Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

After a weekend in Michigan, the NASCAR Sprint 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 last season.

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, using logos from the 1980’s, as well as having the broadcasters in attire from that time period. Legendary broadcasters Ned Jarrett and Ken Squier will also join the broadcast during portions of Sunday’s race.

With the Southern 500 falling as the penultimate race in the regular season, there are still three positions in the Chase yet to be claimed by race winners, making Darlington key in the Chase hopes of the drivers who have yet to lock themselves in.

From the Driver’s Seat

“The respect Darlington commands is incredible. Competing there is no easy feat. To qualify well requires a lot of bravery, to win there requires a lot of smarts. It’s a tough track -hence the name its given- and she requires a lot of respect. I’m pumped to run the throwback scheme. This is the second year and it’s so cool to walk through the garage and see the creativity that all the teams and sponsors have put into the weekend. Every year I see it getting better and better,” said Jimmie Johnson.

Last Time at Darlington

Though Brad Keselowski led a lion’s share of the race with 196 laps led, Edwards was able to charge through the field from two laps down to move into second when the final caution of the night flew with just 12 laps remaining. Edwards was able to beat Keselowski off of pit road and was able to master the restart, pulling away for the final eight laps to score his first career win at Darlington.

“Our guys never quit. JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) is unbelievable. These guys have been working so hard. I cannot thank ARRIS enough and I know a lot of fans came down to enjoy this race. It’s the 75th Cup win for Toyota – Toyota, TRD (Toyota Racing Development) – everyone has been so amazing. We started this team and they all believed in us – Stanley, Subway, Comcast Business, XFINITY, all the fans and Sprint. Jeff Burton – the first time I came here we sat and watched tape at Jack Roush’s office at his shop and I just can’t thank everyone enough that helped me. Darian (Grubb, crew chief) did a great job,” said Edwards.

The win also marks the 25th career win for Edwards and the 75th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win for Toyota.

Keselowski would end the night in second, followed by Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Martin Truex, Jr., and Kyle Larson to round out the remainder of the top-10.

“I needed to be a little bit better everywhere. Needed to be better on the restarts and a little better probably because I brushed the wall a little bit there. I just needed to be a little bit better everywhere to have a shot at the win,” Keselowski said.

Who to Watch

  • Denny Hamlin – When it comes to Darlington, Denny Hamlin has been one of the best in his career at the track and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down anytime soon. In 10 starts, Hamlin has one win (2010), five top-five finishes, eight top-10 finishes, 414 laps led, and an average finish of 6.5.
  • Kyle Larson – After his win at Michigan last weekend, Larson comes into Darlington with a ton of momentum at a track that he has run well at in the past. Larson has just two starts at Darlington, but finished in the top-10 in both races, leading three laps last year, to give him an average finish of 9.0.
  • Jimmie Johnson – Though Johnson struggled to a 19th place finish with the current package at Darlington last season, the No. 48 team and Chevrolet as a whole seems to be turning a corner as they head to the Lady in Black this weekend. Johnson has three wins at Darlington (2004 sweep and 2012), nine top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, 551 laps led, and an average finish of 9.1 in 17 starts.
  • Jeff Gordon – Making what should be his final Darlington start, Gordon will look to take the No. 88 team to victory lane in relief of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this weekend. Gordon has been stellar at Darlington over the years, scoring seven wins at the track (1995, 1996 sweep, 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2007), along with 19 top-five finishes, 23 top-10 finishes, four poles, 1744 laps led, and an average finish of 11.5 in 35 starts.
  • Carl Edwards – As the defending winner of this race, Edwards will look to add to his 2016 win total to gain some additional bonus points for the Chase as his No. 19 team hopes to go back to back. Along with his 2015 win, Edwards has four top-five finishes, eight top-10 finishes, 109 laps led, and an average finish of 11.6 in 12 starts.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, September 2

  • NSCS Practice (1:30 pm to 2:25 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • NSCS Final Practice (3:30 pm to 4:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Saturday, September 3

  • NSCS Qualifying (1:45 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, September 4

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

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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.

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