouldn’t last, causing crashes and unexpected trips to pit road. Drivers were feeling antsy after suffering through many issues just two weeks prior at the high-speed Auto Club Speedway.
The concerns never manifested into a substantial problem in the rain-postponed race — stopping a potential controversy in its tracks — and have reduced the focus on Goodyear as the supplier tries to stay up with NASCAR’s offseason suspension and downforce rule changes.
Darlington, of course, has a long history of working race tires to their limits. The first race ever held at the track in 1950 was won by Johnny Mantz largely because he was the only driver who opted to race heavy duty truck tires. Other competitors scrambled to find enough tires to finish the 500-mile event. The track’s official history says many drivers even bought tires off the cars of spectators just to finish the race.
Saturday night, teams will use the same left-side compound tire compound in use at the track since 2011 and the same right-side tire they used last May.