NASCAR Faces The Track Too Tough To Tame

“The Track Too Tough To Tame” is what TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, called the Darlington Raceway in South Carolina that will host this week’s installment in the Sprint Cup Series on Saturday night (6:30 PM ET, Fox). And the recent history here backs that nickname up. Over the past five years, we’ve had five different winners of the Bojangles Southern 500 and with those winners including Regan Smith in 2011 and Mark Martin in 2009, it hasn’t just been the big names taking turns.

“It’s a really unique track,” Bill told me this afternoon as he ran his long-haul truck run through Wyoming. “One corner is wider than the other and it’s very tight.” As we’ve discussed in previous articles, the tight track makes passing difficult and that means for NASCAR drivers, getting an early lead is as important on a track like Darlington, as it would be for the Phillies and Giants in a game with Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum on the mound. The track in fact, is so tight that drivers are known to get “The Darlington Stripe”, the scrape marks that come across the side of the car from rubbing up too close to the side.

There’s also been some exciting finishes at this track—the flip side of it being hard to pass, is that it can also be hard for a frontrunner to pull away—so perhaps we might see a repeat of last week, when Brad Keselowski first overtook Matt Kenseth, then nipped Kyle Busch at the wire in Talladega. According to Bill, Keselowski’s win had big consequences in the overall race for the Cup. At the start of September, the top 10 drivers will qualify for the final Sprint For The Cup. There will also be two wild-cards added, and straight up wins tends to be the dominant factor in wild-card selection. Keselowski has two wins to his credit. He’s not in the Top 10 now and it’s safe to say a lot of drivers will be rooting for him to get there and open up a wild-card slot over the summer months.

The top of the standings have started to see some separation. The top three of Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are starting to create space between themselves and the next batch of drivers, which are led up by Denny Hamlin. The driver to keep an eye on right now is Kyle Busch. He’s still sitting down at ninth and trailing by 70 points is more likely concerned with strengthening his position for the Sprint For The Cup. But he’s coming on right now, with a close second last week and a win the week before. Much like the Miami Marlins, whom we discussed here at TheSportsNotebook today, the woes of early struggles have given way to surer footing for Busch.

If there’s anything history tells us about Saturday night it’s that history can tell us nothing. The difficulty in taming a track that also has the nickname “The Lady In Black” has given Darlington the variable of unpredictability, so here’s a good chance for drivers to move up in the standings, or at the very least, bag a nice purse for their team.