Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Goodyear 400 at Darlington Preview

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

Like Doc Brown and Marty McFly in Back to the Future, the NASCAR Cup Series is time traveling this week, making the jump from the future with the unveiling of the Next Gen cars to celebrating the past with Throwback Weekend at Darlington Raceway.

A staple of the Cup Series since 1950, 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. 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.

Since the track “Too Tough to Tame” regained its Labor Day Weekend slot for the Southern 500 in 2015, the Cup Series has paid tribute to years gone by during that race, but with Darlington earning two race dates this season, the Throwback Weekend moves to the spring race and Sunday’s running of the Goodyear 400.

The move to the spring race weekend was done in part to give each of the two races at Darlington its own identity, with the spring being dedicated to throwbacks, while allowing the Southern 500 to focus on kicking off the Playoffs.

“Darlington Raceway is grateful to our loyal race fans and the entire industry for their unwavering support for the Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR since its inception in 2015,” said Darlington President Kerry Tharp. “It is this support that allows us to now prepare for two scheduled NASCAR Cup Series race weekends next year. As we rally around the return of our new spring race weekend, we will continue to share the history and tradition of our great sport with the Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR.”

Brad Keselowski will lead the field to the green, with Kevin Harvick alongside on the front row. Fresh off his win at Kansas, Kyle Busch will start third, followed by Martin Truex Jr., William Byron, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, and Tyler Reddick to round out the top-10 starters.

By the Numbers

What: Goodyear 400, NASCAR Cup Series race No. 12 of 36

Where: Darlington Raceway – Darlington, South Carolina (Opened: 1950)

TV/Radio: FOX Sports 1, 2:00 pm ET /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: 293 laps, 400.2 miles

Stage Lengths: First stage – 90 laps, Second stage – 95 laps, Final stage – 108 laps

Previous Race Winner:  Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford (Started eighth, 32 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Aric Almirola (184.145 mph, 26.705 secs – 4/11/2014)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Darlington Raceway:

  1. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 111.3
  2. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 106.8
  3. Erik Jones – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 105.7
  4. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 104.8
  5. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 102.8
  6. Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 101.2
  7. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 98.4
  8. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 90.2
  9. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 90.1
  10. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 88.9

From the Driver’s Seat

“The challenge lies within the layout and the asphalt at that track, said Kurt Busch. “The original superspeedway of NASCAR, and how it was built so early on, and it is still part of our schedule, and the unique design of the track and how Turns 3 and 4 are much smaller than Turns 1 and 2. The setup is a compromise all race long. And it’s one of those fun tracks where the closer you run to the wall, the more grip you gain and the more speed you carry. And then it’s the old cliché of race the race track. And we have to do that because it’s so difficult and the tire wear is so high. So, there are a lot of things the driver has to juggle at that race.”

He added that the change to the 750-horsepower, low downforce package this weekend will also be another element for the drivers to have to adapt to on Sunday afternoon.

“That’s a big change. That’s bold of them. I like it. Of course, any time you give a race car driver horsepower, they’ll take it. And then, it’s supposed to be 90 degrees. It’s going to be hot. The track is going to get slick. It’s going to be an old-school Darlington battle. And you might see way more Darlington stripes than you have in the past. It’s a matter of just not being caught off-guard by how slow the car is going to feel, but how you’ve still got to produce your lap time and take care of the tires. So, a lot of unknowns, especially with no practice, going into this weekend.”

Last Time at Darlington

Nothing is guaranteed at Darlington and in last year’s running of the Southern 500, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott found out the hard way.

After leading 196 laps and sweeping the first two stages, Truex and Elliott were battling for the lead with 15 laps to go when the two made contact with each other and then the wall. The ensuing damage forced Truex to have to pit for tires, while Elliott nursed his wounded Chevrolet to the finish.

Their downfall was Kevin Harvick’s gain as the 2014 took the lead on lap 355 and set his sights on a second win in the Southern 500.

As the laps wound down, Harvick had his hands full with the hard charging Austin Dillon filling up his rear-view mirror, but was able to hold him off by .343-seconds to capture his series leading eighth win of the season and punch his ticket into the next round of the Playoffs.

“It was a battle,” Harvick said. “It wasn’t necessarily pretty.  But everybody on our Busch beer Ford Mustang team did a great job tonight keeping us in the race.  Rodney had great strategy.  Our car was extremely loose all night, and we were able to manage to get it better but never really got it going as good as we’d like to.

“But they battled, and we kept ourselves in the right spot.  The leaders got tangled up and we were in position to capitalize on that.  Definitely weren’t the fastest car but definitely put ourselves in a position to capitalize on a moment.”

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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.