The NASCAR Cup Series kicks off the Round of 16 for the 2023 playoffs at Darlington Raceway. Darlington is considered a crown jewel race and we’re fortunate to kick off the postseason at this track. It’s one of the more difficult tracks on the schedule. It is a high tire wear intermediate track like no other. Drivers that can manage their tires here will have the most success. William Byron scored one of his many wins here back in May and he didn’t even have the best car having led only seven laps. Martin Truex Jr. led 145 laps. Ross Chastain even led 93 laps. Both drivers finished outside the top 25. This is the track that’s too tough to tame for a reason. So let’s look at the Cook Out Southern 500 Preview for Sunday’s race.
As mentioned above, Darlington Raceway is a 1.366-mile egg-shaped intermediate track. It was last repaved in 2008 but given how many races have been run here since then, it’s an older surface. Tires fall off quickly. So measuring practice times and seeing which drivers experienced less fall off will be key when determining our driver pool for Sunday’s race. Track history and comparative tracks will come into play as well. Auto Club Speedway and Homestead are other high tire wear tracks as is Richmond, even though Richmond is shorter and flatter. Here are the drivers to have on your radar for Sunday’s race under the lights at Darlington.
Cook Out Southern 500 Preview: The Top Picks
Martin Truex Jr. (#19 Toyota)
Truex has had a resurgent year with multiple wins and he dominated this race in the Spring. He has two career wins here and seemingly finds his way to the front every time. He’s led at least 15 laps in six of his last seven races at Darlington. In three of those races, he led over 100 laps. Now he hasn’t finished any of his last three races here, but that can be the frustrating aspect of NASCAR sometimes. He still remains a very high-upside NASCAR DFS play.
Denny Hamlin (#11 Toyota)
Hamlin may not have as many wins on the year as Truex does, but he still has quite the resume at this track. He’s finished first or second in eight of 22 career races at Darlington. He was the runner-up in this race a year ago and won it two years prior. He’s no stranger to leading 100+ laps in this race either. He’s had great success on high tire wear tracks like Richmond and Auto Club and even scored a win earlier this year at Kansas. Kansas isn’t as high in tire wear as Darlington but it’s moderate in that regard.
Kevin Harvick (#4 Ford)
Harvick doesn’t have a win this season but he came pretty close at Daytona last week. Regardless, he punched his ticket to the playoffs on points. He’s raced Darlington 31 times in his career but during his time with Stewart-Haas Racing he has really shined here. In 14 races at Darlington with this team, he only has one finish outside the top 10, and that came in this year a year ago. He’s won here three times in the 4-car and was the runner-up in the Spring race. Harvick is one of the best at tire management on older surfaces. He used to dominate Atlanta before they reconfigured it. He even grabbed a top-five at Auto Club earlier this year. If the setup is right, he can easily contend.
Cook Out Southern 500 Preview: Wouldn’t Bet Against Them
Kyle Larson (#5 Chevrolet)
Larson was a fade in last week’s preview, but we’re going back to him this week. By all accounts, this is a track that Larson should run very well at. Aside from the high tire wear aspect, it’s a track where the preferred line might be higher along the wall. That’s Larson’s bread and butter. He’s had great success at Homestead (another high tire wear track) and Auto Club running the higher line. We haven’t seen Larson dominate like he did in 2021 but he did win Richmond in the Spring. He’s yet to score a win here, but that could change Sunday night.
Kyle Busch (#8 Chevrolet)
Busch has had some struggles of late. He isn’t exactly entering the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with momentum. He’s finished outside the top 30 in three of his last seven races but did have a decent showing at Daytona last week. A big note on Busch is that wherever Tyle Reddick was good in the 8-car last year, Busch has had success in the same ride this year. We saw Busch win at Auto Club back in the Spring and that was a race Reddick dominated early in 2022 despite not winning. Reddick had a pair of top-three finishes at Darlington in 2022. Busch may have only finished seventh here in the Spring, but the upside is still live. Historically this is a tough track for Busch. But a year ago with Joe Gibbs Racing, he led over 150 laps before his engine gave out.
Brad Keselowski (#6 Ford)
Keselowski came close to winning at Daytona last weekend but is still perfectly happy to see his teammate, Chris Buescher, score the win. Keselowski won this race in 2018 and with RFK Racing he finished seventh here a year ago and was fourth in the Spring race. The speed was legitimate in the Spring as he was consistently running in the top six. Keselowski is in the playoffs in a similar fashion to Harvick in that he doesn’t have a win this year. In fact, he’s still searching for his first win with RFK Racing. He was top ten on the other high tire wear tracks like Auto Club and Richmond as well this season. He finished fifth at Homestead last Fall.
Cook Out Southern 500 Preview: The Sleepers
Erik Jones (#43 Chevrolet)
It may seem odd to put Jones in The Sleepers section. He won this race a year ago and has two career wins at Darlington in 11 races. Jones is mostly in this section simply because the upside has been limited at times. He’s collected some top-12 finishes over the last couple of months. If we’re going based on track history he’s certainly on our radar. But his metrics in practice will be worth monitoring. If he isn’t seeing much of a drop off in speed on the longer runs then we’ll want exposure on DraftKings and FanDuel.
Austin Dillon (#3 Chevrolet)
Dillon is an underrated driver on high tire-wear tracks. He has an average finish of 11.6 at Homestead, 13.0 at Auto Club, and 13.9 at Darlington. Those are three of his four best average finishes across his career. Surprisingly, he does well and manages his tires. He wrecked in this race in the Spring but grabbed a top five at Homestead last Fall and has finished top ten at Auto Club in the two races there since the introduction of the NextGen car. Hard to say if there’s much win equity here but he does have the upside for a top-five on a track like this.
Harrison Burton (#21 Ford)
This one was a bit of a surprise to me. Burton has actually had some very good runs in the NextGen car at Darlington. He finished sixth here in the Spring but was consistently running in the top 15 the whole race. Did he get a little lucky late in the race? Perhaps but in three Cup Series races here he’s gained at least seven spots of position differential in each. He grabbed a top 15 earlier in the year at Auto Club as well. He doesn’t have a ton of momentum coming into this race with just one top-10 finish since Memorial Day. However, we don’t expect him to win. We’re just hoping that he’s possibly a value play that maybe makes our optimal lineup at low ownership.