Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Preview

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.

There are many elements to Darlington that 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 and 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. In addition to the throwback paint schemes, NBC will feature throwback elements to their broadcast, as well as having the broadcasters in attire from that time period.

With the Southern 500 falling as the penultimate race in the regular season, there are still three 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

2016 Race Winner:  Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota (Started eighth, 28 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 – 107.9 – 1 win
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 104.2 – 1 win
  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 102.1 – 3 wins
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 99.6 – 1 win
  • Kyle Larson – No. 42 Chevrolet – 96.6 – Best finish: 3rd
  • Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 96.5 – 1 win
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 95.5 – Best finish: 2nd
  • Kasey Kahne – No. 5 Chevrolet – 95.4 – Best finish: 3rd
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 94.0 – Best finish: 2nd
  • Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 93.6 – Best finish: 2nd

From the Driver’s Seat

“It’s a challenging track,” said Danica Patrick. “It’s probably one of the toughest that we have on our schedule. There are four completely different corners and you’re typically entering them at high speed and usually right up against the wall. There is very minimal room for error, which is how you end up with the famous ‘Darlington Stripe.’ You have to definitely be aggressive and get the most out of it, but you don’t want to hit the wall because that’s a pretty big setback. It helps to have a good setup to start out with and from there you do your best to keep your bumpers clean so you don’t have tire rubs, accidents and things like that. In the Southern 500, there are usually a lot of cautions and a lot of things happen, so there’s a lot of opportunity for things to change and for you to try something different. It’s definitely our longest race of the year, so you have to be patient and not make mistakes so that you’re still in it at the end.”

Last Time at Darlington

Throughout the night in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington, Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Chevrolet, sporting a Cale Yarborough throwback paint scheme, was a familiar sight at the front of the field, but a late race pit road miscue ended Harvick’s hopes for a second Darlington win.

Starting on pole after qualifying was cancelled due to Tropical Storm Hermine, Harvick took off in the lead like a bullet from a gun when the green flag dropped and was untouchable for the first 93 laps of the race. Though Harvick lost the lead to Brad Keselowski at lap 94, he was right back in the lead 45 laps later for another 111 laps out front to give him 204 laps led in the first 251 laps of the race.

Harvick would fall from the lead during the fifth and sixth cautions of the day, but cycled right back to the front at lap 273 for a nine lap stint in the lead. Subsequent cautions would allow other drivers to take over the lead as the laps continued to wind down, but Harvick battled right back to challenge Martin Truex, Jr. for the lead just prior to the final caution of the day at lap 350.

It was under that final caution that Harvick’s pit road troubles would rear their ugly head. While he was getting his car serviced, a lug nut gun malfunctioned, causing Harvick to lose multiple positions with just 16 laps to go.

While Harvick’s crew faltered in the moment that mattered the most, Truex’s crew shined, keeping him out front for the final 16 laps as he went on to win his first Southern 500.

“This is just – this is unbelievable,” said Truex. “So many people to thank obviously. I’ve always loved this race track. I’ve led a lot of laps here in my career. I feel like just something always happened and just so proud to get to victory lane with this group. The pit crew was flawless tonight. They won us the race. They took a lot of heat from last week with what happened. I’m glad he’s (Ryan Newman) not riding home with me – he’d be waiting a while. But just a big weekend for us to – we’ve had a terrible string of back luck. We’ve had super-fast race cars.”

“Auto-Owners Insurance, this is their second race with us and one more with us this year and really excited for them. They went a little retro. I’ve got my zoot suit. This is something here that’s really special to us – I ran this wheel today and it’s real special to take that thing to victory lane. We do a lot with our foundation for ovarian and pediatric cancer. It’s awareness month for both of those diseases, so big day for us there, but just can’t say enough about this team and Barney Visser (team owner) and Toyota and TRD (Toyota Racing Development) – the engines have been unbelievable this year – and Bass Pro Shops and Furniture Row, Denver Mattress and everybody that’s made this possible. Cole Pearn (crew chief) and these guys are just amazing.”

“I knew when the bad luck would stop coming we’d start racking them off and tonight we weren’t the best car for once and we actually won, so that was really cool and just couldn’t be more excited to win at Darlington, the Southern 500. I’ve been wanting to win this thing a long time and got to thank Sprint, the fans were great – tons of fans here today – and really excited. Glad they stuck around for a good finish and I don’t know – I could go on and on for hours I guess.”

Harvick battled back to finish second, with Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano rounding out the top-five.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, September 1

  • MENCS Practice (1:00 to 1:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • MENCS Final Practice (3:30 pm to 4:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Saturday, September 2

  • MENCS Qualifying (2:00 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, September 3

  • 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 and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.