Five Drivers to Watch in the SHOWTIME Southern 500

By: Jared Turner
DARLINGTON, S.C. (April 27, 2011) – While Darlington Raceway is known for testing the patience and skill of even the most accomplished and talented Sprint Cup Series drivers, a few have managed to conquer the historic, egg-shaped oval.

Here are five drivers, all past Darlington winners, worth watching in the 2011 SHOWTIME Southern 500:
The defending race winner of the SHOWTIME Southern 500, Hamlin has proven to be quite a fast learner when it comes to Darlington. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has four top 10s in five Darlington starts, capped by his win in 2010. Hamlin’s worst finish at Darlington was 13th in 2009. The Virginia native accomplished a rare feat last year at Darlington, capturing the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races at the “Lady in Black” on back-to-back days. Hamlin became the first driver since Mark Martin in 1993 to sweep a Darlington weekend. “I looked at this trophy in Victory Lane,” Hamlin said after leading 104 laps en route to his Darlington Cup triumph. “The faces on it are unbelievable. Mine is going to stick out like a sore thumb, I can tell you. Hopefully one day it's a face that fits in with those guys.” Perhaps just as impressive as his strong finishes, Hamlin has completed all 367 laps in each of his five starts at the notoriously tricky 1.366-mile track. He’s spent a total of 298 laps out front, including 179 en route to a second-place finish in 2007.
If anyone knows how to get around Darlington, it’s Gordon. With seven wins in 30 starts at the track  “Too Tough To Tame”, the four-time Sprint Cup champion leads all active drivers in Darlington victories. Altogether, Gordon has amassed 21 top 10s, including 18 top fives and led 1,720 laps. He’s also notched a trio of Darlington poles. Gordon’s most memorable Darlington outing was the 1997 SHOWTIME Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. Needing to win the race to claim a $1 million bonus from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Gordon did just that by holding off a furious charge from Jeff Burton in the final two laps. The triumph helped boost Gordon to a second series title and cement his place as one of the sport’s brightest stars. Gordon qualified second and finished fourth in the 2010 SHOWTIME Southern 500. “When I came along, Darlington – the history of the track and how it fit into NASCAR's history – was very well-documented,” he said. “The names, (Richard) Petty and (David) Pearson and (Cale) Yarborough and (Dale) Earnhardt (Sr.), were things that stuck out to me as, 'Wow. If you can win here then you're really doing something.' So I put a lot of effort into trying to win there because I felt like it was a really cool race track, a tough race track. Only the best of the best in our sport go on to win there."
It has truly been the best of times and the worst of times for Biffle at Darlington. His resume at the track includes a pair of wins – in 2005 and 2006 – but no other top fives and only two more top 10s in his 10 Darlington starts. Since his last Darlington victory, Biffle has finished no better than eighth. His results haven’t always been a true indicator of his performance, however. Biffle started from the pole and led 95 laps at Darlington in 2008 before being relegated to 43rd with a blown engine. The Roush Fenway Racing driver finished 22nd after slapping the wall in last year’s SHOWTIME Southern 500. “Darlington is the hardest place we race,” Biffle said. “We run inches off the wall at speeds we run at mile-and-a-half tracks. Any second it’ll reach out and bite you and that’s why they call it the ‘Lady in Black.’ It is also very hard to pass there which obviously adds another challenge. We’ve been able to have some success there, including a couple of wins, so I always have high expectations when we go to Darlington.”
The reigning five-time Sprint Cup Series champion tends to excel at just about every track, and Darlington is no exception. Johnson has two wins at Darlington – both coming in 2004 when the track last hosted two annual Sprint Cup races. While his last six trips to Darlington haven’t yielded more wins, Johnson has remained stout with four finishes inside the top seven. The Hendrick Motorsports driver recorded his first Darlington DNF in 2010, finishing 36th on the heels of a hard crash. Johnson had just gotten back on the lead lap by virtue of a caution flag when he was collected by a spinning AJ Allmendinger on lap 180. “DNFs are uncommon for us but we didn’t qualify good last year [here] and worked our way up to a second-place finish by the end,” Johnson said after the 2010 SHOWTIME Southern 500. “I feel like we were in position to have maybe a top-five, top-10 run. We had some extensive body damage that was going to keep us from contending for the win but I stayed in front of [race leader Denny Hamlin] for a long, long time with a torn-up race car. We put a fender on it and made it better. We were really going to show everyone what the 48 team is capable of. Unfortunately we got taken out.”
Ever the ageless one, 52-year-old Martin is the only driver to win a Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington on both the track’s old surface and the current pavement that was added prior to the 2008 race. Interestingly, Martin’s Darlington wins came 16 years apart – first in 1993 in a Roush Racing Ford and most recently in 2009 while driving a Chevrolet out of Hendrick Motorsports.  “This place has always been a challenge, and the challenge is quite a bit different after the most recent repave,” Martin said. “It keeps you working all the time. This repave and the composition of this asphalt is greatly different than anything they had put down before. The handling challenges are greatly different than anything we’ve dealt with here before. You never know where these wins are going to come from.” Even when Martin hasn’t ended up in Victory Lane at Darlington, he’s usually been a contender. He has 26 top 10s, including 17 top fives, in 44 starts at the track “Too Tough To Tame.” The Batesville, Ark., native also owns a pair of Darlington poles. The 2011 SHOWTIME Southern 500 will be Martin’s third and final start at Darlington for Hendrick Motorsports as he’s leaving the organization at season’s end to make room for Kasey Kahne.

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Darlington Raceway, or the track Too Tough To Tame as it is known to many, is where the purest of NASCAR competition meets true southern hospitality. A NASCAR staple since 1950, Darlington Raceway has seen some of motorsports most talented drivers thunder to Gatorade Victory Lane. On Mother’s Day weekend, May 6-7, 2011, NASCAR’s biggest stars return to battle the track Too Tough To Tame in the Sprint Cup Series SHOWTIME Southern 500® and Nationwide Series Royal Purple 200.

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