Who's ready to get a look at the brand-new Darlington?
Yes, Darlington might not eat tires the way it used to, but she's still the Lady in Black to me (I wonder if she has a friend she can hook me up with wait a minute, I do realize it's a racetrack, right? Yeah, but still, she might have a cute friend. Maybe I should just close these parentheses).
Hopefully, Darlington won't change too much. It can provide moments like last year, when Jeff Gordon (and specifically his engine) managed to survive overheating, water spewing out the overflow and I can assume his check engine light glowing to beat Denny Hamlin last season.
Or, how about in 2003, when Ricky Craven led just one lap. The final one, by .002 seconds ahead of Kurt Busch, whose car he was grinding against coming to the finish line, a moment resembling my first driver's test. That's the closest finish in NASCAR since electronic scoring debuted, by the way.
Later in 2003, Terry Labonte, whose first win came in the Southern 500 (more on that later), won the final running of the race, the final win of his Cup career and first in more than four seasons. Can somebody get us back to Darlington on Labor Day weekend?
I'm sure everybody has a list of great Darlington moments, but I'm not here to reminisce, I'm here to eliminate. It's what they pay me for, after all.
OK, Darlington is a tough track, and new drivers can expect to put a Darlington stripe on the side of their cars Saturday night. But don't expect any of them to win. No active driver has gotten his first career win at the track too tough to tame. That'll take out 15 from the 45-car entry list. In fact, only five drivers, period, have gotten their first career win at Darlington, which gets us to
Trivia break! Who was the last driver to pick up his first Cup series victory at Darlington?
Not only do you have to be a former race winner to win at Darlington but it helps to have some recent success there, as well. Thirteen of the past 14 winners of the season's first race at Darlington finished at least 16th in the series' previous trip to the Lady in Black. That streak goes back to Dale Earnhardt in 1994, and the only exception is Greg Biffle in 2005 (he came back to win at Darlington in 2006). That'll take out about half the remaining field -- 14 drivers.
A streak from last week continues. The past eight Sprint Cup Series winners this season finished at least 11th in the previous week's race. Clint Bowyer kept that up last week at Richmond, and look for this week's winner to do so, too. That'll cut things in half again -- leaving eight.
Here's a disturbing trend for a manufacturer used to dominating. Chevrolet, despite having three wins in 10 races this season, has yet to win on a track measuring more than a mile. We'll take out the rest of the Chevys as they try to get their intermediate program in check. That leaves us with only three.
The past six races at Darlington have been won by a car out of one of two stables, Roush Fenway and Hendrick. We've already taken out all the Chevys, so that'll eliminate the two drivers from outside Roush Fenway. And we have a winner for the week, but first
He already has come through for The Eliminator once this season, so look for Carl Edwards on Saturday night at Darlington. Remember, the numbers don't lie.
No active driver has won his first career race at Darlington.
(15 drivers eliminated, 30 remaining)
Sam Hornish Jr.,
Thirteen of the past 14 winners of the season's first race at Darlington finished at least 16th in the previous Darlington race.
(14 drivers eliminated, 16 remaining)
Juan Pablo Montoya,
The past eight race winners this season finished in the top 11 in the previous Sprint Cup race.
(Eight drivers eliminated, eight remaining)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.,
No Chevrolet has won a race on a track longer than 1 mile this season. (Five drivers eliminated, three remaining)
Martin Truex Jr.
And your winner is: Carl Edwards.
Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.