Darlington Story Lines

Kevin Harvick

Although Kevin Harvick has a win, his season has been better known for the numerous disappointments. (Photo: Getty Images)

DARLINGTON, S.C. - One almost has to wonder what will happen next to Kevin Harvick and his team.

Fast all season, Harvick could have more than one win but mechanical issues have sidelined him. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has more finishes of 35th and worse (four) this season than he’s had in his last 138 races, dating back to 2010.

Even winning the pole for tonight’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway proved to be an adventure. Harvick’s car had to go through pre-qualifying inspection three times before it was cleared. By then, the first round of qualifying had begun.

Crew chief Rodney Childers says he thinks the team could have four wins in the first seven races but various issues have kept the team from reaching Victory Lane except at Phoenix.

“We’ve just had some weird stuff happen,’’ Childers said. “It would be one thing if it was one person’s fault, but nothing has been one person’s fault. It’s just been stuff that you wouldn’t ever think would happen. We have an issue, and then we spend all week getting that all worked out and make sure that doesn’t happen again and then we have another issue.

“It’s been a roller coaster. You go through the weekend, you feel really good about things. You get happy and you look forward to the race. You get going during the race and something happens and ... you’re like how can this be happening?’’

NASCAR’s new format of making the Chase - a win all but assures a spot - has made this start easier on Harvick, who is 26th in the points. 

“You just have to battle through it,’’ Harvick said. “There is nothing that you can change about it. I think if we were in the previous points format you would probably be in a whole lot worse mood about it, but since we have already won ... you just keep going about your business.’’

So the question is what will happen to Harvick tonight? Will he contend for the win or leave the track frustrated after another issue? That’s just among the story lines for tonight’s race.

Jeff Gordon

For the first time since 2009, Jeff Gordon enters a race as the points leader. That is comes at Darlington, a track he has seven career wins, makes some think that maybe tonight will be his night. 

Gordon has the same car he drove at Auto Club Speedway where he was strong much of the race before finishing 13th. He starts ninth tonight.

“Ninth is good but track position is important here and we’ll have to figure out how to set the car up ... (to) make sure we can get through traffic,’’ Gordon said. “We definitely saw some tire wear, some drop off, so that bode wells for track position being not as important.’’

Rookies

Eight rookies are in the field for tonight’s race. All but Cole Whitt have never made a Sprint Cup start at this track. Both Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson bounced off the wall in Friday’s practice and Larson had to go to a backup car.

Dillon says he likes this track but admits it challenges his driving style.

“It’s so easy for me to overdrive the tires,’’ Dillon said. “It’s the same tires, more horsepower (compared to Nationwide). I like to drive hard. I seem to be overdriving here lately.’’

We’ll see what kind of lessons the rookies learn tonight.

One Place Better

Denny Hamlin has finished second in each of the past two Southern 500s. Can he finish one place better?

Hamlin starts 10th.

“This is a pretty good track for us,’’ he said. “We didn’t quite qualify where I hoped we would, but we still made it past all three rounds and at least got ourselves a chance at (the pole).  All the Toyotas really look like they’re struggling for a little bit of speed right now. We’re towards the front of those guys and that’s really all we can ask for.”

Richard Petty Motorsports

RPM teammates Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose both qualified in the top five. Almirola starts third and Ambrose fourth.

The RPM cars have shown speed this season. Darlington has not been the kindest track to either driver, though. Almirola’s best finish here is 19th. Ambrose’s best finish in ninth. Will they do better this time?

Tough start

Seven races into the season and Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won. Making his task more difficult tonight is that he didn’t qualify well. He’ll start 26th. He’s started worse at Darlington only one other time. That was in 2009 when he started 42nd and finished second.

Johnson has three wins at this track but never started worse than 11th in any of those. The last time a driver started worse than 26th and won at Darlington was Ricky Craven in 2003. He started 31st.

 

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