The Sprint Cup Series will head to Darlington this weekend for the return of the Southern 500 (presented by GoDaddy.com). This will mark the first time a race at Darlington has been called the Southern 500 since the track lost its Labor Day date to California before the 2005 season, and though the date is still different, it's nice to see the name of NASCAR's most historic race returning.
Kyle Busch, who won his third race of the season at Richmond last week, is the defending champion, while points leader Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins at the track many call "The Lady in Black." Darlington's unique egg shape -- where turns 3 and 4 are narrower than turns 1 and 2 -- combined with the tight quarters and that famed "Darlington stripe," make this a favorite of fans and veteran drivers alike.
Rookies? Not so much; Darlington favors those with the experience and patience to race the race track. Younger drivers don't have the experience to be that patient, and they start racing the other cars -- whether they're tires hold up or not. Once that happens, a Darlington stripe might be the least of their worries.
Busch is the exception, as he's proven to be over his short stint with Joe Gibbs Racing. With 30 bonus points in his pocket for once the Chase for the Cup starts, Busch has a chance to win both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series championships. An impressive feat, no doubt -- and also one most fans would rather not see.
Other multiple winners at Darlington include Jimmie Johnson (two), Jeff Burton (two) and Greg Biffle (two). Bill Elliott, who runs a part-time schedule for the Wood Brothers and will not compete this weekend, has five career wins at the South Carolina oval.
Carl Edwards finished second in last year's race, with Gordon coming in third. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth and David Ragan bucked the trend befalling young drivers by finishing fifth.
Busch has to be the favorite, both because he won last year's race and because he has the momentum coming off his weekend sweep at Richmond. Busch has an uncanny ability to do things with a car most drivers don't dare, and he won last year's race despite smacking the wall no fewer than five times. A lot of that has to do with the durability of the new car, but it's rare for any driver to knock down the fence that many times and still win.
Tony Stewart would qualify as my darkhorse pick this week, having recorded four Top-5s in his last five races -- including second-place efforts at Phoenix and last week at Richmond. Stewart's No. 14 team has momentum, and it's only a matter of time before Stewart finds Victory Lane again. Even though he's never won at Darlington in a Cup car, he could do so this week.
But something tells me he'll have to pass Busch to do it.