Will Hendrick drivers be denied again?

May, 10, 2012
05/10/12
9:56
AM ET

When a usually dominant superpower slows down from its normal winning ways, we as sports fans want to know, "What's wrong with X?"

Whether it's the Yankees, Patriots, Lakers or Hendrick Motorsports, domination is the norm, and anything less leaves us begging for an explanation.

Sometimes, it's not so easy to answer the question. In the case of Hendrick, the team has had strong runs, races it should've won and cases of bad luck.

Still, through it all, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the most consistent driver in the series this year and is third in the standings. Jimmie Johnson is solidly within the top 10 in eighth place. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have had glimpses of strength negated by bad breaks.

But NASCAR is built on wins, and Hendrick hasn't done that since last October, the team's longest streak since a 17-race winless run over the 2001-02 seasons. The last time Hendrick went this long into the season without a win was 1993, aka Jeff Gordon's rookie season.

But Darlington could turn that around.

Dating back to 2005, when NASCAR began tracking loop data, all four current Hendrick Motorsports drivers rank among the top eight in driver rating at the Lady in Black, including Gordon, who's way out in front. No other team has more than one driver represented in the top eight.

However, which Jeff Gordon will show up? In 2010, Gordon had a career-best 134 driver rating, with his 69 fastest laps run in the race being twice as many as any other driver.

Last year, Gordon slipped to a still-respectable 107.3, the sixth-highest in the field.

Kasey Kahne is just as badly in need of a win as Gordon is, and last year, Kahne had the race's dominant car, all while driving for now-defunct Red Bull Racing. Kahne started from the pole and finished fourth, snapping a five-race Darlington stretch of finishes of 20th or worse.

But expect Kahne to start near the front. In nine career Darlington starts, he's won four poles.

Looking For Trouble

Every week, our friends over at ESPN Stats & Information crunch the numbers and tell us where the trouble zones might be this weekend.

After nearly 1,600 miles of Sprint Cup Series racing without an accident, we saw four, including a pair of nine-car pileups, at Talladega.

At Darlington, the sun might be the biggest obstacle. The sun is scheduled to set at Darlington around 8:13 p.m., during the first quarter of the race.

Since 2005, we've had at least one accident in the first quarter of the race in every Darlington night race, with 14 accidents total. Over the final 75 percent of the race, there have been a total of 20 accidents, with no more than eight in any other quarter.

The Eliminator: Darlington

For those of you who are new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make a pick.

It's pretty simple, instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the race winner.

And last year, I had Carl Edwards at Darlington, who finished second behind upset winner Regan Smith.

1. The last 13 Sprint Cup Series winners finished 16th or better in the last race at the track (30 drivers eliminated, 16 remaining).

2. The last 17 Darlington winners finished 17th or better in the previous week's race (nine eliminated, seven remaining).

3. Seven of the last nine Darlington winners had a top-10 finish in the last Texas race (four eliminated, three remaining).

4. Two of the last three Southern 500s have been won by drivers entering 15th or lower in points (two eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kasey Kahne

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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