The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series goes to South Carolina on Saturday for the Bojangles Southern 500 (6:45 PM ET Fox). It’s been another tumultuous week with decisions on driver penalties and back-and-forth in the media in the wake of last Sunday’s wild finish at Talladega. And sliding under the radar is the performance of a new contender.
Aric Almirola has running a steady eighth in the overall points standings. The 29-year-old driver spent most of his early career on the Nationwide Series, something that’s akin to a Triple A team in baseball. Almirola did a few races here and there at the Sprint Cup level, but never really made an impact. 2012 saw him do his first full year at the highest level and he placed a respectable 20th.
This year has been even stronger, as the driver for Richard Petty’s team has been steady and consistent from the outset. The one thing Almirola does not have on his resume yet is a win, and he’ll take his next shot at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night.
THE TRACK TOO TOUGH TO TAME
Darlington is a good place to be for Almirola, or any other driver looking to upset the applecart and get a breakthrough win. Its nickname, noted in the subhead, comes from the challenging track conditions and the unpredictability that creates.
“One corner is wider than the other,” TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR junkie, my brother Bill, informed me. “The racing is very tight.” He went on to add that the racing is tight enough that a phenomena called “The Darlington Stripe” has developed—it’s the scrapes across the side of the car that come from them rubbing against each other, and it’s seen as a badge of honor.
In our previous NASCAR Sprint Cup series coverage, we’ve noted how other tracks that have tight racing, make it important to get off to a good start, for the obvious reason than when it’s difficult to pass, you can’t get far behind. We should also emphasize the flip side of this, and it’s that it can be hard for one driver to pull away from the pack. Over the last seven years, seven different drivers have won at Darlington. While it includes the usual suspects, including Jimmie Johnsons last year, it also includes upstarts like Regan Smith in 2011.
Kyle Busch is coming in as the betting-line favorite at 5-1, with Johnson and Matt Kenseth right behind at 6-1. Kasey Kahne and the now-healthy Denny Hamlin are at 8-1, with Carl Edwards sitting on 10-1. If you want to take a shot with Almirola for his breakthrough win, you can fetch a 100-1 price tag.
I’ve harped very strongly on what I see as the unfairness in the penalties NASCAR has levied against Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano this season. At least Kenseth got some justice—his 50-point penalty was reduced to 12, and his crew chief is only suspended one race. Unfortunately, Keselowski and Logano did not get the same justice, and there is a good chance this is going to cost Logano a spot in the playoffs—or at least the chance to be right in the race as September gets closer.