Hamlin, Gordon looking for warm welcome from 'Lady in Black'
Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon are hoping for strong showings at Darlington Saturday
Hamlin has a 6.6 finishing average at Darlington and led 179 laps back in 2007
The Darlington race is one of 10 night events on the Sprint Cup calendar
NASCAR's original superspeedway at 1.361 miles opened in 1950 with Johnny Mantz winning the Southern 300 in a field with 75 starters. Even more than a half-century later, "The Track Too Tough to Tame" still produces wild, unpredictable finishes with five different drivers taking the checkers in the last five Cup races.
But who will we be watching when the green flag flies for Saturday night's showdown?
Coming off his best finish of the season, a second at Richmond, Denny Hamlin needs another top-5 to make a move in the points and boost his Chase hopes. Hamlin is 17th, 24 points behind 12th-place Juan Pablo Montoya. Hamlin has the best finishing average, 6.6, in the field and led 179 laps in taking second in 2007. Jeff Gordon could use a strong finish at Darlington also. He's two points ahead of Hamlin heading into a track where he has seven wins, the last in 2007, and has 18 top-5s in 30 starts.
Hamlin's second at Richmond relieved pressure and added confidence, both necessary for him to start a turnaround to his season. He'll have a fast car and he'll put his new mindset to use to take a second-straight victory at Darlington.
Darlington isn't the only race that kicks off under the lights. Here's a quick snapshot of NASCAR's other night races:
April 9, Texas: Owner Bruton Smith originally invested $250 million to build this palace of speed and many millions after that to make it better for racing and fans. Jeff Burton won the inaugural race in 1997, but the most memorable in track history is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s initial Cup victory in 2000 and his celebration on the podium with his proud father. Matt Kenseth won this year's race.
April 30, Richmond International Raceway: Kyle Busch has back-to-back-to-back wins in this race, joining an illustrious long list of race winners dating to Lee Petty in the first Cup race on a half-mile dirt track in 1953. Richard Petty won the first race on pavement in 1968 at a distance of .625-mile, Davey Allison won the first race at the current .75-mile in 1988 and Harry Gant had the first victory under the lights in 1991.
May 29, Charlotte Motor Speedway: The home track to the vast majority of Cup teams, this has been the season's longest race at 600 miles since the track opened in 1960. Rick Hendrick-owned cars have the most wins with 16, six by Jimmie Johnson and five by Jeff Gordon. Kurt Busch won the 600 last year. It's been run under the lights since 1992.
July 2, Daytona International Speedway: NASCAR used to start this race at 10 a.m. to help spectators, teams and officials endure the heat and humidity. It ran at night for the first time in 1999, won by Dale Jarrett. The 400 isn't the 500, but it's still Daytona and a prize of the season. Richard Petty won his 200th race in the 400 in 1984. Kevin Harvick won last year.
July 9, Kentucky Speedway: The 400-miler will be its first Cup race. Bruton Smith took control of the 1.5-mile track outside Cincinnati in 2009 and traded his spring Atlanta event for Kentucky. The track opened in 2000 with a Camping World Truck race won by Greg Biffle and added a Nationwide race in 2001, won by Kevin Harvick, and both series have been held annually. It's been a popular track for testing by Cup teams.
Aug. 27, Bristol Motor Speedway: The annual August visit to the one-of-a-kind, high-banked .533-mile track is the longest running Saturday night show in Cup. Cale Yarborough took the first race under the lights in 1978. The track opened in 1961 with 18,000 seats and has a capacity (not always filled in recent races) of 160,000. Kyle Busch has won this race the past two years.
Sept. 4, Atlanta Motor Speedway: This will be the first season since the track opened in 1960 that it will not have two Cup events. It's the third straight year it's been run under the lights, which began when it was moved to Labor Day from the fall in an attempt to boost sagging attendance. Tony Stewart won this race a year ago; Dale Earnhardt has the most wins in track history, nine.
Sept. 10, Richmond International Raceway: The final race before the Chase has the probability of high drama thanks to NASCAR's decision to make wins an element of making it into the 12-driver post-season playoff. Big surprises have happened before. Jeremy Mayfield's victory in 2004 vaulted him from 14th in the points to ninth and put him in the then 10-driver Chase. Tony Stewart fell out of it when he finished 18th in 2006.
Oct. 15, Charlotte Motor Speedway: It's 500 miles on the season's second stop and the sole night race in the Chase. Non-chaser Jamie McMurray won it last year, his second at the track. Jimmie Johnson leads active drivers at the track with six wins and is tied with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for most all-time.
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