*Bliss, Keller Lead Teams Home To Darlington Raceway *JGR Winner Of Last Five Races; Hamlin Two Straight At Darlington *Rusty Wallace Racing Finding Solid Footing In 2008 Happy Returns At Darlington For Phoenix Racing, Bliss; Keller, ...
*Bliss, Keller Lead Teams Home To Darlington Raceway
*JGR Winner Of Last Five Races; Hamlin Two Straight At Darlington
*Rusty Wallace Racing Finding Solid Footing In 2008
Happy Returns At Darlington For Phoenix Racing, Bliss; Keller, CJM
Veteran drivers Mike Bliss (No. 1 Miccosukee Resorts Chevrolet) and Jason Keller (No. 11 America's Incredible Pizza Co. Chevrolet) collectively have over 25 years of NASCAR Nationwide Series racing under their belts.
But regardless of their experience, there's still plenty that excites them. And Friday night's Diamond Hill Plywood 200 at one of NASCAR's most famous tracks -- Darlington Raceway -- is the rule rather than the exception.
Added to the thrill of racing under the lights at the newly-paved, egg-shaped oval for Bliss and Keller are their circumstances, each with South Carolina as a centerpiece.
Bliss drives for long-time series owner James Finch, whose Phoenix Racing operation is based in Spartanburg.
Among five NASCAR Nationwide Series-only drivers in the top 10 in the standings, Bliss and Finch's No. 1 Chevy are fifth -- the highest ranking among those drivers.
Keller is a native son from Greenville and has etched his name in the series record book as the all-time leader in starts. He comes to Darlington with 433.
Keller's return is also an anniversary for his CJM Racing team. The organization made its debut at Darlington last year where Keller brought the No. 11 car home 14th.
"It's really amazing to think how far this team has come in a year," Keller said. "Since then, we've gone from a limited team to a full-blown Nationwide Series team. I guess you could say it's our one-year anniversary and what a great track to have that happen at.
"(Personally), it's considered my hometown track so there is a level of excitement at Darlington that I don't have anywhere else."
Hamlin's Turn: Two-Time Defending Winner Rides Emotional Wave
If Denny Hamlin (No. 18 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota) wasn't an excitable guy in the past, this last week surely has changed his demeanor.
After winning his first race of the season at his home track of Richmond International Raceway last Friday night, the native of Chesterfield, Va., rides that emotional wave into Darlington where he's won the last two races -- each from the pole -- at the 1.366-mile "Lady in Black."
Hamlin will be making his 100th career start in the series at Darlington -- the track where he made his series debut in November 2004, finishing eighth.
That start was in the No. 18 car for Joe Gibbs Racing, his only start in that ride until Friday night.
Although Clint Bowyer (No. 2 BB&T Chevrolet) leads the series driver standings, it's JGR that leads the owner standings thanks to a five-race winning streak by the team.
"I'm excited to get back with the 18 guys since they were the team to give me my first series start back in 2004 at this very race track," Hamlin said. "The core group of guys that were with me then are still a part of that team, so it's going to be special to be back with them at Darlington."
RWR Coming Of Age In Year Five
With two full-time drivers for the first time in its history, both are propelling Rusty Wallace Racing to what is shaping up to be its most consistent season.
In 10th place this week, David Stremme (No. 64 Atreus Homes & Communities Chevrolet) became the first driver to crack the top-10 standings for the team. He's posted two top fives and six top 10s in 10 races this year. Max Papis drove the No. 64 in Mexico City.
Meanwhile, young Steve Wallace (No. 66 Atreus Homes & Communities Chevrolet) seems to be hitting his stride. He registered his career-best finish -- fifth -- last week at Richmond and has two top-10 efforts in his last three races.
Maybe there's some good karma working this week -- Jamie McMurray captured the team's first win in 2006 at Darlington.
Anyone See A Pattern Here?
Mark Martin (No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet), the series' all-time leader in wins (48) and poles (30) is set for his second start of the season for JR Motorsports. He won at Las Vegas in March in his only other 2008 start.
Speaking of series records, Martin also owns the mark for career wins and poles at Darlington, eight of each. He's won three of his last five series races at the track and was second to Denny Hamlin last year. He was fourth in 2006.
His wins there have all come in successive races -- three straight from 1993-94; two in a row in 1995-96 and a trio from 1999-2000.
Another Split Title In The Offing?
It's happened twice before in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, most recently last year when the driver and owner championships were split decisions.
This year may be more of the same.
Clint Bowyer leads the driver standings by a scant nine points over defending driver champion Carl Edwards (No. 60 Scotts Water Smart Ford) and is 12 points ahead of Kyle Busch (No. 32 Beringer Vineyards Toyota). But it's the No. 20 Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing with the edge in the owner standings.
JGR is 107 points ahead of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, which is in second place.
Tony Stewart (three wins in 2008) will drive the No. 20 Old Spice Toyota at Darlington.
In The Loop: Red-Hot Hamlin Has Eyes On Darlington "Three-Peat"
Denny Hamlin fulfilled a life-long goal last week, entering Victory Lane at his home track, Richmond International Raceway. Now he'll go for three wins in a row at historic Darlington, a track he's dominated the past two years.
During last year's win, Hamlin notched a near-perfect Driver Rating of 146.6 (a perfect rating is 150.0). And over the last two Darlington races, Hamlin has had an Average Running Position inside the top four -- he had a 2.9 in 2006 and a 3.7 last season.
Hamlin has finished inside the top 10 in each of his four Darlington races and over the past three, owns series-high numbers in average Driver Rating (122.8), Average Running Position (5.6) and Laps in the Top 15 (98.4%). He ranks second in Fastest Laps Run with 41.
Threatening Hamlin for this weekend's win could be Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Citifinancial Ford) -- the last driver not named Hamlin to win at Darlington. Kenseth, who conquered Darlington in both 1999 and 2005, has run just three series races this season to the tune of a win and two top-five finishes.
Over the last three races, Kenseth has a Darlington Driver Rating of 117.1, an Average Running Position of 8.3 and a series-high total Fastest Laps Run (45).
Also watch for two series-only regulars to run up front -- Jason Leffler (No. 32 Great Clips Toyota) and Kenny Wallace (No. 28 U.S. Border Patrol Chevrolet).
Leffler has finished in the top 10 in each of the last two Darlington races and has scored a Driver Rating of 104.8 and Average Running Position of 10.2 during that span.
Wallace may open some eyes as well. He has run 22 Darlington races in the series, finishing in the top 10 in eight of them. He finished second to Kenseth in 2005, notching a Driver Rating of 125.7 and an Average Running Position 3.1.
Richard Childress Racing has earned a NASCAR Nationwide Series victory at 23 of the 26 tracks on the 2008 schedule. The only tracks on the current schedule where RCR hasn't earned wins are Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City, Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway.
Three drivers ranked in the top 10 have managed their standing despite differences in laps led after the first 11 races of the year.
Mike Wallace (No. 7 GEICO Toyota) has completed more laps this season than any other driver in series competition with 1,912 -- failing to finish only six total laps thus far.
David Reutimann (No. 99 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota) is one of only two drivers among the top 10 to have not led a single lap this season. He's sixth in the points, while fellow competitor David Stremme is 10th and also has yet to lead a lap in 2008.
Huggies and Pull-Ups brands, along with Rite Aid Pharmacy, are delivering a special "thank you" to all moms this Mother's Day weekend by presenting the Women's Auxiliary of Motorsports (WAM) a $10,000 check at Darlington Raceway to aid the organization's commitment to enriching the lives of women, children and families.
In addition to the donation, driver Brad Coleman's No. 27 Ford will honor all moms by featuring a special paint scheme. His mother, Cindi Coleman, and Ann Schrader, WAM board member and wife of NASCAR driver Ken Schrader, will assist in presenting the check.
Mother's Day is Sunday.
Bill France Performance Cup Standings
Toyota has the lead in the Bill France Performance Cup standings and has a key opportunity to break through for its first win at Darlington.
Although third-place Ford leads in manufacturer wins at the track (16), two-time defending winner Denny Hamlin drives a Toyota and has to be considered a strong favorite.
Up Next: CARQUEST Auto Parts 300 at Lowe's Motor Speedway
Following an open week -- which does include a test opportunity at Lowe's Motor Speedway -- the NASCAR Nationwide Series competes at what, for most teams, is their "home" track.
The CARQUEST Auto Parts 300 runs on Saturday night, May 24. Kasey Kahne is the defending race winner while Matt Kenseth captured his fourth pole there last year, most in the series at the track.
The Race: Diamond Hill Plywood 200
The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Friday, May 9
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET
The Distance: 200 miles / 147 laps
Track Size: 1.366-mile oval
2007 Winner: Denny Hamlin
2007 Pole: Denny Hamlin
Schedule: Thursday--Practice 3-4:30 p.m.; 5:40-6:50 p.m.; Final Practice 8:10-9 p.m.; Friday--Qualifying, 3:10 p.m. (Impound)