CONCORD, N.C. – Who’s ready for a blast from the past?
This weekend, Hendrick Motorsports and the NASCAR Cup Series roll into Darlington Raceway for the first event hosted by the 1.366-mile facility this season. The spring race will serve as the annual throwback weekend for all three national series. For this event, all four Hendrick Motorsports entries will sport special liveries with callbacks to race cars of the past.
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On top of that, the drivers that make up NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers will be honored in a pre-race ceremony on Sunday. Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are among those that were selected to that prestigious list.
Outside of the festivities, the spring race at Darlington serves a more important purpose for later in the season. The track once again hosts the playoff opener on Sept. 3, a race that sets the tone of how a team’s postseason can play out. The track that has the nickname "Too Tough to Tame,” has a reputation for being tough on drivers and teams. Managing tires on Darlington’s older, worn-out pavement is imperative to success at this track, as noted by No. 24 team crew chief Rudy Fugle this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
"Darlington (Raceway) expedites that tire feel," Fugle said. "We might see everybody pitting in 30-35 laps on tires around Darlington. It will be exciting. The tire changers and the pit crew are definitely going to get workout. They are going to jump over the wall more Sunday than they do in two races most weeks."
The other challenging piece specific to Darlington is the track’s unique egg shape. Turn one and two’s longer, more sweeping design does not relate to that of turn three and four’s aggressive angles that shoot cars down the front straightaway. While running the top of turns three and four will produce additional speed, this maneuver can often come in a risk/reward situation, something that William Byron noted when talking about the venue.
"It’s tricky. You’ve got to run against the fence to be competitive but you run the risk of making mistakes," Byron said. "It’s tough to be disciplined enough to not make mistakes and be fast enough to have speed doing that. To balance those two things and then the balance of the car is difficult because it is always slick and sliding around."
Byron will aim to win his first race at Darlington this Sunday. Despite his efforts in last season’s spring race that included leading 24 laps, the No. 24 entry was moved out of the lead approaching two laps to go by eventual race winner Joey Logano. The ensuing contact knocked Byron down to the 13th position. That said, the 25-year-old-driver has seen success at the South Carolina facility recently as he earned a stage victory and a top-10 finish during September’s Southern 500. He enters this race with three straight top-10 finishes on the season, which is the longest active streak among all drivers. Byron will have additional seat time this weekend as he makes a start in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race on Friday night for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the No. 51 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Silverado.
Although Larson has yet to visit victory lane at Darlington, he's come close several times. The 30-year-old had three straight runner-up finishes at the 1.366-mile facility from 2019 to 2021. He has five top-five finishes and seven top-10s in 10 starts at this track. On top of that, the 2021 Cup Series champion's 9.2 average finish at Darlington is second-best among all drivers with more than two starts and his 683 laps led since 2016 are the most of all drivers over that span. In total, Larson has led 686 circuits at the South Carolina track, which is the third-highest total among a driver that does not have a Darlington victory. Like Byron, he will log additional seat time this weekend with a NASCAR Xfinity Series start in the No. 10 HendrickCars.com Chevy for Kaulig Racing. The historic venue holds a special place in the heart of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
"I always look forward to going to Darlington," Larson said. "I’ve always wanted to win at Bristol and we won a race at Bristol (in 2021). So Darlington is kind of next on my list. I want to win everywhere, but Darlington is a track that I have been really fast at in the past, so I always get excited for that race."
Elliott's record at Darlington has had its ups and downs. On one hand, the Dawsonville, Georgia, native has shown speed at the track, leading 142 laps in the three races held there during the 2020 season. His best result at "The Lady in Black" came in the first of those events, with a fourth-place finish. All told in 12 starts, he has three top-five finishes and five top-10s -- the most recent of those came in a backup car last spring where he rallied for a fifth-place result. Since returning from injury last month at Martinsville Speedway, the 2020 Cup Series champion has not finished outside the top 12 and is coming off a seventh-place finish at Kansas Speedway.
Josh Berry will continue to fill in for Alex Bowman, who is out with a fractured vertebra suffered in a sprint car event in Iowa on April 25. Berry, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports affiliate JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, was the substitute driver for five of the races that Elliott missed earlier this season. The 32-year-old Henderson, Tennessee, native earned a career-best second-place finish while subbing for Elliott at Richmond Raceway. The event will be Berry’s first in a Cup Series car at Darlington, although he has earned a best finish of second at the track in 2021 with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.
As a company, Hendrick Motorsports has earned a record 14 wins at Darlington. Vice chairman and NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon leads the way with seven victories while Jimmie Johnson recorded three wins. Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Tim Richmond and Ricky Rudd each earned a single victory at the 1.366-mile track during their time with Rick Hendrick’s team.
PHOTOS: See every Darlington winner for Hendrick Motorsports
Here’s what you need to know to catch this weekend’s action.
WHAT TIME IS PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING?
Group practice will begin at 10:35 a.m. ET on Saturday, May 13, and will be broadcast on FS1. Qualifying will follow practice and begin at 11:20 a.m. ET with coverage also on FS1.
Elliott and Byron will be in Group A, while Berry and Larson will be part of Group B.
WHAT TIME IS THE RACE?
The 400-mile Cup Series main event is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET with coverage on FS1.
CAN I LISTEN ON THE RADIO?
Cup Series broadcast will be on MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).
CAN I STREAM ONLINE?
WHAT CHANNEL IS FS1 AND FS2?
It varies by location, but this link allows viewers to find the channels by entering their zip code and selecting their television provider.
FIVE FAST FACTS HEADING INTO DARLINGTON
Data provided by Racing Insights
4.67: Average finish from Byron in the last three races in 2023. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native has led 204 laps during these events.
7: Starts Berry has made for Hendrick Motorsports in 2023. This tenure has been highlighted by a runner-up finish at Richmond in April.
21: Points made on the provisional playoff cutline by Elliott last weekend. He currently sits 81 points out of the postseason via points, even after missing six races.
95: Hendrick Motorsports has won 95 times at 26 different tracks since last winning at Darlington (Jimmie Johnson in 2012, which was the organization's 200th Cup Series win).
553: Laps led by Larson in 2023. The driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com entry led 635 all of last season.