DARLINGTON, SC – The sign out front says Darlington Raceway. But, the egg-shaped oval is also referred to as the “Lady in Black” and the “Track Too Tough to Tame.”
Fortunately, it lives up to all monikers when it comes to racing at one of the oldest tracks on the NASCAR circuit of Darlington. Its not only a staple on the schedule, but is a destination point for many for Labor Day Weekend.
Known for its abrasive surface and unforgiving walls, Darlington has its share of legendary races. The first one took five days to qualify took five days to qualify all 75 cars and Johnny Mantz survived the mechanized mayhem to win.
This weekend is also special because multiple teams are taking part in the Throwback theme started four years ago. Old-school paint schemes, uniforms and logos will reappear from yesteryear for the entire weekend.
It has become a hit with teams, drivers, sponsors and the fans love to look back in time.
Fast forward to 2019 and Brad Keselowski returns to see if Lady Luck can defeat the Lady in Black like it did for him last year. He not only won the Cup race, he also triumphed in the Xfinity Series race to sweep the weekend as one of only four drivers in history to achieve that honor.
His record at Darlington makes Keselowski an absolute favorite at this track. In addition to last year’s victory, in 2015 he started from the pole position, led a race-best 196 of 367 laps and finished runner-up. He finished third in 2011 and has led laps in the last five Darlington races.
His closest competitor in stats is Denny Hamlin, who’s been on a hot streak lately winning most recently at Bristol. His average finish among active drivers with at least 10 Darlington starts is 6.2, compared to Keselowski’s 11.3 stat.
Playoffs are Big Picture
With only two races remaining in the regular season, the focus begins to switch from who the race winner is to who is in, and who is out. Four drivers are garnering the most focus.
An eighth-place finish by Daniel Suarez at Bristol was good enough to move the Stewart-Haas Racing driver into the Playoff Top-16 for the first time in eight races, and jumble the postseason outlook for the fourth-consecutive week. Ryan Newman sits 15th in the standings with a 12-point edge over Suarez. Suarez’s SHR teammate Clint Bowyer dropped a position and is now ranked 17th, 14 points back of Newman and two behind Suarez.
Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time champion, suffered a frustrating 19th-place run at Bristol and is now 26 points behind Suarez for that last Playoff eligible points position. Of the two tracks left to set the Playoff field, with Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week as the regular season finale, Johnson is the only driver among these four with wins at both venues.
“We know how important these next two races are,’’ Bowyer said. “Everyone in the sport knows and everyone will be watching. We know if we run like we are capable of running that we will be fine. Now we just have to go out and do it this weekend at Darlington and next weekend at Indianapolis.’’
Of course, this all gets shot to shinola if a new winner takes the checkered flag, leaving only position open at Indy. Oh yeah, fun stuff here race fans.
Race time is 6 p.m. ET on Sunday airing on NBCSN-TV and MRN Radio.
Xfinity Fun Continues, Dale Jr to Compete
After three road-course races in the past four events, the Xfinity teams go back to left-turns only this weekend at Darlington. And, they will have a well-known driver in the field on Saturday night.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver-turned-broadcaster, will drop the mic and don the firesuit for the first time in 2019. Even after his involvement in a plane crash before Bristol, the 44-year old Earnhardt is still committed to race.
“I plan on driving still,” Earnhardt told a fan on Twitter. “My lower back is bruised up real bad. Lots of swelling and I just need that to go down and the pain to chill out. I’ve been treating the area every day solely to get well to race.”
He is slated to be in the self-owned JR Motorsports No. 8 Chevrolet with crew chief Taylor Moyer on the pit box.
There are three races to go until their Playoffs kick off at Richmond Raceway, making this weekend’s race much more important for drivers trying to get in there.
So far, seven drivers have clinched their spot by wins or by points. Christopher Bell has six wins, Cole Custer has five, Tyler Reddick leads the points and has four wins, Austin Cindric has two victories, Chase Briscoe and Michael Annett have a checkered flag each and Justin Allgaier clinched on points. That’s leaves five Playoff spots still up for grabs heading into this weekend.
There are 11 drivers still vying for those five spots, but seven of the contenders have already clinched a spot in the Top 20 solidifying their eligibility for the Playoffs. But, of those 11, they still need to clinch a Playoff spot on points or wins to guarantee they make the postseason.
That’s why every lap, every position and every pit stop counts just a little bit more towards their Playoff hopes.
Race time on Saturday is 4 p.m. ET on NBC-TV and MRN Radio.
Trucks are off until the second weekend in September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hometown favorite Stewart Friesen is currently third in points.