NASCAR Cup Series Preview: Darlington

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There is perhaps no safer place to be, within the grip of a global pandemic, than the alone in the driver’s seat of your trusty car. Windows up, the solo passenger, the virus has no means of spread. The only danger is not getting into an accident.

Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that as professional leagues of team sports in the United States continue to grapple with a myriad of obstacles standing in the way of their return to the field of play, it will be motorsports, with its uniquely individualized construct, that beats everyone back to something approaching sports normalcy.

NASCAR’s Cup Series makes its triumphant return to the oval this Sunday in South Carolina at the historic Darlington Raceway, with the running of the 400-mile race over 292 laps. The race, which will be the first since March 8 – before the coronavirus outbreak forced all sports in the United States into an indefinite pause beginning March 11 – will air on FOX at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.

For the past month, Fox had been airing the iRacing Series on weekends, with actual NASCAR drivers running simulated races. Now, the racing will be for real, even if the stands will be empty of fans and strict social distancing guidelines will be enforced for pit crew members, race officials and media.

So, while the atmosphere around the race will have an eerie quality – and the race will take place without the usual practice days and qualifying laps that form the basis for the driver lineup -- the race itself will be most familiar to drivers and TV viewers.

The oddly shaped 1.3-mile Darlington track has long been a favorite of Denny Hamlin (Vegas odds: 13-2), and he is one of two heavy favorites among the picks and parlays for Sunday’s race.  In the last 14 Cup Series events at Darlington, dating back to 2006, Hamlin is the only two-time winner, in 2010 and 2017. His average finish of 7.8 over 14 career Cup starts towers over the field. 

Kevin Harvick (13-2), the other top Vegas pick, has struggled to find his way around Darlington, but over the last seven years he’s been consistently finished strong. Harvick has top-five finishes in six of the last seven Cup Series events at Darlington and his other finish during that span was a ninth-place run. His only career victory at the track came in 2014. 

For his reputation as one of NASCAR’s most talented pure drivers, Kyle Busch (5-1) sits among the favorites heading into the weekend. Busch has one career Cup Series victory at Darlington (2008) and four career top-five finishes over 15 career starts at the track dating back to 2005. Overall Busch has an average finish of 11.1 in Darlington Cup Series events. 

Brad Keselowski (9-1) has shown a knack for finding the fast lane around the tricky Darlington layout. Keselowski has one Cup Series win there (2018), four top-five’s and an average finish of 10.7 over 11 series starts. 

Martin Truex Jr. (8.5-1) has a Cup Series win in 2016 at Darlington, but has struggled in the last two years. Over 14 career events at Darlington, Truex has an average finish of 11.6, but he’s finished outside of the top-10 in four of the last seven events. 

Despite having only three career Cup Series starts at Darlington, Erik Jones (19-1) got the second of his two career Cup Series victories in 2019. In his three career starts he also has a fifth place and an eighth-place finish.  

Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (23-1) is the only driver in the field with more than two victories at Darlington. Johnson had a pair of wins in 2004 – back when Darlington still ran two events annually –and also won in 2012. In 21 career starts at Darlington, Johnson has an average finish of 12.1 and has finished in the top-10 in 12 events. 

The lineup for Sunday’s race will be determined in part by a random draw for starting positions:

-- Positions 1-12 will be determined by a random draw from charter teams in those positions in team owner points.

-- Positions 13-24: Random draw among charter teams in those positions in owner points.

-- Positions 25-36: Random draw among charter teams in those positions in owner points.

-- Positions 37-40 will be filled out by open, non-chartered teams in order of owner points.

The starting lineup for the next Cup Series event, scheduled May 20 at Darlington, will use the finishing order from May 17 as the basis for the lineup with one inversion:

-- Starting positions 1-20: The top 20 finishers from the May 17 event will be inverted for the start of the May 20 race.

-- Starting positions 21-40: The bottom 20 finishers from the May 17 event will start from their finishing positions for the start of the May 20 race; any new entries will be placed at the tail of the field.

By JEFF GOLDBERG

Editor, SportsIntel.com

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