By R. Boden
Ah, yes- one of my favorite weekends of the entire race season. Maybe it’s the memory of one of the greatest Cup finishes of the 21st Century, with Ricky Craven barely edging out Kurt Busch for a wild win in 2003. Maybe it’s the (not so) classic tussle between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in 2011 at the conclusion of the Fall race at this very track. Or maybe it’s merely the fact that it’s Thowback Weekend- doesn’t get any better than that, right?. Whatever it is, It’s Darlington, baby. Let’s jump right into it.
Driver to Fade: Brad Keselowski- This was the hardest pick for me this week, as the Lady in Black rarely discriminates. That said, I just don’t see the Michigan native making any real noise on Sunday afternoon. 2022 has been nothing but change for Keselowski- a new team, new car, and very few stand-out finishes thus far. Sitting at an abysmal 30th in standings right now, his Darlington stats are somewhat of a roller coaster ride- he does, on average, tend to do moderately well at Darlington, averaging nearly a 10th place finish throughout an almost 20-year career in NASCAR. Wouldn’t surprise me if he were to finish strong this week, but I’m not holding my breath. The #6 team still has a lot to figure out before it begins to seriously compete in 2022.
Dark Horse: Corey LaJoie- OK, so I’m definitely a sucker for the Marty Robbins tribute this week (seriously, it’s my favorite throwback so far at Darlington). But that’s not why I’m picking him to keep things interesting. The 30-year-old Charlotte native kept things close at Darlington during the Fall of last year, consistently running in the Top 10 for most of the race before settling for a 15th place finish at the Southern 500 following a costly Stage 3 caution. He got his first Top 5 finish at Atlanta just a couple months ago and has been a pleasant surprise on tracks large and small over the past couple years. He says the 2022 season is “his time to collect;” I just get that gut feeling this week. A spin in practice yesterday brought him within inches of starting at the rear, but fate had different plans. Keep any eye out for Marty Rob- er, sorry, Corey LaJoie to turn more heads this week in the #7.
Top 10: Kevin Harvick- If there’s one driver who can wreck during Practice and climb back to the top of the field at Darlington, it’s The Closer. Darlington has really been Kevin’s “darling” throughout his career. He’s won here 3 times since 2014, and has nabbed 12- yes, 12- consecutive Top 10 finishes since 2013. Make no doubt, he’s hungry. He’s staying relevant in holding the 12th spot in the standings right now but make no bones about it… the 46-year-old won’t be pacing the back of the field for long on Sunday. He finished 9th at Dover last Monday; I look for a repeat Top 10 finish this week.
Winner: Austin Dillon- How cool would it be to see the #3 in Victory Lane on Throwback Weekend? I think it’s gonna happen. 2022 has been the story of “so close, but no cigar” for the RCR racer so far. But, in the same vein as previous RCR guys (like the guy I just mentioned above), Dillion tends to do well at Darlington, with two Top 5 and Top 10 finishes a piece. He’s got three Top 5 finishes this season, alone, and came very close at Talladega just two weeks ago. Sitting at 15th in the points right now, starting 14th on Sunday, and sporting a Huk sponsorship, I look for Dillon to finally cash in this week. I’m taking the 32-year-old North Carolina native to take the checkered flag at the Goodyear 400 in Darlington, SC.