Kevin Harvick is on a mission to win the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He entered the weekend with a statistical advantage in the form or four consecutive top-five finishes on this track, and while that made him a pre-weekend favorite, once the weekend starts opinions often get changed. That did not happen this week. Harvick dominated all three rounds of qualification and took the pole with a lap of 177.730 mph. In fact, that was better than his second-round time, which is not supposed to happen on this track.
Harvick is absolutely one of this week’s favorites.
Notably, the three drivers lined up behind him on the grid are the ones who have been dominating the series for the past several months. Martin Truex Jr. won the outside pole with a lap more than one-10th slower that Harvick’s. That is a big margin, but it matters less at Darlington than on many courses because the key to success is tire management. Bear in mind that the teams have to start the race on the tires they qualified and saving rubber started in round one. Truex should lead a lot of laps on Sunday.
Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson line up on row two. Both drivers have solid records on this track, but in the past three years they have been more likely to score top-fives than -10s. Busch’s last top-five came in 2012. Larson finished third last year, but that was the first time in three starts that he finished better than eighth. In all likelihood the Kyles are going to lose place-differential points and that could make a difference in hotly contested leagues.
Larson gets a little advantage because of his 10-lap average speeds in both of Friday’s practices. He posted the quickest time in Happy Hour and was second-best in the first session. He is near enough the front that he should be able to log some laps led in the first have of segment one and then pick off the leaders. Even if he falls back to the high side of the top 10, he should earn enough laps led points to offset a negative place-differential.
Denny Hamlin was the quickest driver in practice one and he too has one of the best records at Darlington in recent years. He won the Southern 500 in 2010 and since then has finished worse than sixth only once. He was the runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2012 and Matt Kenseth in 2013 while steadily padding his stats. Last year, he finished fourth so he could add four or five place-differential points to his tally on Sunday.
Ryan Blaney was the second-quickest in terms of 10-lap averages in Happy Hour. He does not yet have the records to recommend him in all situations, but he is a smart driver who could eventually put his name in the record book on this course. The biggest question mark on him is that he often lacks patience when put in the eye of the storm. One bad pit stop could unravel his day.