Cup Series Preview: Darlington

NASCAR’s final “crown jewel” race of the season hits the pavement tonight with the 70th running of the Bojangles Southern 500. Darlington Raceway, located in South Carolina, is one of the most iconic and beloved circuits in motorsports and played host to one of NASCAR’s greatest finishes when Ricky Craven outdueled Kurt Busch down the front stretch back in 2003. The speedway has undergone a renaissance of sorts in the mid-to-late 2010s with the “Throwback Weekend” theme. Most drivers and teams dress their cars and firesuits to go with the theme, which has brought numerous eyes back to the track. With a 1990s theme this year, the pole-sitter, William Byron will be rocking Tom Cruise’s scheme from the movie, Days of Thunder. Other notable schemes to look for tonight are Brad Keselowski’s 1996 Miller paint scheme, Stewart-Haas’ tribute to all three of Tony Stewart’s championships, and Bubba Wallace’s throwback tribute to the late Adam Petty. While the race is meant to be a fun homage to NASCAR’s past, there are drivers that cannot afford to take tonight lately.

When you look at the playoff cutline, it is going to come down to four drivers fighting for two spots. Ryan Newman, Daniel Suárez, Clint Bowyer, and Jimmie Johnson are all on the cusp of that line with two races left before the playoffs begin in Las Vegas. Suárez and Johnson have set themselves up well, starting 5th and 6th respectively. Bowyer starts 13th and Newman will have some work to do as he starts 24th. With Bowyer, Suárez, and Almirola sporting championship paint schemes, maybe it will inspire them to drive like championship drivers and, potentially, win the race tonight.

What makes Darlington so intriguing to watch is the length and toll it takes on the drivers. The race is 367 laps, which actually feels longer than the Coca-Cola 600 at times. The corners eat up tires fast, which will force drivers to wheel these cars around to avoid the track from living up to its nickname, “The Lady In Black”. The outside wall runs so close to the lanes in the turns that drivers will have to use the brake more than ever, even with the aero package rules. Higher speeds in turns one and two will mean less passing but expect numerous cars to kiss the wall at some point tonight.

Outside of superspeedways, Darlington is the toughest track to pick due to the numerous obstacles that could occur during this long event. Last year, Keselowski began his three-race winning streak. This race takes patience and experience but I am going to take a driver that loves running against the wall and is still seeking his first win of the season, Kyle Larson.

You can catch the race on NBC Sports Network at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT.

Photo via Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

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