NASCAR at Darlington: Picks and preview

Ross Chastain is the driver to watch this week. Photo via: Wiki Commons

It’s throwback week as the NASCAR Cup Series heads for Darlington Speedway. Known as the lady in black, this track is recognized for its tough exterior and abrasive surface. The biggest challenge here is keeping the car off the wall. For some drivers, they use the wall to their benefit as there is a lot more grip. Last fall, we saw Kyle Larson throw a Hail Mary as he rode the wall all the way to the Start-Finish line to try and catch Denny Hamlin. Much like last week at Dover, tires will be a major factor in this race, more than likely the driver with the tires in the best shape will win.

Last week, Chase Elliott finally was able to capture his first win of 2022 at Dover. Chase wasn’t the fastest throughout the day, but he was there at the end and used pit strategy to fend off Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Ross Chastain for the victory.

While Elliott and his #9 team were celebrating, the same couldn’t be said for Denny Hamlin. Early on, Hamlin was the best car on the track, it seemed like he had the field covered and was well on his way to a victory. But during a pit stop his crew didn’t have his right front tire on tight enough, it disassembled itself coming off pit-lane. To make matters worse, he was wiped out by a car that was multiple laps down in Cody Ware, relegating him to an abysmal 21st place finish. To add even more insult to injury, Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart was suspended for four weeks because of this loose wheel. Denny wasn’t the only driver to lose a tire, as AJ Allmendinger had one go rouge on him as well. It is clear that these pit crews are having a tough time figuring out this new single lug tire. This could very well be a problem going forward into the season.

Another driver who has been slumping as of late has been Tyler Reddick. Ever since he and Chase Briscoe tangled at Bristol about a month ago, it has been a rough road for the California driver. In both races at Talladega and Dover, he’s been involved in an incident. Even in practice at Dover, Reddick spun out. This has been quite the slump for a driver that has really run well this season, on the bright side though, Darlington is a place that caters to his driving style. I look for him to get out of this slump and contend for a top ten

A driver that deserves some praise is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This has been the season from hell for Stenhouse and this team. They are 27th in points, have only finished on the lead lap in 3 of the 11 races, and have an average finish of 24.6. It was impressive to see the #47 car run up front and challenge Chase Elliott towards the end of the race and score a 2nd place finish. Not a lot is known about the future of this team, as former Cleveland Cavs player and co-owner Brad Daugherty has pondered whether he wants to stay in the sport. The team has already downsized to one car from two. It’s good to see them find success under such uncertainty.

The driver I have winning this weekend is Ross Chastain. Over the past three weeks, no one has been better than he has. To think that he has won two races this season and is a championship contender is a bit of a surprise, but when you look at how well he performed last season in the #42, it’s not as much of a shock. Still, no one expected this kind of rise though, now he heads to a track that put him on the radar of former NASCAR owner Chip Ganssi. In a Xfinity race back in 2019, Chastain was driving for free for Ganassi and seemed to have the car to beat until Kevin Harvick and him got together. When it was over, Ganassi stuck his neck out for Ross and defended him in the media. When the team shutdown at the end of the season because of a corrupt sponsor, Chip helped Ross find a ride at Kaulig Racing in 2020 and then tapped him to drive the #42 the following season in the Cup Series, and the rest has been history. Ross is no slouch on this track, while his numbers here aren’t the best, he’s had top-ten speed in each race he’s ran for Ganassi. Last year, he finished third and was one of the fastest cars on the track, so he can win here. Look for Chastain to smash another watermelon with his third victory of 2022.

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