- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Denny Hamlin is looking to both extend and break a few winning streaks Friday night at Darlington Raceway.
If Hamlin can wheel his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to Victory Lane in the Diamond Hill Plywood 200, it will be his third consecutive Nationwide Series win at the sport's oldest superspeedway. It also will be the sixth consecutive win in the series for JGR, as Kyle Busch won at Texas, Phoenix and Mexico City, Tony Stewart triumphed at Talladega and Hamlin won a week ago at Richmond.
But for Hamlin to win, he'll have to beat Stewart in JGR's No. 20 Camry. That's the car that won the past three races, after Busch started JGR's current roll with the wins at Texas and Phoenix in the No. 18.
The game of musical cars might be confusing, but the one given this year is that one of JGR's drivers likely will be in front of the field. The team has won seven of the 11 races this season, and Stewart, Busch and Hamlin have led 1,027 of the 1,918 laps contested, a staggering 53.5 percent.
If Hamlin reaches Victory Lane, he'll do so in his 100th career Nationwide Series start but just his second in the No. 18. He made his JGR debut in the No. 18 at Darlington in November 2004. His eighth-place finish was a sign of things to come.
Since then, he has raced JGR's No. 20 entry in the series, along with running a few races with Braun Racing's No. 32 team this year.
Now he's back where he started in terms of the car's number, but instead of working with Dave Rogers and the No. 20 crew, he'll be adapting to crew chief Jason Ratcliff and a team that's running a partial schedule.
Ratcliff, though, is at the track working with Rogers even when the No. 18 isn't in the field, so Hamlin is hoping not to miss a beat.
"Those two guys are a key reason why the JGR Nationwide Series program has been so strong in the early part of the season. I'm excited to get back with the 18 guys since they were the team to give me my first Nationwide Series start back in 2004," Hamlin said. "The core group of guys that were with me in 2004 are still a part of that team, so it's going to be special to be back with the 18 at Darlington. To get back with them and know they had a few weeks to prepare for this race really gives me a lot of confidence that we can run up front and challenge for the win."
The big question coming into the race is how the newly paved track will affect the competition. Speeds are expected to be faster than ever -- a daunting challenge at a track already considered "too tough to tame."
"It's tough to say what kind of race we'll have since it's hard to imagine Darlington with new pavement. It's hard to say how good the racing is going to be since I haven't been on the repaved track yet," said Hamlin, who is confident his team will adapt. " The only thing that concerns me is if we're going to have a good tire there. Hopefully, Goodyear will bring a good tire that isn't too hard, so it will allow us to run side by side."
Hamlin hopes to join Mark Martin, who has done it twice, and Jeff Burton as drivers who have won three consecutive races at Darlington. Martin has eight wins here and will be making just his second Nationwide start of the season in JR Motorsports' No. 5 Chevrolet.
Martin finished second in this race a year ago with the No. 5 team and has 14 top-5s in 28 Darlington starts.
"It's a place where you have to figure out how to go fast into the corner, and it's all about who can stay on the gas and hang on the longest," Martin said. "Managing your tires has also been important, and that is something that I've been pretty good at there as well."
Now, though, the Lady in Black has a different look -- just one more challenge for Martin and the other 42 drivers in the field.
"It probably won't be the same old Darlington that we are used to, but it will have shades of the old Darlington," Martin said. "I can remember when we had new pavement there before sometime in the mid-'90s, and it was different then as well. It's better with the worn-out pavement in a lot of ways. It's easier to pass, and I think a lot of fun, but it was ready for a new dress, and it got it."
Burton is running a partial Nationwide Series again this year but said he wouldn't miss a chance to run at Darlington, where the Virginia native attended races as a child.
"There are a couple of reasons why I am running Darlington, and the main one is that I just like the track," Burton said. "I have had a lot of success there in the Nationwide car. It is an added bonus to get on the track on Thursday and get some extra practice time on the new asphalt.
"Even though the Cup and Nationwide cars are completely different, I think there is some merit to having four practices instead of two and being able to learn the track and some of the nuances. It looks the same but it is going to be different, and learning as quickly as you can is going to be important. Track time is an added bonus, but the main reason is because it's Darlington and I like running there."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.