When the NFL is upon us, it’s time for NASCAR to head to the track that’s Too Tough To Tame in the form of Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina. Also known as The Lady In Black, it loves being one of the toughest tests in the Cup series due to the racing surface, the design of the track, and the fact that it’s a once a year race.

The Southern 500 is one of the crown jewel races, along with the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Brickyard 400. That amps up the pressure on the drivers this week to perform on one of the sport’s biggest stages, not to mention the playoff picture is getting more firmly set by the week, with the first race of them being two weeks away. Getting through this race a winner tests both the metal of the car and also the fortitude of the drivers and teams. Darlington stripes are common and numerous by race’s end, gotten from running so close to the wall the paint transfers.

Overall this race is a 367-lap, 500-mile challenge that will start in sunlight and transfer to under lights as the only Sunday night race of the year. Of the 115 races run at Darlington, 70 times the winner has come from the top-five starting spots in the grid with the pole-sitter accomplishing it 20 times, most recently in 2014 when the race was run in April. The last four races however, the winner has come from between 8th and 13th in the grid.

Let’s start seeing what the odds look like this week.

Favorites

Kyle Larson (7/2) – Larson has led 408 laps here the last two races combined, including 284 in last year’s event and now he starts third on Sunday. He has a top-five car around him this week and it’s one of the tracks that he loves driving at because it fits his driving style which is why he has two top-fives and four top-10s in his five career races at Darlington. If he can finally finish one off here, it’s still a nice return on investment for being the favorite in the eyes of the odds marks.

Denny Hamlin (5/1) – Hamlin won this race back in 2017 with a remarkable drive through the field late in the race and has four top-10s in the last five races in South Carolina. He also has a great history here in the Xfinity level, which only helps to boost his confidence and rhythm during the race, with winning six times (though last night’s win was wiped away for a rules violation). He has a quick car this week having run top-10 in practice and will start ninth on Sunday, which is the same spot he started in in 2017 when he won.

Kevin Harvick (8/1) – Harvick has a win, four top-fives, and six-straight top-10s at this track while leading the most laps, getting the most fastest laps, and have the best driver rating in the last five races, not to mention the best average finish at 4.2. That’s a lot of accomplishments for a guy that is at this far down the odds list. He will start P11 on Sunday and ran P6 in long run speed, plus the fact that he runs well at Atlanta which is a very similar track in terms of driving style to Darlington.

Middling Odds

William Byron (13/1) – Byron is on the Pole for Sunday’s race, the youngest pole-sitter in race history and one of three drivers to be on the Pole for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, and Southern 500 in the same season. With a paint scheme that’s a dead ringer for Cole Trickle’s in Days of Thunder (where Cole Trickle also got his first win at Darlington), he has a top-three car based on practice speeds and he has a Crew Chief that has had success at this track. He should be able to run up front most of the night, but we’ll have to see if he can piece it all together for a win and nice payday for those betting on him.

Erik Jones (18/1) – Jones has run twice here and hasn’t finished outside the top-10 in either attempt and now this week has a car that ran P7 in long-run speed in both practice sessions. Jones will start P15 on Sunday but he’s got the speed and the experience to move up through the field and challenge for a win, thereby locking him into the playoffs in two weeks.

Clint Bowyer (35/1) – Bowyer has been more known for his run of bad luck than his accomplishments on the track, but that belies his consistency in this package. Bowyer has three top-fives and four top-10s in the eight similar races this year and he’s run inside the top-10 at practice this week before qualifying P13. He’s been fastest enough to win a few races this year and was just bitten by bad luck, if he can shake that after the off-week, he’ll be sitting pretty this weekend with the chance for a win.

Matt DiBenedetto (44/1) – What a week it was two weeks ago at Bristol when DiBenedetto nearly won his first Cup race ever after leading 93 laps and finishing second to Denny Hamlin. This week he has another top-10 car, but qualified P19 for the race leaving him with some work to do. However, the Bristol race proved that if you give him a fast car, he can run up front at this level and he’s got another fast car this week.

Longshots

Daniel Suarez (55/1) – Suarez needs a win to make the playoffs this and he’s starting in a great spot to do that, P5 in the grid. He’s not had quite the top-end speed he’s had the past few weeks but he thinks the paint scheme, which is Tony Stewart’s (his current boss) from the championship year, will bring some mojo his way. If he can manage to keep the track position and have clean pit stops, we could be looking at a nice pay day at the end of the race.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr (66/1) – Stenhouse is a guy, like Suarez, that needs a win to make the playoffs at this point and it’s a track that can fit his driving style, especially in this package. He’s shown top-seven speed in practice and will start in 21st when the race goes green. He will have his work cut out for him but his average finish in this package has been just outside the top-10 so he should be able to move up 10-11 spots, and then it’s a strategy game. For this kind of return, I’m willing to take a shot on a fast car with a strategy call.