THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Bojangles Southern 500 preview

Martin Truex's future is up in the air. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

After a one week vacation, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series is back! This weekend, we head to Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina for the annual Southern 500. This race is a major part of NASCAR’s history. Beginning in 1950, every Labor Day weekend, NASCAR would come to Darlington raceway for the Southern 500. Even though in 2004 the Southern 500 moniker and Labor Day date was dropped, both returned in 2015.

With the tradition seemingly back, NASCAR implemented a “throwback” theme. While it isn’t mandatory, most teams roll out a throwback paint scheme for a car from years past to honor the race track’s tradition. This theme makes it one of the most popular races of the season.  

Nicknamed “ The track too tough to tame,” Darlington is one of the oldest speedways on the circuit as it was built all the way back in 1949. One of it’s most unique features is its “egg shaped” layout. Back in 1948, when track designer Harold Brasington built it, he had to make the third and fourth turns more narrow in order not to intrude on a neighboring farmers Minnow Pond. This compromise by the track designer made the banking uneven, making it one of the hardest tracks in America to navigate. When it comes to Darlington, one of the biggest variables of this track is tire wear. Because of its unorthodox layout, this track is extremely tough on tires. Last season, Martin Truex Jr appeared to be on his way to victory until a flat tire with three laps remaining ended his chances and gave the victory to Denny Hamlin. Look for this to be a major factor come sunday.

It would appear that NASCAR “Silly Season” is in full swing. This is the part of the year where drivers across all three series announce where they will be racing next season. As mentioned last week, the first major domino to fall was 2004 champion Kurt Busch. While it has not been confirmed, it would appear that Busch is going to drive for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. This move appeared to open the flood gates as it was announced his spot at Stewart Haas racing was offered to other drivers including defending champion Martin Truex Jr. and the soon to be retiring Kasey Kahne. Not only was Busch rumored to leave but it was reported that Furniture Row racing team owner Barney Visser might be looking to sell the team if more sponsorship couldn’t become available. This led many to believe that Allegiant Airline CEO  Maurice Gallagher would purchase the team, re-sign Martin Truex Jr and promote his son Spencer to the cup series after serving his suspension for using a banned substance.

According to popular racing journalist Adam Stern, those talks “collapsed” leaving the status of the team and Truex Jr unknown. Personally, I believe that Truex is a championship caliber driver who would have no problem finding another ride next season, but it would truly be a shame to see this team not return next season. Let's hope as fans that they can find the sponsorship needed to continue in 2018 and into the future.

The odds-on favorite going into this week is last year’s winner Denny Hamlin. Last season, Hamlin made one of the best drives in recent memory after he overcame a two lap deficit to win. This is a track that Hamlin has always shined at; over the course of his 12 starts here, Hamlin has two wins, seven top fives and 10 top tens. Maybe this week will be the race Hamlin finally breaks through and gets that elusive first win of the season. He should be hard to beat when the green flag drops.  

The driver I have winning this week is Kyle Larson. Coming into this week, Larson cemented his spot in the “playoffs” by obtaining enough points during the season and while he hasn’t won a race this year he goes to another track that suits his driving style perfectly. He thrives when he drives on the high side up near the wall and at Darlington the prefered line is exactly where Larson runs every week, not to mention he also has the third highest average finish here since 2016. While this season hasn’t been terrible for him, not winning a race has been tough. Larson has struggled to adapt to the Camaro but is talented enough to be in contention week in and week out and this week I think he finally breaks through and claims his sixth career win at Darlington.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Refrence.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).

 

Joey Logano. Getty Images.


This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for ISM Raceway for the ISM 400 in Phoenix, Arizona. This is NASCAR's semi-final race before the championship race at Homestead. Many would consider this one of the most important races of the season considering it decides who will get to race for a championship. This track is a mile and a half oval that races like a short track. Last season, this track was reconfigured and completely changed the landscape. The Finish line was moved all the way to the front stretch and both the corners were inverted. This should be interesting should we see someone try to make a last second pass now that they have more time to pull it off.

Last week, Kevin Harvick went on to win his fourth race of the season after passing his teammate Aric Almirola. This race was a wreckfest, there were plenty of big names to crash including championship favorites Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. During the weekend, Texas Motor Speedway track officials added a tire compound to try and add more grip to the race track. This did not sit well with the cars as we saw many just spin out by themselves. The trouble area seemed to be turns three and four as that was where the majority of the wrecks were. Many fans were not happy with the product on the track but if it did do one thing - it allowed for some newer drivers to run up front such as Daniel Suarez and Willam Byron. All together though, the cream rose to the top and Kevin Harvick still had a fairly dominant race as he led 119 laps before winning and advancing to the championship race at Homestead.

As we draw closer to Homestead, many wonder what has been going on with Kyle Busch. As many know, it has been June since the 2015 NASCAR Champion has won a race and since then he has just kind of been around. He has had many moments to forget during this time such as when his engine blew at the Charlotte oval or when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas but because of the massive amount of points he has gained all throughout the season, he has been able to stay in the top four. Regardless of where he is in points, it is clear that he is in a slump and this team is doing everything they can to get him out of it as we get closer and closer to Homestead next week. We will see how he responds this week at the track he has won the last two times they have come here.

The championship picture definitely looks pretty much the same as it has been over the past two seasons as Martin Truex, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano make up the top four spots. While Truex and Harvick are locked in with victories at Martinsville and Texas, the focus shifts to third and fourth as both Busch and Logano hold firm. After a disastrous weekend at Texas, Denny Hamlin finds himself 20 points out of the top four. While 20 points may seem like a lot to make up, it is actually fairly manageable. Should he go on to win both stages and Logano not finish top 10, he would make up the difference and move into a tie with Logano for the fourth spot. He could also finish in the top 10 in those stages as well and make a big dent in the points should Logano run into trouble but that will be tough considering how good he runs on a weekly basis. The drivers behind Hamlin are Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. While Elliott crashed in the early stages and was never really a factor, Kyle Larson on the other hand looked like he had a car that was capable of contending for the victory. On lap 241, Larson entered pit-lane for his pit-stop and everything went off without a hitch until Bubba Wallace spun out in turn two catching Larson on the tail end of the lead lap eliminating any opportunity for a win. This caution led many to speculate that Wallace spun himself out on purpose to get a caution and not go a lap down but this has not been proven as Wallace had a flat tire before the spin. Out of the three, the driver that came out looking the best was Blaney. By no means was it the day Blaney and his Penske team would have liked to have had but overall the No. 12 had a pretty respectable race. Throughout the day, Blaney's car was not handling well at all but this team battled back and went on to a top 10 finish. It will be interesting to see how he will respond at Phoenix this week.

The driver that I predict will win this week is Denny Hamlin. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Denny has a steep path to climb to get back into the final four and a win is the only guarantee he can race for a championship. Overall, this has not been a track that he has been able to put up the best numbers but I think with the added pressure looming, this should be the car to beat. It will be interesting to see what car owner Joe Gibbs does to try and get Hamlin back into the top four considering his teammate Kyle Busch is one of the two standing in his way. Still I look for the #11 Fedex Toyota Camry to go to Victory lane and get back in the championship hunt.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).





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