Three things to watch
1 . Aric Almirola has a career-best four consecutive Top-10 finishes entering Darlington, which also is the longest current streak in the Sprint Cup Series.
2. Jimmie Johnson enjoys a hefty advantage in the Cup series standings and is the defending winner of this race. That’s not a good combination for his competition.
3 . Greg Biffle is the only active Ford driver with a Cup series win at Darlington, winning back-to-back races in 2005 and 2006.
• Saturday’s race marks the 10th anniversary of one of Sprint Cup Series’ most thrilling finishes. Ricky Craven led just one lap – the final one – in a door-banging, fender-crumpling joust with Kurt Busch in 2003 that was decided by 0.002 seconds – the closest margin of victory in series history since the advent of electronic timing and scoring. “The memory is vivid and the outcome is unfortunately the same,” said Kurt Busch. “I feel like each time I tell the story I am getting closer to winning it.”
• David Ragan’s win last Sunday at Talladega marked just the third time the No. 34 car won a race in the Cup series. The other two: Jim Roper took the No. 34 to Victory Lane in the very first series race in Charlotte in 1949; and Wendell Scott won in the No. 34 at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Fla., on Dec. 1, 1963 – the only Cup race won by an African-American driver.
Three picks for your fantasy team:
Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola
• Kurt Busch wins the pole: Kurt Busch earned his first pole in two years in impressive fashion, using a track-record lap of 181.918 mph to claim the top starting spot for Saturday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Busch’s most recent pole came June 19, 2011, at Michigan when he was still running with Penske Racing. It’s the 16th pole of his career.
Kasey Kahne held the previous track qualifying lap of 181.254 mph set in May 2011.
“What an incredible lap. The team deserves all the credit,” Busch said. “We gained speed all day. We had a great draw for qualifying, so I thought we were in pretty good position to get a pole.”
• Kenseth happy with appeals result: Matt Kenseth said Friday the penalties remaining following his Joe Gibbs Racing team’s appeal are “way more in line” with what he considered appropriate for the engine violation found after his win at Kansas.
A three-member appeals panel unanimously agreed to cut Kenseth’s points penalty from 50 to 12 points and reduce crew chief Jason Ratcliff’s suspension from six races to one. Wally Brown will serve as Kenseth’s Cup crew chief this weekend.
“You never want to have a penalty and don’t want yourself to be in that position,” Kenseth said. “I’m happy it got reduced. I was pretty crushed before it got reduced.”
• Next up for Keselowski? A bridge: Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski will drive his No. 2 Ford across the Mackinac Bridge at 6 p.m. May 29 to promote NASCAR racing at Michigan International Speedway.
The Mackinac Bridge is a suspension bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinac to connect the non-contiguous Upper and Lower peninsulas of the state of Michigan. Keselowski is the first Michigan native to become Cup champion.
• Patrick to a backup car: During the first Cup practice on Friday, Danica Patrick pancaked the right-side of her No. 10 Chevrolet and was forced to a backup car.
Where: Darlington (S.C.) Raceway
Track type: 1.366-mile banked, paved egg-shaped oval
Race distance: 367 laps, 501.3 miles
Weather: High in the mid-80s with a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms.
TV: Coverage begins at 6 p.m. Fox. Green flag is 7:01 p.m. ET
Radio: Motor Racing Network