Wednesday June 23rd, 2021 2:10AM

Can winless Darlington stalwarts get Throwback victory?

By Reid Spencer-NASCAR Wire Service
  Contact Editor

In a week of contrasts that featured the unveiling of NASCAR’s sleek Next Gen Cup Series cars, Darlington Raceway hosts its immensely popular Throwback Weekend, where race teams pay homage to the past.

But while race fans will see a panoply of paint schemes dedicated to bygone heroes of the sport, drivers will be looking ahead toward the finish line — particularly those accustomed to winning who haven’t done so yet this year.

At the top of that list are Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott, who haven’t scratched in the win column during the first 11 NASCAR Cup Series events of the 2021 season. Those three drivers combined to win 21 of the 36 points races last year—58.33 percent of the schedule.

In all probability, all three will be contending for the victory in Sunday’s Goodyear 400 at the 1.366-mile track.

Though winless, Hamlin leads the NASCAR Cup Series standings by a whopping 87 points over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr. in second. But runs of 32nd at Talladega and 12th at Kansas broke a streak of six straight top-five results for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota.

“Darlington has always been one of my favorite tracks,” says Hamlin, who has three Cup wins and five NASCAR Xfinity Series victories at The Lady in Black. “It’s a special place, and we’ve had some good wins there. Obviously, the last couple of weeks haven’t gone the way we’ve wanted them to, but Darlington is a place where we can bounce back and maybe even get into Victory Lane.”

Hamlin’s most recent triumph at Darlington came in last year’s second race there, during a season gerrymandered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Harvick likewise is a three-time winner at the track. On the way to his series-best nine victories in 2020, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won twice at the ‘Track too Tough to Tame’. Harvick also is the last driver to win at Darlington in a Chevrolet, a feat he accomplished in 2014 before Stewart-Haas switched to Ford.

“It’s been a lot of fun to have been able to win there a few times now,” Harvick says. “As you look at the last race there, winning the Southern 500 and being able to go back to Victory Lane and celebrate in front of some fans was different from the first time of dead silence (after the resumption with no fans during the pandemic).

“Darlington is one of those historic race tracks that everybody loves going to because of the fact that it’s forever tied to the guys that used to race there with the same shape of the race track. It may be a different surface, but it’s the same racetrack that they raced on in the 1950s. It’s a unique place to go race and a place that has so much history in our sport.”

Elliott, the reigning series champion, hasn’t won a Cup race at Darlington, but he did prevail in his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start there (2014).

“You want to be fast enough where that guy behind you is nowhere close,” Elliott says of his approach to the challenging track. “That’s where I want to be, and that how you want to position yourself at the end of those races, if you can.

“We definitely can be better, but I was pleased with our speed last year. We had some really good runs and were certainly solid, so we have something good to build off of.”

NXS: Heading To Darlington, A.J. Allmendinger Primed For Another Oval Win

Armed with a paint scheme commemorating his first and only NASCAR Cup Series victory and a pole position starting spot, A.J. Allmendinger hopes to add another oval-track victory to his resume in Saturday’s Steakhouse Elite 200 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway.

An acknowledged ace on road courses, Allmendinger predictably got his Cup win at Watkins Glen International in 2014 when he was driving for JTG/Daugherty Racing. Last year, he picked up his first Xfinity Series oval victory at Atlanta and proved that wasn’t a fluke by winning earlier this season at Las Vegas.

Though he has 11 career Cup Series starts at 1.366-mile Darlington (without a top-10 finish), this will be Allmendinger’s first trip around The Lady in Black in an Xfinity Series car.

“I’d be lying if I said Darlington is a place I’ve always been good at,” said Allmendinger, who drives the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. “It’s a race track that is unique and unlike any other track in the world.

“It’s a challenge, but I know we’ll have really fast race cars there. We’ve put a lot of work into trying to improve our program at this track. We’ll have another shot to win $100,000 for the Xfinity Dash 4 Cash.”

In fact, Kaulig Racing features two of the four eligible drivers in the running for the Dash 4 Cash bonus at Darlington. Jeb Burton, winner of the rain-shortened race at Talladega, also can claim the prize by finishing higher than the other three eligible drivers. But the two Kaulig drivers will have to beat Noah Gragson, who claimed the first two $100,000 bonuses this year, and series leader Austin Cindric, the Talladega runner-up.

Brandon Jones, who went to Victory Lane in last year’s September race, is the only former Darlington winner in the field this week.

NCWTS: Toyota Drivers Look To Extend Perfect Season In Friday Night’s Truck Series Race

Last September, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series returned to Darlington Raceway for the first time since 2011.

Ben Rhodes won last year’s event and — naturally enough, given the hiatus — revisits Darlington as the only former winner in the field this week. Rhodes also won the first two races of the 2021 season and will try to add a third victory in Friday night’s 200.

After Rhodes’ two wins, Kyle Busch Motorsports swept the next five events on the schedule, keeping Ford and Chevrolet out of Victory Lane. Like Rhodes, KBM driver John Hunter Nemechek will try for his third triumph of the season in the first of three Triple Truck Challenge races, with a $50,000 bonus available to the winner.

For Rhodes, ThorSport Racing’s switch from Ford to Toyota between seasons has been an important aspect of his success.

“I think the big difference for us just has been Toyota’s engineering platform,” Rhodes says. “They’ve got so much engineering support and so much knowledge and data and information available to us that it really makes it night and day, not only strategy during the race, but when you are going to a place and you don’t have practice — what do you pull from?

“I think that’s the biggest difference is the fact they’ve got this wealth of knowledge and they’ve got this army of people, and together we’re working towards the future, not just looking over our shoulder the whole time at what we did in the past.”

WDUN will have live MRN Radio coverage of the NASCAR Throwback Weekend at Darlington Raceway, beginning with Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series Steakhouse Elite 200 at 12:30 pm on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN.  Coverage continues on Sunday with the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at 2:30 pm on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

NASCAR Weekend Preview

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Goodyear 400
The Place: Darlington Raceway – Darlington, SC
The Date: Sunday, May 9
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.2 miles (293 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 90), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 185), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 293)
What To Watch For: Darlington Raceway is the perfect stage for Throwback Weekend. The historic 1.366-mile egg-shaped paved oval has hosted 119 NASCAR Cup Series races dating back to 1950. … The raceway was built as a 1.25-mile paved superspeedway in 1949-1950 and hosted the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first on asphalt on Sept. 4, 1950. A total of 75 cars competed in the inaugural event and Curtis Turner won the pole at 82.034 mph, and the race was won by Johnny Mantz (Plymouth, 75.250 mph). The race took 6 hours, 38 minutes, and 40 seconds to complete. … Since then, Darlington Raceway has undergone some changes through the years. In 1953, the track was re-measured to 1.375 miles. Then in 1970, the track was re-configured to 1.366 miles following the spring race of that season. The track was repaved in 1995 and then again prior to the 2008 season. … In total, the 119 NASCAR Cup Series races has produced 51 different pole winners and 51 different race winners. Six of the 51 NASCAR Cup Series pole winners at Darlington Raceway are active this weekend – Kevin Harvick (two poles), Kurt Busch (two), Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and William Byron (each have one pole). … NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson leads the series in poles at Darlington with 12 (1967, ’70, ’72, ’73 sweep, ’75 sweep, ’76 sweep, ’77, ’78 and ’82). Kurt Busch (2001, 2013) and Kevin Harvick (2014, 2017) lead all active drivers in poles at Darlington with two each. … Of the 51 Cup winners at Darlington Raceway, six are active this weekend – Kevin Harvick (2014, 2020 twice), Denny Hamlin (2010, 2017, 2020), Erik Jones (2019), Brad Keselowski (2018), Martin Truex, Jr. (2016) and Kyle Busch (2008). … NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson leads the series in victories at Darlington with 10 wins (1968, ’70, ’72, ’73, ’74, ’76 sweep, ’77, ’79, 80); followed by Dale Earnhardt with nine and Jeff Gordon with seven. … Kevin Harvick (2020, 2020, 2014) and Denny Hamlin (2020, 2017, 2010) lead all active drivers in victories at Darlington with three wins each. … The youngest Cup Series winner at Darlington is Kyle Busch (05/10/2008 – 23 years, 0 months, 8 days) and the oldest winner is Harry Gant (09/01/1991 – 51 years, 7 months, 22 days). … 20 of the 119 NASCAR Cup Series races have been won from the pole or first starting position – the most proficient starting position in the field. … The most recent driver to win from the pole at Darlington was Kevin Harvick in 2014.

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Steakhouse Elite 200
The Place: Darlington Raceway – Darlington, SC
The Date: Saturday, May 8
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200.1 miles (147 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 147)
What To Watch For: The NASCAR Xfinity Series has held 61 races at Darlington Raceway. the inaugural Xfinity Series race at Darlington was on April 3, 1982 and the event was won by Geoffrey Bodine driving a Pontiac for car owner Frank Plessinger. … The 61 Xfinity Series races at Darlington Raceway have produced 29 different pole winners and 33 different race winners. … NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin leads the series poles at Darlington with eight (1992 sweep, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000 sweep). … None of the drivers entered this weekend have won a pole at Darlington. … Mark Martin also leads the series in wins at Darlington with eight victories (1993, 1994 sweep, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2000 sweep). … Brandon Jones (2020) is the only former Xfinity Darlington winner entered this weekend. … 15 of the 61 Xfinity races at Darlington have been won from the pole or first starting position. … The most recent driver to win from the pole is Denny Hamlin in 2017. … The youngest Xfinity Series winner at Darlington is Chase Elliott (04/11/2014 – 18 years, 4 months, 14 days) and the oldest winner is Dick Trickle (09/05/1998 – 56 years, 10 months, 9 days).

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Next Race: 200
The Place: Darlington Raceway – Darlington, SC
The Date: Friday, May 7
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 200.1 miles (147 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 147)
What To Watch For: The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has competed at Darlington Raceway just seven times (2001-2004, 2010, 2011, 2020) since the series inception in 1995. … The seven Camping World Truck races have produced five different pole winners and five different race winners. … Five different drivers are tied for the most poles at Darlington on the Truck Series with one each – Carl Edwards, Jason Leffler, Timothy Peters, Jack Sprague, and Cole Whitt. … Bobby Hamilton (2001 and 2003) and Kasey Kahne (2004 and 2011) lead the series wins at Darlington with two each. Hamilton won the inaugural NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Darlington Raceway on May 12, 2001 driving his own (Bobby Hamilton Racing) Dodge. He led all but 10 of the 135-lap event. … ThorSport Racing’s Matt Crafton is the only driver in the series to make all seven NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts at Darlington Raceway. In seven Darlington starts Crafton has posted an average finish of 9.286 and a best finish of fourth in 2011. … ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes collected the win in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series return to Darlington Raceway last season. … The youngest series race winner at Darlington is Ben Rhodes (09/06/2020 – 23 years, 6 months, 16 days) and the oldest winner is Todd Bodine (08/14/2010 – 46 years, 5 months, 18 days). … None of the seven NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races at Darlington have been won from the pole or first starting position.

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