Jim Utter: If NASCAR is going to keep any links to its history, tracks like Darlington and Martinsville are the best way to preserve them. Darlington was the first fully-paved speedway in the Cup Series and Martinsville a throWBAck to the short track roots of most drivers. The annual ThroWBAck weekend at Darlington is important not only for fans, but for many of the sport’s participants. NASCAR will never be like those days again, but it’s fun to recall how much it has changed.
Nick DeGroot: It’s one of the few threads that still links NASCAR to its past and hopefully it is never severed. NASCAR without Darlington is like Boston without Fenway, it’s one of the oldest and most historic races. The only track I rank above it in historical importance is Daytona. The implementation of ‘ThroWBAck Weekend’ has revived this race after it was nearly killed due to some unfortunate decisions made in the mid-2000s. It’s importance cannot be understated.
Tim Southers: I think the race is still important to a lot of long-time racers and fans. This was always considered one of the ‘Big 4’ races on the Cup Series schedule and in my opinion, I feel it remains a marquee win on any driver’s resume. The track is probably more challenging for a driver than any other on the schedule and to win there proves you know how to handle a Cup car. The ThroWBAck weekend marketing plan is probably one of the top three events in the past 25 years of the series and probably one fo the top five of all-time in the history of the sport in my opinion.
2. With two races remaining in the regular Cup Series season, do you think anyone not in the playoff grid now will win their way in? If so, who?
Jim: Although I think it unlikely, I can still envision a possibility that either Clint Bowyer or Jimmie Johnson could win one of the next two races and lock themselves into the playoffs. Both have had struggles of late but if I were to give the nod to one, I’d go with Johnson.
Nick: Yes, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson are the best bets to win their way in, but I would keep an eye on DiBenedetto. That No. 95 surprised a lot of people at Bristol and maybe they can do just that again at Darlington.
Tim: I think there will be a winner and I think that person will be Clint Bowyer. My heart wants to see Jimmie Johnson get a win and continue his push for a record eighth title but I just don’t see it happening.
3. Denny Hamlin won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in 2017 and is one of the hottest drivers in the sport right now. Would you take him versus the field if you were betting in Las Vegas?
Jim: Not a chance. Not because I don’t think Hamlin could win at Darlington – he certainly can – but because the 500-mile Cup race there simply presents a wide variety of variables. For one, Hamlin and his team have had issues on pit road this season and second, even a driver who runs Darlington perfect much of the race can still manage a run-in with the wall and spoil their day.
Nick: If I was betting Hamlin against the field, I’d take the field. This race is too unpredictable and has had eight different winners in the last eight races. If we’re going to see another new Southern 500 winner, crowned, I’d bet on Logano.
Tim: Yes I would and I would double down if I could on that bet. One thing you need to finish well at Darlington Raceway is to have complete confidence in your car, team and your driving abilities. I feel Hamlin feels really good about all three entering this weekend.
4. What are your expectations for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Saturday’s Xfinity race, in what is likely his only NASCAR start of the season?
Jim: Following his escape from a fiery plane crash just two weeks ago, we’re lucky we even get to see Dale Jr. compete again. I expect his JR Motorsports No. 8 Chevrolet will be well-prepared and so long as Earnhardt has fully recovered, there is no reason he couldn’t win the race. He finished fourth and led 96 laps in his lone start last season at Richmond.
Nick: Like Jim said, it’s a relief to hear he is well enough to even be running this race after the plane crash. Those JR Motorsports cars haven’t been as strong this year as they have been in the past but I expect him to be in contention and to bring home a top-five.
Tim: If not for the plane crash a couple of weeks ago I would say a top-five or maybe even a top three. I honestly have no idea now, but I think a top-10 finish is not out of the question.