Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington

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The NASCAR Throwback Weekend is here again at Darlington Raceway.

Joe Gibbs Racing swept the track’s two races in 2021, highlighted by Denny Hamlin‘s dramatic win in the Southern 500 in September. But does that make JGR the team to beat Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, FS1)?

Here’s who could be in the mix this weekend in Darlington:

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 21st — Bristol Dirt; 5th — Talladega; 12th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Two straight top-five finishes

Truex has been a steady contender for wins at Darlington. A two-time victor at the track “Too Tough to Tame,” Truex has four top 10s in his last five Darlington starts, including a win in this race one year ago.

The 2017 Cup champion earned a Southern 500 victory in September 2016 and led 248 of 293 laps in last spring’s event en route to the win. With only three finishes outside the top 10 in his last 10 Darlington starts, Truex is a must-watch driver this weekend

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 4th — Bristol Dirt; 4th  Talladega; 6th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Three top-3 finishes in his last three starts at the track

Kyle Larson has yet to win at Darlington Raceway, but he has been as close as he can get without visiting victory lane. Larson has finished runner-up in each of his last three starts at the 1.366-mile track, a streak which dates back to 2019 since he missed the three 2020 events.

Larson had a last-lap, last-ditch effort in Turn 4 trying to chase down Hamlin last September but came up just short. With seven top 10s in eight Darlington starts, maybe this weekend is finally Larson’s time to take the checkered flag first.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 12th
  • Last three races: 34th — Bristol Dirt; 10th — Talladega; 9th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Two wins and five top-five finishes in last eight races

Kevin Harvick isn’t lighting the world on fire this year, but maybe that’s set to change at Darlington Raceway. Harvick is the active leader in top fives (12), top 10s (17) and laps led (812) at “The Lady in Black.” And what he’s done lately has been remarkable.

Harvick has scored 12 consecutive top-nine finishes at Darlington and won three of the track’s last 11 races. He’s also scored 10 top fives in the last 12 races and has led laps in 11 of the last 15 contests. The Next Gen provides new obstacles, but maybe Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers end their 54-race winless streak.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 23rd
  • Last three races: 35th — Bristol Dirt; 18th Talladega; 21st Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Two straight top fives, including a win in September

No one is (or should be) questioning Denny Hamlin’s ability at Darlington Raceway. Hamlin is the track’s active wins leader with four victories after last fall’s triumph, plus he’s scored four top fives in the past five Darlington races with two wins in that span.

However, Hamlin’s best finish this season aside from his Richmond victory remains a 13th-place finish at Phoenix. After a wheel detached from his car after Stage 1 last week at Dover, Hamlin rallied back to fourth but was struck trying to avoid Cody Ware‘s car crashing on the frontstretch. The No. 11 team could use any positive luck this week at one of his best tracks.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 33rd — Bristol Dirt; 1st Talladega; 3rd Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: 3rd in September’s Southern 500

Ross Chastain seems to be a threat for the win no matter where the Cup Series goes these days. Tied with William Byron with a series-best two wins this season, Chastain has proven to be the more consistent of the two, scoring seven top-five finishes in 11 races.

Chastain’s third-place finish at Darlington last fall was a career-best there after four prior finishes of 15th or worse. This year has proven his past statistics don’t matter much. But heading to a track where he’s had recent success should only make Chastain more confident come race day — spelling trouble for everybody else.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 4th
  • Last three races: 1st — Bristol Dirt; 3rd  Talladega; 7th Dover
  • Recent at Darlington: Finished 7th or better in three of past four races

The two-time Cup Champion hasn’t won at Darlington since 2008, but Busch regularly finds a way to produce good results there. In 10 of the track’s past 13 races, Busch has finished inside the top seven, including this race a year ago when he rebounded from an early spin to place third.

In the fall, contact between Busch and Austin Dillon sent Busch into the outside wall in Turn 2 and ended his day prematurely.