Darlington Story Lines
By: Jeff Wackerlin - @JWackerlin on May 9, 2013 | 9:05 A.M. EST
"It's really cool to see that this will be my 700th start, but it's not something I really paid attention to." (Photo: Getty Images)
DARLINGTON, S.C. - Motor Racing Network will watch a number of story lines this weekend that include Jeff Gordon’s 700th start and the Gen-6 racecar’s debut at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
700 Starts for Gordon
One week after Bobby Labonte made his 700th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start, Jeff Gordon will hit the milestone when he takes the green flag Saturday night at Darlington Raceway.
Gordon has started every race since his debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Nov. 15, 1992. The record for most consecutive starts is 788 by Ricky Rudd, a winner at Darlington in 1991.
"I've been fortunate to race this long and have the type of career I've had," Gordon said. "It's cool to see that this will be my 700th start, but it's not something I really paid attention to. It's hard to believe I've run that many, especially consecutively."
Gordon will become just the 15th driver to make 700 or more starts. Richard Petty is the all-time leader with 1185.
New Crew Chiefs at Penske
Penske Racing has replaced its crew chief lineup along with a number of key members to its at-track team for this weekend as the organization begins serving a three-race suspension that includes next week's All-Star Race, following infractions found in the rear suspensions of the No. 2 and No. 22 cars during pre-race inspection April 13 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, respectively, will have Kevin Buskirk (replaces Paul Wolfe) and Steve Reis (replaces Todd Gordon) as crew chiefs starting at Darlington. Buskirk, who manages the Penske test team, is a former crew chief and saw most of his success come in 2009 at Richard Petty Motorsports when he called the shots for Elliott Sadler. Reis is a Penske engineer.
Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing will also be without his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, who saw his suspension for six points races reduced to one yesterday by the appeals panel.
Big Lead for Johnson
Although Carl Edwards was able to shave two points from Jimmie Johnson's Sprint Cup lead at Talladega Superspeedway, the five-time champion still carries a 41-point margin into Darlington. Johnson has now led the points for the past five races dating back to his win at Martinsville Speedway. He'll be looking to increase that advantage this weekend at Darlington, a track where he won last year to claim the 200th points-paying Cup Series victory for Hendrick Motorsports.
"Very cool to go back," Johnson said. "The history that track has in our sport, and that of Hendrick Motorsports and the history of NASCAR ... it fits very well. It’s a tough, tough racetrack to get around. I’m proud of every win I have there and especially that 200th."
Darlington Gen-6 Debut
NASCAR's oldest superspeedway will see NASCAR's newest racecar, the Gen-6, compete for the first time at the historic track.
Drivers will be looking to set the sixth track record in the last seven races of the season in qualifying Friday. The current qualifying record at Darlington is held by Kasey Kahne, who recorded a lap of 181.254 mph in 2011.
The new-car debut will bring a new right-side tire combination that came out of a Goodyear Tire test back in February. The drivers that participated were Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya and Martin Truex Jr.
Almirola On a Roll
Aric Almirola currently holds the longest consecutive top-10 streak in the Sprint Cup Series after capturing his fourth straight last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, a 10th-place finish.
If Almirola can record a fifth consecutive top 10 at Darlington, it will mark the first time the No. 43 has accomplished the feat since 1983 when Petty posted seven straight.
"We sure are on a roll lately," Almirola said. "I think we're the only people that aren't surprised we're seventh in points. Todd (Parrott - crew chief), the guys and I are really clicking. We worked hard in the off-season to maintain our momentum and it worked. We need to keep it up and start moving to top fives and, hopefully, a win soon."
Hamlin Going the Distance
Denny Hamlin is expected to return to the No. 11 Toyota for his first full race this weekend since being sidelined with a back injury after a last-lap accident March 24 at Auto Club Speedway.
"More good news after this week's scan. Healing is going really (well) and I'm ready to go the distance this week. #makethechase," Hamlin tweeted on Wednesday.
He returned last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway but was relieved by Brian Vickers during the first caution.
"Last week was all about just going through the motions and getting the process of making a comeback - getting that started," Hamlin said. "We executed that and now this week in Darlington, it’s about completing all the laps and being there at the end to have a shot at a win. We know what we have to do if we want to make the Chase and this week is the first step, the first race in that comeback."
This weekend will mark Hamlin's eighth start at Darlington, where he leads all drivers with a 5.9 average finish. He won the Southern 500 in 2010.
Stewart Looking for Turnaround
Tony Stewart continues to look for his first top 10 since finishing eighth at Phoenix International Raceway, nine races ago.
Statistically, Stewart has been a slow starter each year when it comes to wins. But this season marks his longest streak of races without a top 10. Only four of Stewart's 47 wins have come in the first 10 races of a season. He's yet to win at Darlington but is coming off two consecutive top 10s there, including a third-place run last season.
Big Week for Front Row Motorsports
It’s been a big week for Front Row Motorsports after David Ragan claimed the first victory for the two-car operation. Ragan - along with teammate David Gilliland, who finished second at Talladega Superspeedway - have spent the week doing many media appearances that included Gilliland on MRN’s "Motorsports Monday" and Ragan on "NASCAR Live."