Five non-Danica story lines for the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Saturday night:
1. JUNIOR’S BACK
George W. Bush was still in the White House the last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a Sprint Series race. His last win was in June 2008 in Michigan. Junior has moved up in the series standings — he’s in third place, nine points back from the leader — thanks to a series-high eight top-10 finishes in the season’s first 10 races. An end to his drought could re-engage Junior’s army and boost attendance and viewership across NASCAR. He has the fifth-best average finish at Darlington in the past decade, including six top-10s. Earnhardt is looking for his first victory at the track where his father won nine times.
2. THE BIFF IN CHARGE
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The first 10 races of the season have belonged to Greg Biffle. Grabbing a NASCAR-best six top-fives —including a win at Texas —and finishing no worse than 18th has left him atop the standings for eight straight race weeks. Biffle has never won the title but appears headed for a top spot when the Chase starts. He won twice at Darlington in 2005 and 2006 and finished eighth last year. Solidifying his slim lead over Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth should be a good motivator this weekend.
3. BACK OF THE PACK WATCH
Regan Smith was 29th in the points when he won last year’s race at Darlington. Will another driver in the back of standings have a shot this weekend? Maybe, considering the talent sitting 20th or worse. Jeff Gordon, who at Darlington has averaged a series-best fourth-place over the past seven races and managed seven career wins, is 23rd in the standings and needs victories to earn a spot in the Chase. Don’t discount Mark Martin, who is 24th but has started seven of the season’s 10 races in a part-time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing.
4. FEUD SEQUEL UNLIKELY
Darlington promoters have been running ads with last year’s post-race tussle between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to draw fans for this weekend. After colliding late in the race, Harvick stopped in front of Busch on pit road and got out of the car to confront him. Busch then drove forward and pushed Harvick’s car into the inside pit wall. Both drivers have been quiet this season while holding spots in the Chase — Harvick is fifth and Busch is ninth. But fans won’t forget. Expect cheers for Harvick and boos for Busch.
5. TONY TRIES TO TAME DARLINGTON
Tony Stewart, last year’s series champ, has never won at Darlington. His only other winless tracks are Kentucky (which made its Sprint Cup debut last year) and Rockingham (which is no longer on the top circuit). It’s not that Stewart has struggled at Darlington, where he did win a Nationwide race in 2008. Stewart’s best finish was third in 2009, and he crossed the line seventh last year.