Saturday Night Shootout - The Sprint Cup Series Southern 500 Race Primer

BRISTOL, TN - MARCH 18: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Pepsi Max Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Jeff Byrd 500 Presented By Food City at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 18, 2011 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

It's one of the crown jewels of the schedule, every season.

It's not the original Southern 500 but a different Darlington is better than no Darlington and only the elite win here.

Unlike a large portion of the Series' venues where drivers can dominate over for several seasons in a row, an array of winners enter Darlington's victory lane - five different names in the last five races. And the Southern 500 typically invites competitive and close finishes. In 2003, Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch to the line by .002 seconds, the closest finish since the invention of timing and scoring in 1993.

That mark was matched three weeks ago at Talladega.

Expect the same teams that battled for the win at Talladega to also contend this Saturday night.

It's not that the two tracks share any similarities because they obviously do not. But both tracks do favor patience and resilience, a trait often found in veterans. Avoiding the famed Darlington stripe over the first 100 miles will be paramount.

The addition of SAFER barriers made the margin for error in avoiding the wall even smaller and rolling through the center will be more important than ever with the tighter car of tomorrow and spoiler package.

When making predictions, I'd start with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Denny Hamlin - in that order.

I'd make a case for Tony Stewart but Smoke has never won at Darlington and with the No. 14 trending downward, the two-time Cup champion might be outclassed.

Get the details after the jump!

Hamlin is the top active performer at Darlington with one win and an average finish of 6.6. The difference between Hamlin and second-best Jeff Gordon is the number of DNFs with Denny running at the finish of all five of his Darlington starts. Hamlin has four top-10s over that stretch and has a driver rating of 109.1 - third best in Sprint Cup.

Gordon has visited victory lane seven times and has an average finish of 11th (despite six DNFs). His driver rating of 117.6 tops all active drivers and has 18 top-5s, 21 top-10s and three poles. Gordon last visited Darlington's victory lane in 2007 and has a seven-race streak of top-5 finishes at the track. Gordon may be the closest thing to a sure bet as Darlington has.

Jimmie Johnson has two wins, six top-5s, and nine top-10s. He has an average finish of 9.3, slightly marred by two DNFs. His driver rating of 102.8 is fourth-best in the Sprint Cup.

Kyle Busch is riding a high wave of momentum off his Richmond victory and hopes to go two in a row at Darlington. Busch has only one win, one top-5 and three top-10s but face it, replacing him on this list anyone else is borderline foolish.

Mark Martin is sneaky good at Darlington and it comes back to experience.

Saturday will mark Martin's 50th start at the Lady in Black. Despite his elongated tenure, Martin has only three DNFs and has won at Darlington twice. Martin has an average finish of 12.1 with 17 top-5s, 26 top-10s and two poles. The kid is always fast here and the trend should continue on Saturday night.

Three of the above drivers need to get it going. Gordon, Martin, and Hamlin are all outside the top ten in Sprint Cup Standings. Only Jeff Gordon has a win (at Phoenix) and occupies one of the two provisional wild card slots. A.J. Allmendinger is other at 11th in points.

They all have something else in common: They're tremendous at Darlington. One, if not all of the above, should turn their seasons around on Saturday.

The Southern 500 Presented by Showtime from Darlington Raceway in Darlington, S.C. airs at 7 p.m. EST and will be televised live on FOX. Race threads will be posted for both touring series events on Friday and Saturday night. We hope you can join us at NASCAR Ranting and Raving!

Don't forget to read phillyfan_17's excellent fantasy round-up, live from Darlington Speedway. You can read that here.

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