Drivers are constantly on the edge of control. On most tracks, there is a little room for error. If a car is too loose in the bottom groove, the driver has chance to catch it. That luxury does not exist at Darlington Raceway where the preferred line has always been about an inch from the retaining wall.
The Darlington Stripe is more than a badge of honor; often, it is a sign of speed because it means the car has hovered on that edge for most of the race. Drivers who lightly brush the wall are maximizing speed; those who hit the wall too hard risk doing damage, however, and the difference between those two is measured in tiny increments.
Only five drivers enter the Southern 500 with back-to-back top 10s at Darlington. By itself, that is a testament to how difficult this race is to navigate – and also how challenging it will be to set this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster.
1. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 2.67)
Bristol was the first time this season the Big 3 all experienced trouble in the same race. That opened the door for someone else to win. The same thing could happen at Darlington. Hamlin is the defending winner of this race and enters with three consecutive top fives at Darlington.
2. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 5.33)
Only three drivers enter the weekend with at least three consecutive top 10s. Harvick has the longest streak among active drivers with five. That includes a victory in 2014 and a second in 2016. He is also tied for the longest top-10 streak of 2018. Harvick and Kurt Busch have both finished that well in the last six races.
3. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 6.00)
Truex won the 2016 Southern 500. That was a bit of a surprise because it was only the second time he’d finished in the top five there. Last year, he proved it wasn’t a fluke by winning both stages of the race before slipping to eighth at the checkers. With Harvick and Kyle Busch developing a points advantage, he needs to win and close the gap.
4. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 6.67)
When Busch won the Dodge Challenger 500 in 2008, he lacked consistency. In his first five attempts at Darlington, he finished outside the top 20 three times. Since 2010, he’s earned six top 10s in eight races and finished 11th twice. It won’t take long for players to forget all about what happened at Bristol where he was involved in three incidents.
5. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 8.67)
Everyone keeps waiting for Keselowski and Joey Logano to snap out of their slump and challenge for more top fives. The time is running out on the regular season. If they want to develop some momentum before the playoffs, there are only two races remaining and that is a lot of pressure on a track as tough as Darlington.
6. Joey Logano (three-year average: 9.00)
It took seven years for Logano to score a top five at Darlington, but on the heels of a fourth-place finish in 2015, he scored a fifth in 2016. That momentum might have been squandered with last year’s 18th. Logano was one of the biggest challengers to the Big 3 at the start of the year, but fantasy players want to see more from him before they risk an allocation.
6. Kyle Larson (three-year average: 9.00)
Darlington is not typically kind to rookies, so Larson’s eighth-place finish in the 2014 Southern 500 was notable. He followed that up with a 10th the following year and a third in 2016. Fantasy players need to take a moment and consider if his 14th in last year’s edition of this race foreshadows a turnaround or if it was simply an anomaly.
8. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 9.33)
Ryan Newman could well be the greatest differentiator this week. While he has not earned a top five at Darlington since 2011, his last five attempts there have been between seventh and 13th. He deserves a spot in the garage in the NASCAR Fantasy Live game because he’s going to be a safe pick if one your other drivers experiences trouble.
9. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 11.00)
This could be the week that Kenseth finally gets back inside the top 10. Trevor Bayne came within one position of that mark last week at Bristol and Kenseth has a stellar record at Darlington with a victory and five results of sixth or better in the last six races. If Kenseth can get in the top 10, the No. 6 will be this week’s most pleasant surprise.
10. Austin Dillon (three-year average: 12.67)
Dillon’s average finish is not as impressive as one would like, but he’s rapidly improved during the past three years at Darlington. He finished 22nd in 2015, scored a 12th the following year and then jumped all the way to fourth in 2017. Anything near the top 10 will be a successful outing for this team.
Pole Winner: Harvick has led the field to green in three of the last four races. He earned the pole on speed last year and in 2014. He was awarded the pole by NASCAR’s rule book in 2016 and that has been part of his secret to success.
Segment Winners: Truex swept both stages of last year’s Southern 500 and he’s proven capable of repeating that accomplishment on a number of occasions – most recently this July at Kentucky. If he has fast 10-lap averages in this week’s practice, he is a good selection for the race. Hamlin scored 17 stage points last year and should also be considered.