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Rookies Beware: The Darlington Stripe

NASCAR ran a condensed schedule this weekend so we practiced and qualified all on Friday and will race Saturday night. Unfortunately, that means the only time we were able to really see the cars on track was during the daytime, so those practice speeds should be taken with a grain of salt. Click here for each session’s results: Practice #1Happy Hour. Also, be sure to read Ryan’s practice notes here: Practice #1Happy Hour. The good news this weekend is that there’s absolutely no rain in the forecast on race day so we should be good on that front. We only visit Darlington once per season, and this is definitely a driver’s track. A good driver can run better than his car should be able to here, so keep that in mind. Don’t forget that this is the first time that this race has been ran in April, as since the 2005 season the Sprint Cup series has been stopping here in May. Those who can manage their tires will be up front in the end on Saturday night. Kevin Harvick won the pole for this year’s Bojangles Southern 500, and the full starting lineup can be found by clicking here.

Final Top 15 Ranking For The Bojangles Southern 500:

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11. Ryan Newman – Starts 7th – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

The good news? Ryan Newman hasn’t finished worse than 20th since Daytona. The bad news? He hasn’t had a result better than 16th since Las Vegas in early March. I think he has a very good chance to break that here at Darlington on Saturday night, though. In the last nine events at “The Lady in Black,” Ryan has posted seven top 10 finishes with four of those also being top 5s. He’s just one of those drivers that is consistent enough to succeed at a track like Darlington. Here on Friday, Newman was 8th-fastest in Practice #1 and wound up 9th on the ten-lap average chart. In Happy Hour, this #31 team worked exclusively on qualifying and posted the top speed in that final session. They brought a brand new chassis to the track this weekend, and although Newman was loose most of the day on Friday, the cooler temperatures should help that on Saturday night. The 7th-place qualifying effort out of “The Rocketman” is definitely a positive for those thinking about picking him this weekend.

12. Carl Edwards – Starts 21st – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

Cousin Carl should have a win here at Darlington, and it still irks me that he doesn’t. Back in 2011, the #99 team was points racing and essentially let Regan Smith win that year’s Southern 500. It was blatantly obvious that Edwards had the best car that night, and also obvious that he didn’t run hard on that last restart. Hopefully that doesn’t happen again on Saturday night. This team already has a win under the belt this season, and considering Darlington isn’t a Chase track–or similar to any of the Chase tracks–I see no reason for the #99 to be testing this weekend. They’re running chassis RK-874, which is the same one that Edwards finished 8th with at Phoenix this year. In practice #1, the #99 Ford was 7th on the speed chart and in Happy Hour he wound up 23rd after just running 16 laps. It’s hard to get a read on Edwards in practice but I think he’s a top 10 car going into the race on Saturday night, which is where has has finished in each of the last three Darlington races. What I like most about Carl this weekend is that in 70% of his starts at Darlington he has ended up inside the top 10, and he sports an impressive 12.5 average finish at this race track.

13. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Starts 15th – Yahoo! A Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t been overly impressive this weekend at Darlington Raceway, but that’s not much of a surprise because he hasn’t been great here in a while. Junior’s last top 5 finish at “The Lady In Black” came way back in 2008 and that’s one of just three in 19 career starts for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. He did end up 9th in this event one year ago, however, and could definitely challenge for a top 10 on Saturday night as well. Dale was 13th on the speed chart in Practice #1, but even though he ran 62 total laps in that session, he never made it onto the ten-lap average chart, which is odd. The #88 Chevrolet was 11th on the speed chart in Happy Hour, although the team decided to use that entire practice to work on qualifying. I’d say a finish between 8th and 10th is the ceiling for this #88 team on Saturday.

14. Tony Stewart – Starts 23rd – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Low Risk**

“Smoke” has three top 10s in his last five Darlington starts–including a career-best 3rd-place finish here in 2012–and will be looking for his fourth top 10 finish in the last five Cup races here on Saturday night. Going into the race I just don’t see that happening, but you never know. I would be more optimistic if Stewart would have qualified better than mid-pack. The #14 Chevrolet never posted a really fast lap in either practice session on Friday, but Stewart was 11th on the ten-lap average chart in Practice #1, which is a positive. One thing to note, however, is that he really wore the tires out during a long run in practice, and if that happens during the race, that could end Stewart’s night early. Hopefully this team makes adjustments regarding that before we go green on Saturday night. This team brought the same chassis to “The Track Too Tough To Tame” that struggled to a 33rd-place finish at Las Vegas in March. I can assure you that the #14 will not struggle that much this weekend.

15. Martin Truex, Jr. – Starts 12th – Yahoo! B Group
**Risk Factor: Medium Risk**

If you’re looking for an off-sequence pick this weekend, look no further than Martin Truex, Jr. and the #78 team. Darlington is one of Truex’s favorite tracks on the circuit, and that shows with his 11.4 career average finish. He has just one result worse than 14th in eight career starts at “The Lady in Black,” and that was a 19th-place effort here in 2010. This Furniture Row Racing team hasn’t exactly had the most speed this season, but as I said before, Darlington is a racer’s track, and Truex did finish 14th at Las Vegas and wound up 18th at Texas last weekend. Also, don’t forget that Regan Smith “won” (I use the term loosely) this race in 2011 while driving the #78. On Friday, Truex was 19th-fastest in Practice #1 and ended up 17th on the speed chart in Happy Hour. What I don’t like about him this weekend is that he ran a limited number of practice laps (44 total between the two sessions). If the #78 would have showed some more speed I could’ve seen Truex as a top 10 sleeper, but a finish in the mid-teens is much more likely out of this team on Saturday night.

Just Missed The Top 15:

Jamie McMurray is one of my favorite off-sequence picks and he qualified 6th for Saturday night’s showdown. He had the 8th-best ten-lap average during Practice #1 and finished 16th here one year ago. Expect another finish right around 15th for this #1 team this weekend. Speaking of good qualifying runs, how about some love for Aric Almirola? He will start 3rd for this year’s Bojangles Southern 500, and at first I thought it was just luck. But you have to look at the speed that these Richard Petty Motorsports cars have right now, and take notice to the fact that Almirola has finished 12th or better in three of the last four Cup races. At Darlington specifically, he’s made two career starts and ended up 20th and 19th. If you’re thinking of putting a sleeper on your roster this weekend, there might not be a better choice than Aric Almirola. Rookie Kyle Larson isn’t your typical first-year racer, and shouldn’t be treated as such from a fantasy perspective. Yes, Darlington is notoriously rough on rookies, but Larson has raced here in the Nationwide Series, finishing 6th last season. I think he’s either going to end up in the wall or inside the top 10, so take your choice. He posted the 6th-best ten-lap average in a back-up car during Happy Hour. The other rookie, Austin Dillon, also got his Darlington stripe during practice on Friday but didn’t have to get the back-up out. He starts 20th and should be good for a top 20 finish as usual. That’s just this team’s problem, though: you’re never wow’ed by their performance on race day. Kasey Kahne is actually quite consistent here at Darlington, with no result worse than 23rd in eleven career starts. He qualified 22nd on Friday–which isn’t ideal–and didn’t blow me away in either practice session, either. On Saturday I think we’ll see a race similar to last weekend out at Texas from Kasey Kahne, where he doesn’t show much but ends up just outside the top 10. That’s not the type of effort you want out of a heavy hitter like Kahne on your fantasy roster. I’d look elsewhere. Greg Biffle looks like he’s back to his sub-par normal self after finally posting a solid run at Texas last weekend. He qualified 19th here on Friday, and although The Biff does have finishes of 15th or better in seven of the last nine Darlington races, I just don’t think the #16 Ford is that good heading into this year’s Bojangles Southern 500. That doesn’t mean that this team can’t improve on it as the race goes on, but I doubt they’ll be able to get to the top 10. Finally, Kurt Busch starts 13th and ranked 13th on the ten-lap average chart in Practice #1 as well. Last year he started from the pole and ended up finishing 14th while driving for Furniture Row. This team came back down to Earth last week at Texas and is still one of the riskier picks in the garage, in my opinion. Darlington takes a disciplined driver for success and that is one of the many areas in which Kurt Busch is lacking. He’s running chassis no. 845 this weekend, which is the same one that he finished 26th with at Las Vegas back in March.