After high drama at Kansas, NASCAR Cup stars head for Darlington Raceway

With “silly season” now in full swing, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to historic Darlington Raceway for a Throwback Weekend that pays homage to grass roots racing.

On Wednesday, Michael McDowell announced he will leave Front Row Motorsports after seven seasons with the organization. His new home? Spire Motorsports, where McDowell will drive the No. 71 Chevrolet under a multi-year deal.

On Sunday, in his penultimate appearance at Darlington for Front Row, McDowell will drive a No. 34 Ford featuring a retro Long John Silver’s paint scheme in the Goodyear 400 (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Though McDowell’s paint scheme is a tribute to 1970’s branding, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner already is looking ahead to his next ride. At Spire, McDowell will team with Corey LaJoie and Carson Hocevar, as Zane Smith exits the No. 71 Camaro in a planned move to Trackhouse Racing.

“This is a new chapter for my family and me, and we’re incredibly thankful for the opportunity that’s in front of us,” said McDowell, who has won pole positions at Atlanta and Talladega this season. “It’s going to take some hard work, but I feel like everything is in place for us to be successful as a race team — to win races and contend for championships.”

McDowell has three top 10s to his credit this season, the most recent a 10th-place finish last Sunday at Kansas Speedway. His record at Darlington, however, leaves plenty of room for improvement.

In 17 starts at the Lady in Black, McDowell has recorded a pair of top 10s—a seventh and sixth in 2022, the first year of NASCAR’s Next Gen race car.

Realistically, in looking for likely favorites at the 1.366-mile egg-shaped track, the usual suspects come to mind.

Hendrick Motorsports has produced the last two Cup Series winners at Darlington—William Byron last spring and Kyle Larson in last year’s Playoff race. Chevrolet drivers have won the last three events at the Track Too Tough to Tame after a dry spell for the manufacturer that lasted 11 straight races.

There’s nothing like getting ready for Darlington,” said Byron, who is sporting an Axalta paint scheme with bright flames reminiscent of Jeff Gordon’s 2009 Chevrolet. “It’s always exciting to go to that track and compete…

“That place is so nostalgic, and the fans really show up. There’s just something about that track that has clicked for me, and I hope we have a strong showing there again.”

Tied with Byron for the series lead in victories this season with three, Denny Hamlin has four career wins at Darlington, most among active drivers. Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. (two victories each) are the only other active drivers with more than one.

Larson comes to Darlington fresh from his dramatic victory at Kansas, where he beat Chris Buescher to the stripe by 0.001 seconds in the closest finish in Cup Series history.

Jones will return to the seat of the No. 43 Legacy Motor Club Toyota after a two-week absence due to a compression fracture of a lower vertebra suffered during an April 21 accident at Talladega. 

“I am super excited to get back to Darlington and hopefully go out and have a good run for our first race back with a pretty neat tribute to the Petty Family on the car,” said Jones, who won the 2022 Southern 500 in a Chevrolet fielded by Petty/GMS Motorsports, the predecessor of Legacy Motor Club.

William Byron, John Hunter Nemechek will challenge Xfinity regulars at Darlington

There’s a history of NASCAR Cup Series drivers stealing victories from NASCAR Xfinity Series regulars at Darlington Raceway, and that could be the case in Saturday’s Crown Royal Purple Bag Project 200 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

William Byron and John Hunter Nemechek are racing in both the Cup and Xfinity Series events on Throwback Weekend at the Track Too Tough to Tame. Byron is the defending winner of the Cup race, while Nemechek has two poles, three top fives and four top 10s in five starts at the track.

Nemechek also won at Las Vegas earlier this season in a double-duty appearance there.

Before Byron won last year’s race, however, JR Motorsports had triumphed in the previous three races, with Noah Gragson winning twice and Justin Allgaier once. A two-time winner at Darlington, Allgaier is hungry for a breakthrough victory this season after a number of close calls.

“Darlington has always been a really strong place for us, and I feel extremely confident that we will be just as quick again this weekend,” Allgaier said. “The last couple weeks didn’t go quite as we had planned, but I know that (crew chief) Jim (Pohlman) and all the guys on this BRANDT Professional Agriculture Chevrolet are ready to go and get back to the track.

“Hopefully, we can have a nice, smooth day and be up front when it matters at the end. We’re ready.”

JRM has added six races to part-timer Carson Kvapil’s schedule after Kvapil finished fourth at Martinsville and second at Dover in his only two starts in the series to date. Kvapil will make his third Xfinity appearance on Saturday.

Kyle Busch to make final 2024 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series start at Darlington

Surprisingly, Kyle Busch has never made a NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series start at Darlington Raceway, but that will change in Friday night’s Buckle Up South Carolina 200 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The all-time victory leader in the series with 66 wins, Busch has triumphed in two of his previous four starts this season, at Atlanta and Texas. The driver of the of the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet is a three-time winner in the Cup Series at Darlington.

“I’m looking forward to Friday night’s Truck Series race at Darlington,” Busch said. “The Truck Series has only raced at Darlington I think maybe 10 times or so (actually 11) and just started going regularly the last five years, but it never worked out for me on my truck schedule.”

To win his only Darlington start in a truck, Busch will have to beat defending winner Christian Eckes and the series’ most recent winner, Corey Heim, who took the checkered flag last Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Eckes is driving a Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme paying tribute to Brownie King, who raced on the Daytona Beach & Road Course and competed in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959.

Heim’s No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota bears a paint scheme memorializing Cale Yarborough’s 1974 Southern 500 Chevrolet.