Darlington is a crown jewel race. It was once a part of the unofficial NASCAR grand slam. Although this race no longer carries the same cachet, it is a night race followed by a holiday and it does not have to compete with the NFL — it’s a big night for NASCAR. As always, trust the spreadsheet but also trust your eyes. Here are the best bets for the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington, which gets underway Sunday, September 4 at 6 p.m. ET.
The best car likely will not win the Cook Out Southern 500. This is a long race and long races tend to favor the best car. On the long run, the cream rises to the top but not the very top. Passing is challenging in the Next Gen car. It will be even more challenging during a night race where everyone is glued to the single groove against the wall. The cream will rise to the top by the end, but the layers of cream at the top will not change. This race will come down to track position. It will be won and lost on pit road.
Race Winner — Cook Out Southern 500
Kyle Larson +600
For years, Larson was the favorite at Darlington despite driving lackluster Chip Ganassi equipment. He could never seal the deal in the inferior equipment, but he looked great glued against the wall every Labor Day weekend. That, like many things, changed for Larson last season with Hendrick Motorsports. Larson nearly broke through for the win in the 2021 Southern 500. He came up one spot short as he tried a video game maneuver — his words — by refusing to lift in the final corner and attempting to slingshot to first along the wall.
It looked like he would finally get his win at The Track Too Tough to Tame in the spring. His car was fast and he loved it. Unfortunately, Larson spun out while attempting to make a pass for second early in the race. The seemingly innocuous spin was anything but. Harmless spins do not exist in the Next Gen car. Drivers are better off putting it in the fence than damaging the precious underbodies of these fragile rides. On the box score, Larson earned a DNF, but our eyes tell us otherwise.
Speaking of DNFs, Larson earned the first one at Daytona last week. If a driver is going to tap out early, then Daytona is the place, especially if the race is delayed for an extended amount of time. Drivers were still busy wrecking Sunday while Larson and his team were back in North Carolina getting ready for Darlington. The No. 5 Hendrick team heads to South Carolina coming off a win two weeks ago at Watkins Glen and an impressive showing at one of their worst tracks (Richmond) a week before that.
Ross Chastain +1100
Everything was looking great until it wasn’t. Chastain won Stage 2 in the Darlington spring race. During the stage break pit stops, he lost a spot. On the subsequent restart, he lined up on the inside of row one. Chastain wrecked a lap later because his car got aero loose while battling for the lead. Was he too aggressive? Yes, it’s Ross Chastain. Was he wrong? No, it’s Darlington and passing outside of a restart does not happen. It was a gamble, but Chastain knew what he was doing — he was trying to win. Before that wreck on lap 195, Chastain had turned 151 laps inside the top 5.
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Kyle Busch +900
Every single driver mentioned in this article wrecked in the first Darlington race while running inside the top 5. It wasn’t their day but it could have been. Every one of these drivers should be in contention come Stage 3 on Sunday night. The winner will likely be the team that is the best on pit road in Stage 3. Without a question, The No. 18 JGR Toyota team has been the best on pit road this season. The car is fast enough to win. Busch clearly has the skill and the desire to win — amidst contract negotiations a crown jewel win would add leverage to his side. All Busch needs is a good day on pit road, and among all the teams, he’s the most likely to have a good day on pit road.
This is not just a pit road gamble. The JGR Toyotas are clearly the best cars in the Cup Series at the moment. The schedule has been wonky, like always during the summer, so deciphering speed is not the easiest task. At the traditional oval tracks going back to May, Joe Gibbs’ team has controlled the series. Four of the five highest rated drivers in terms of Real Rating — my own statistical creation that comprehensively synthesizes all of a driver’s laps — are JGR Toyotas. Truex is No. 1, then Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch in fifth with very little difference separating the top 5.
Martin Truex Jr. +1100
Points no longer matter for Truex. The highest he can finish in the 2022 standings is 17th. If points do not matter, then stage points do not matter. Truex can be aggressive with his pit strategy and explore options unavailable to the other elite drivers during every playoff race. This is an enormous advantage. Passing on the track is rare in the Next Gen car. Forward movement takes place on pit road and Truex has more opportunities available to him thanks to NASCAR’s silly playoff system.
In the first Darlington race, Truex was the first to begin pit cycling and he took the lead with this strategy. It did not work out on the long run, but the No. 19 JGR Toyota team demonstrated that they were willing to gamble. They employed a similar strategy weeks before that race at Richmond. If Truex and crew chief James Small were willing to be riverboat gamblers before, then it’s likely that they won’t hesitate to push all of their chips in at some point on Sunday night.
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