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Southern 500 at Darlington Preview and Fantasy NASCAR Predictions

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As NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series ponders the loss of its Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., for the rest of the regular season, observers hope a new star was born last Sunday at Michigan. While no one disputes Kyle Larson’s talent, his inability to get over that Victory Lane hump was beginning to dog him after nearly three years on tour. Some think his first Cup win will open the floodgates, vaulting him to championship contention; the trophy earned this 24-year-old a Chase bid.

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Larson, who’s led a career-best 181 laps this season should also be smack in the middle of your fantasy roster. He’s already contended for victories or won poles at three of the races held this month (Richmond, Chicagoland and Dover) and has earned top-20 results in 11 of the last 13 races. The only blips on the radar have been wrecks not of Larson’s making; wins have a way of turning pesky Lady Luck back around.

So if you’ve got some Yahoo! starts saved up in your league or if you’re able to change race-to-race, the No. 42 car should be right at the top of the list for the foreseeable future. As for NASCAR? Looking hard to replace aging stars, they hope Larson stays at the top of the charts, dragging his and their popularity up along with it.

2016 Southern 500

Time: 6 p.m. ET (Sunday)

Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)

TV: NBC

Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90

Who’s at the Front: Brad Keselowski

Larson may have won the battle Sunday but Keselowski and Team Penske appear set on winning the war. Third at Michigan, the No. 2 team has led laps in seven of the last eight races and has surged to second in points, just 35 behind Kevin Harvick. Keselowski’s four victories are tied for the team lead and placed him an inch ahead of Joey Logano on the current Penske depth chart. Already a series champion, Kes is looking for a second and has showcased the type of versatility you need to succeed in the current Chase.

Who’s at the Back: Clint Bowyer

Bowyer’s one-year stint with HScott Motorsports, his temporary home before replacing Tony Stewart, can’t end fast enough. A broken transmission at Michigan left him dead last, 40 laps off the pace and was his seventh straight finish outside the top 10. Bowyer now sits 27th in points, has led just a single lap all season and has yet to post a top-5 finish. So much for helping the underdog team get its act together.

News Briefs

With the news coming out Friday about Earnhardt’s season being over, Hendrick Motorsports announced Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman will split driving duties on the No. 88 team the rest of the season. Neither driver has been able to snag a top-10 finish since replacing Earnhardt.

Related: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Out for Remainder of NASCAR Season - What's Next?

NASCAR is in mourning over the death of Betty Jane France. The widow of former NASCAR CEO Bill France Jr. passed away this week at the age of 78. Known for her giving nature, the sport’s Humanitarian Award is named in her honor and given to a NASCAR fan who’s made a profound impact on children in his/her local community.

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NASCAR’s Throwback Coverage at Darlington, a hit last year, will continue on NBC Sunday night. Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett will spend some time with Dale Jarrett calling the race action while the announcers will be dressed in throwback suits from an earlier era. Most of the cars you’ll see on-track are posting throwback paint schemes honoring some of the sport’s most famous drivers.

The remnants of Hurricane Hermine have already interrupted on-track action for Darlington this weekend. Qualifying and all on-track activity for Friday has been rained out while Saturday practices appear in jeopardy. The forecast does call for no rain, however allowing NASCAR to avoid yet another clash with Mother Nature.

NASCAR by the Numbers

0

Poles won by Denny Hamlin this season. Despite that, his 6.0 average start leads all drivers through 24 races.

6,580

Laps completed by Trevor Bayne. That’s the most of any driver this season after Kurt Busch’s impressive streak of finishing on the lead lap in 22 straight races came to an end at Bristol.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

Carl Edwards may look like an easy pick as he’s the Southern 500 defending champion. But with fantasy, you want a driver that’s consistent beyond the win total and not just a one-hit wonder. Edwards fits the bill with six straight top-15 finishes at Darlington, a track the series visits only once per season and is part of a Toyota organization running at their best.

Denny Hamlin has made it a point this season to cross some items off his bucket list. So far, he’s earned a Daytona 500 and a road course victory; a second Southern 500 would be nice to add to the trophy case in 2016. More importantly, Hamlin has run top 20 every single time he’s visited Darlington, beginning in 2006, so that makes him a solid Sunday pick.

Middle Tier

There’s so much focus on teammate Kyle Larson this week that it’s easy to forget about Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray. The focus will now center on getting the No. 1 car into the Chase and Darlington is a great place to start solidifying their case. McMurray has three straight top-16 runs there, earned a runner-up result in 2010 and brings momentum with three straight eighth-place finishes in August. Expect him to run slightly better than average at Darlington Sunday.

Lower Tier

It’s been an awful season for Aric Almirola and Richard Petty Motorsports, which announced major changes to its competition department this week in an effort to shake up on-track performance. You almost always see a short-term boost after these types of “executive” shakeups; Darlington gives hope in the form of an 11th-place finish last season. Overall, Almirola has an average result of 18.5 in four starts at the Track Too Tough To Tame and is an appealing pick at a place that won’t often favor down-ballot racers on the list.

What Vegas Thinks

Kevin Harvick is currently the odds-on favorite to win the Southern 500 at 6/1 odds according to Vegasinsider.com. Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are right behind at 7/1.

What I Think

While Harvick should be strong, it’s the time of year where Jimmie Johnson actually gets his act together and morphs into a title contender before the Chase. Johnson, in need of a solid run will sneak through the field and grab his fourth Southern 500 trophy.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Photo by ASP Inc.)