By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
After a weekend off to recharge the batteries before making the final 12 race push to finish off the season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to one of the crown jewels on the circuit, Darlington Raceway, for this weekend’s running of the Bojangles’ Southern 500.
Darlington Raceway has been a staple of the Cup Series since opening in 1950 for its annual Labor Day weekend event with the Southern 500 being held on that date until a controversial decision was made to move the race away from Labor Day weekend in 2003. After 12 years away from its Labor Day slot on the schedule, NASCAR made the popular decision to move the race back to its rightful place beginning in 2015.
Many elements to Darlington make it a special track. From the egg-shape of the track that features one end narrower than the other as a result of building the track around the old minnow pond located next to the facility. As well as the preferred line around the track being next to the wall, resulting in the infamous “Darlington Stripe” being plastered along nearly every car in the field by the time the race is complete.
Along with the race being a favorite among drivers, fans, and media alike, the series has taken on the return to Labor Day with a throwback weekend that will feature drivers in throwback paint schemes that have been run throughout the years.
With the Southern 500 falling as the penultimate race in the regular season, there are still positions in the playoffs yet to be claimed by race winners, making Darlington key in the hopes of the drivers who have yet to lock themselves in.
By the Numbers
What: Bojangles’ Southern 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race No. 25 of 36
Where: Darlington Raceway – Darlington, South Carolina (Opened: 1950)
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 6:00 pm ET Sunday/MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval
Banking: Turns 1-2: 25 degrees; Turns 3-4: 23 degrees; Straights: 6 degrees
Race Length: 367 laps, 501.3 miles
Stage Lengths: First two stages – 100 laps each, Final stage – 167 laps
2017 Race Winner: Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota (Started ninth, 124 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Aric Almirola – No. 43 Ford (184.145 mph, 26.705 secs – 4/11/2014)
Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Darlington Raceway:
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 110.3
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 105.1
- Erik Jones – No. 20 Toyota – 103.1
- Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 100.8
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 100.4
- Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 100.2
- Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 98.8
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 95.7
- Matt Kenseth – No. 6 Ford – 93.4
- Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 93.1
From the Driver’s Seat
It’s just a tough place,” said Chase Elliott. “There are a lot of things that make it tough. Running up by the wall is a difficult thing to do there. The racetrack is just so worn out, tough to run up there all night and not hit it. Nowadays if you hit the wall at all with these cars, it really can destroy your day – tough thing to do. Then obviously racing from the daylight to the dark and that it is a long race in general, too. A lot of challenges come with it, but we will just try to hit them head on.”
Last Time at Darlington
After winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Darlington with a last lap pass on Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin headed into the main event looking for the weekend sweep, but despite having one of the fastest cars on track, he almost gave the win away.
Hamlin would lead 121 of the first 313 laps, but it was a pit road miscue on lap 313 that set up what could only be classified as the comeback of the year.
As Hamlin headed toward pit road for a green flag pit stop, he couldn’t get slowed up in time, missing the entry to pit road and having to make another lap before making his stop. The miscue meant that Hamlin was upwards of 20 seconds behind race leader Martin Truex, Jr. with about 50 laps to go.
Even with the massive deficit between himself and Truex, Hamlin buckled down and began picking his way through the field, inching ever closer to Truex as the laps ticked away. With a handful of laps remaining, Hamlin was filling the rear-view mirror of Truex’s car – obviously the faster of the two cars.
Truex would eventually blow a tire with two laps to go, but even without that, it was going to be tough for Truex to keep Hamlin at bay.
So, how did Hamlin pull off the comeback?
“Drove our ass off,” said Hamlin. “That’s as hard as I could drive.
“This is the Southern 500. It doesn’t get much bigger than this. This is the granddaddy of them all. This has so much history. I’m so happy to be in victory lane at Darlington. This is where I got my very first start in Joe Gibbs Racing, so this track, these fans means a lot to me.
“It means everything to me. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, this is a throwback to my history – this is for Roy Hendrick, Bugs Hairfield, Wayne Patterson, Eddie Johnson, the short track guys that I grew up watching. This was a throwback to them. Back in 1985 and 1989, I was at Southside Speedway in the stands watching them race and learning everything I could from them and this is a throwback to them and their history.”
Unfortunately for Hamlin, his weekend sweep was ruled as encumbered by the sanctioning body as a result of suspension issues found in post-race inspection and he would be stripped of the points and benefits of the win, but still kept the trophy for both races.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, August 31
- MENCS Practice (2:05 pm to 2:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
- MENCS Final Practice (4:05 pm to 4:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Saturday, September 1
- MENCS Qualifying (2:00 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Sunday, September 2
- MENCS Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6:00 pm – 367 laps, 501.3 miles – NBC Sports Network)