Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Preview

By David Morgan, Associate 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

2018 Race Winner:  Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started 13th, 24 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:

  1. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 109.0
  2. Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 108.1
  3. Erik Jones – No. 20 Toyota – 105.7
  4. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 104.5
  5. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 100.9
  6. Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 100.1
  7. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 98.1
  8. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 97.6
  9. Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 92.0
  10. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 89.7

From the Driver’s Seat

“Darlington just has its own persona,” said three-time Darlington winner, Jimmie Johnson. “The Southern 500 has always been a spectacle to see. The track is so difficult and gritty to drive, it can tear you up pretty easy. It’s a long night – and usually a hot one. The throwback theme is a great tribute to the personality and characteristics of Darlington, paying respect to the past. It’s always so much fun walking down pit road before the race. So many have just embraced the concept and go all-in.”

Last Time at Darlington

Kyle Larson looked to be well on his way to ending the night in Victory Lane in last year’s Southern 500 after winning the first two stages and leading 284 laps, but a late race pit stop would be the deciding factor.

Narrowly beating Larson off pit road, Brad Keselowski assumed the lead, which he held onto after the final restart on lap 348 and pulled away for his first win at the famed track.

Larson would be forced to settle for third place after being passed by Joey Logano for the runner-up spot, giving Team Penske a 1-2 finish. Kevin Harvick finished fourth, with Chase Elliott rounding out the top-five.

“It’s pretty damned cool,” Keselowski said. “This is such a special racetrack.  It always has been, and I think it always will be.

“And when we added in all this retro stuff a few years ago, it’s like a spark that just reignited this track as just being stupid cool.  To win here and to win wearing Rusty’s colors and driving his car, I kind of feel like I’m in a dream from when I was 10 years old, you know?

“But it’s something that I’ll carry forever.  It’s probably the biggest win of my career, especially with it being a weekend sweep at one of the toughest tracks on the circuit, and today was no different.  So I’m just really, really thankful, really, really proud, thankful of the team effort that it took to win this race.

“That last pit stop put me in position.  Of course we had to capitalize on it, but we were in position, and the pit crew nailed it.  I got a great launch out of the pit box.  I couldn’t have lead Larson by a foot.  I haven’t seen the pit road cam, but man, that was cool.  I knew if we could get out front, we were really strong on the short runs, not as strong as he was on the long runs, but I knew if we could get out front there with 20 or so to go that we could drive away.  I was just praying every lap there wouldn’t be a caution.  We were setting sail, and just please, no caution, please, no caution, and it came through for us.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, August 30

  • 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, August 31

  • MENCS Qualifying (2:05 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, September 1

  • MENCS Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6:00 pm – 367 laps, 501.3 miles – NBC Sports Network)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s. Learning to love the sport at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993, he has been hooked ever since. David is a National Motorsports Press Association member, having covered races across the country since 2012 and looks forward to visiting every track on the circuit in the near future.