Would you believe I actually like Dodge this week?
Saturday night at Darlington is about two things: worn tires and horsepower. The old track in South Carolina — alternately nicknamed The Lady In Black and The Track Too Tough To Tame — is weather-beaten and gnarled, and as such, its surface grinds up tires like nobody's business. Take one lap around Darlington and you've already ruined the tires you're on, and if anyone late in a race only takes two, you can be sure he's headed straight to the back. The place is a high-banked 1.33-miler (25 and 23 degrees of banking), meaning torque is crucial, and despite advances made by the Roush / Yates engine program, I still think Dodge makes the cruelest engines.
Of course, Darlington is also about a driver's ability to drive fast on worn tires. Anyone who can keep his car way up in the track's fastest groove — just millimeters from the wall — while sliding around on chewed-up Goodyears will be very fast Saturday night. It takes a steady hand to slide the car's rear end like that and stay fast, which is why former dirt-trackers like Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon are always a factor here. And last year's Darlington winner, Greg Biffle, probably likes to slide his car out of a turn more than any driver on the Smokeless Set.
Darlington is, of course, a one-event track now, which is sort of sad, because it's a really fun racing venue. Cars can pass, it's possible to come from behind (Sterling Marlin won from the 43rd starting spot back in 2002), and cars that are just so-so for the race's first half can suddenly stumble upon the right setup and make stirrings charges and threaten for the win. This Mother's Day event is a replacement for the traditional Labor Day weekend Southern 500, once one of the glamor races in the sport. Make no mistake: this is a place where guys want to win.
Over the past four years, winners at Darlington have included Marlin, Gordon, Ricky Craven in an impossibly exciting win over Kurt Busch, Terry Labonte, Jimmie Johnson twice and Biffle. The guys with the best average finish here over that time period are Kasey Kahne (7th-place finishing average, though he's only run here three times), Johnson (7.71), Carl Edwards (8th, though he's only run here twice), Jamie McMurray (11.4), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (11.4) and Biffle (11.8). Let's take a look at the guys who I think represent the best bets Saturday night under the lights.
Take Jimmie Johnson (11-2), 1 / 3rd unit. Johnson is very, very good at Darlington. He swept this joint in 2004, and came seventh here last spring. In fact, in the last four years at Darlington, Johnson has failed to finish in the top-10 exactly once. Do not worry about practice reasons, do not worry about qualifying. When the time comes for him to make a move, watch out. Plus, it's worth noting that Hendrick cars have won four of the last six
events at Darlington. That should make you interested in Jeff Gordon (8-1) (who's won at this track six times), Kyle Busch (13-1) and maybe even Brian Vickers (35-1). Well, okay, no. Probably not Vickers.
Take Greg Biffle (6-1), 1 / 3rd unit. I liked what I saw out of Biffle at Richmond last weekend, when he finished fourth after not having a very good car in the race's second half. Like he's done several times this year, the Biff came out of the gate with guns blazing, and led a ton of laps early, but like in other races this year, he fell off a cliff, and looked like he'd struggle simply to stay in the top-10. Lo and behold, though, Biffle was able to find some guts and dig in, registering his first top-five of a season in which he was thought to be a serious threat to win the points title. He's got a long way to go to make the Chase, but I think Darlington's sliding style suits him anyway better than anyone on the circuit.
Take Kasey Kahne (9-1), 1 / 3rd unit. I actually was tempted to take Ryan Newman (20-1) either in this spot or in Biffle's. Newman probably would've won the Darlington race in 2005, but for some terrible pit strategy in which he stayed out while everyone else changed tires. He's never won here, but he's got four top-fives in the last six Darlington events. The problem with Newman is he does not seem to be able to get comfortable with the Dodge Charger, with Kurt Busch (13-1) as his teammate, or with qualifying, which he used to dominate. So instead, I'm going to go with Kahne, who in his three Darlington events has logged a third, a fifth and a 13th. I like the Dodge horsepower, I think Kahne is a legitimate threat to make the chase and threaten for the title, and I'm remembering its performances at the high-banked tracks at Atlanta and Texas. Now, those are mile-and-a-half cookie cutters, and Darlington is anything but a cookie cutter (if you've ever played PlayStation NASCAR and driven Darlington, you know that Turn 2 comes at you like Oprah Winfrey on a steamroller) , and obviously the track surfaces are wildly different, but the banking is similar. Maybe Kahne gets it together and posts his third win of the year.