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Who’s hot, who’s not, heading into Darlington

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Just two races remain for drivers to make – or miss – the upcoming NASCAR Cup playoffs.

This weekend, the series moves to the Track Too Tough To Tame, Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500.

The 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval is considered by many drivers as the most difficult track on the NASCAR Cup circuit.

This will be the 114th NASCAR Cup race to be held at the track also nicknamed the Lady In Black.

Johnny Mantz won the first NASCAR Cup race at Darlington in 1950. Martin Truex Jr. won the most recent race there, last year’s Southern 500.

There have been 11 different winners in the last 11 races.

There are only two races left in the regular season for drivers to qualify for the 16-driver NASCAR Cup playoffs. Drivers below the playoff cutoff line are in must-win situations, including Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Here’s the hottest of the hot and, well, the not so hot:

Cup – Who Is Hot

No. 18 Kyle Busch (Hot)

  • Won the Trifecta at Bristol: Truck, NXS and Cup races
  • Two wins this season, both came in the last four races (Wins at Pocono and Bristol)
  • Finished top 10 in the last four races, best streak this season
  • One Southern 500 win, 2008
  • Worst finish in the last seven races at Darlington is 11th with five top 10s

No. 11 Denny Hamlin (Hot, Great at Darlington)

  • Third at Bristol
  • Top 4 finishes in seven of the last 10 races including a win at NH
  • One Darlington win, 2010
  • Nine top 10 finishes in 11 races at Darlington, average finish of 6.2, the best all-time among drivers with more than two starts there

No. 4 Kevin Harvick (Hot)

  • Finished 8th at Bristol
  • Finished top-10 in 13 of the last 18 races of 2017
  • One Darlington win, 2014 from the pole
  • Finished top five in the last four races at Darlington
  • Led over 200 laps in two of the last three races at Darlington

No. 77 Erik Jones (Hot but must win, points no longer an option)

  • Finished career best second at Bristol after winning his first career pole and leading 260 laps
  • Finished top 10 in the last four races, best streak of his career
  • One start at Darlington, NXS last year, finished sixth

No. 42 Kyle Larson (Hot in 2017, Good at Darlington)

  • Finished ninth at Bristol, second straight top 10 finish
  • Three wins in 2017, all came on 2.0 mile tracks
  • Finished second in seven races this year
  • Top 10 finishes in all three career Darlington starts, best finish of third last year

No. 19 Daniel Suarez (Hot)

  • Finished 15th at Bristol
  • Finished top-15 in five of last six races including four top-10s
  • Won the Open at Charlotte
  • Will be first Cup start at Darlington, finished top five in both NXS starts at Darlington

No. 78 Martin Truex Jr (Hot, Good at Darlington)

  • Finished 21stat Bristol, speeding penalty
  • Finished in the top-10 16 times this season, the most
  • Won 15 stages this season, the most
  • 35 Playoff Points this season
  • Wins at Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky and Watkins Glen
  • Led a series high 1372 laps in 2017, led the most laps in seven races
  • Won this race last year at Darlington, led 28 laps
  • Furniture Row Racing’s first career win came at Darlington with Regan Smith in 2011

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (Hot, Great at Darlington)

  • Finished 4th at Bristol, five top 10 finishes in the last six races, all but Michigan, flat tire in OT while 
running 3rd
  • Now 15th in the playoff standings, +61
  • One Darlington win, 2013
  • Finished top six in four of the last five races at Darlington

Cup – Who is Not

No. 3 Austin Dillon (Has a win but is NOT HOT)

  • 39th at Bristol, only one top 10 finish in the last 12 races
  • Won on fuel mileage at Charlotte
  • Only three top 10 finishes this season, had 10 at this point last year
  • Three Darlington starts, best finish of 11th in 2014

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (Running out of time)

  • 23rd at Bristol, last top 10 was Sonoma in June (sixth)
  • Only two top-10s in the last 12 races
  • Finished top 10 in his last three Darlington starts including runner up in 2014. DNC in 2016 at Darlington

No. 5 Kasey Kahne (Not, Not, Not… won)

  • Finished 24th at Bristol, only one top 10 finish in the last 14 races, win at Indy
  • Six DNFs from accident this season
  • Won at Indianapolis ending a 102 race winless streak, took a super lucky timed caution and turned it 
into a win
  • Best finish at Darlington in 14 starts is third in 2005
  • Won the pole four times at Darlington
  • Two truck wins at Darlington

No. 22 Joey Logano (Reason for concern, Good lately at Darlington)

  • 13th at Bristol
  • 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the last 15 races
  • Won at Richmond in April but was encumbered
  • Now 117 points outside the bubble, he must win to make the playoffs
  • Finished top five in his last two Darlington starts including fourth in 2015, his best finish there

Cup starting lineup at Martinsville Speedway

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Martin Truex Jr. will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway after qualifying was canceled by rain and snow Saturday.

“It’s definitely a big advantage to start out front,” Truex said. “First pit box obviously, everyone knows it’s a big deal here and that’s where you want to be so you get that clean stall in and out and not get torn up on pit road.”

The lineup was set by car owner points.

Kyle Busch will join Truex on the front row.

Row 2 will feature Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Teammate Ryan Blaney starts fifth.

Click here for starting lineup

Martinsville Truck race postponed to Sunday after Cup race

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The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 Truck race at Martinsville has been postponed until Sunday afternoon, following the Cup race.

Ben Rhodes led the field to green 2:05 p.m. and held the lead until Mike Senica stalled on the track. Rhodes led the first 23 laps until precipitation red flagged the event at 2:17.

The Truck race will be televised on FS1.

Martin Truex Jr. sweeps Martinsville Cup practice

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After posting the fastest single lap and quickest 10-lap average in the first practice, Martin Truex. Jr. also topped the fastest lap chart in final practice for the STP 500 with a speed of 95.415 mph.

Also repeating his performance from the first practice, Brad Keselowski was second on the leaderboard. Keselowski was fast on long runs with the quickest 10-lap average of 94.579 mph.

Sophomore Daniel Suarez was notably fast. His lap of 95.588 mph was third on the chart.

Kyle Busch (95.122) and Ryan Newman (94.756) rounded out the top five.

Jimmie Johnson (93.831) was hoping to carry over momentum from last week’s top 1o at Auto Club, but struggled to find single lap speed. He landed 28th on the speed chart.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel hopped entering turn three with 33 minutes remaining. He rolled out a backup car and will start at the back regardless of where he qualifies.

Click here for the full final practice times.

History looms for the Wood Brothers

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Glen Wood first came to Martinsville, Virgina in November 1953, making the short 30-minute drive from Stuart for his NASCAR debut in a family owned car. Nearly 65 years later, the famed Woods Brothers are still racing the iconic No. 21 on the half-mile bullring.

The torch has since been passed to Glen’s sons, but the history remains.

“Our dad came here and raced,” Eddie Wood said in a press release before the STP 500. “He raced here in the fifties and it’s just a special, special place and knowing that the Ford Fusions ran really well last year here that gives you a lot of confidence. I’m sure it gives Paul (Menard) a lot of confidence, but it’s just a special, special place.”

Last fall, Ryan Blaney returned the 21 to the top 10 on the team’s home track for the first time in 12 years. He finished eighth in the First Data 400. This year, Blaney turned the car over to Menard and as the series comes to Martinsville for the first of two races this year, the legacy continues.

“The pressure is all what you make of it,” Menard said. “I know a couple things – I’ve got a great team behind me. We’re gonna have a fast Ford and we’re gonna have a lot of fans cheering on the 21 car, so you can think about that every waking second you’re up here, or you can go to work and do your business. It’s obviously an honor to drive this car and to be a part of the Wood family driving the 21 at Martinsville, and I’m really gonna think about that when I put my firesuit on, but once you get the helmet on it’s all business.”

The gravity of protecting the Wood Brothers’ legend at Martinsville is increased by the fact that this week marks NASCAR’s first short track race of the season and a return to its grassroots. It is easy to feel the history of racing on this little track nestled in rural Virginia—not only for the iconic team, but the entire field.

“It’s getting back to grassroots,” Menard said. “Over half the guys, probably more than that, started racing at short tracks with late models somewhere. We were running 25 laps back then versus 500 now, but the stage racing is kind of like a couple of heat races before the A Main, so you try to get your points when you can and be smart about things when you can and let it rip when you can.”

“You can race here year after year, race after race and there’s no way anybody can mess this race up,” Eddie Wood said. “This is just always a great race because it’s tight and it’s grassroots, it’s NASCAR roots.”

The STP 500 is not just another race for the Wood Brothers. On a track that puts a premium on mechanical grip and driver ability, as opposed to flat out horsepower, Menard has greater control over his fate. That is both good and bad news, because a milestone has been within reach for the past 27 races –  the team’s 100th win.

“It would be huge,” Menard said of the 100th win. “I’ll take it anywhere. We started at Daytona and didn’t get it there, and we’ll keep working until we get it. Martinsville would be a huge one for us, obviously, and if we do that, we’ll have another one for the museum down the road.”