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NASCAR Driver Capsules, April 9

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Apr 09 2014 04:45:18 PM CDT
NASCAR race

Chris Keane/Reuters

Capsules for the top 20 drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, plus five additional drivers of note.

By Jerry Bonkowski and Bob Moore

24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: Jeff Gordon climbed three spots, from fourth to first place after Monday's rain-delayed race at Texas. He leads second-ranked Matt Kenseth by four points and third-ranked Carl Edwards by 12 points.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 33 career starts, 7 wins, 19 top-5s, 22 top-10s, 3 poles. Best career finish: First in summer 1995, spring 1996, summer 1996, summer 1997, summer 1998, summer 2002, spring 2007. Finished third in this race last year and was 35th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Gordon is still in search of his first win of 2014. He came close at Texas, but even without the win, still managed to jump to the top of the Sprint Cup points standings. Here's his thoughts on Darlington, one of his best tracks: "The first time I drove there, it reminded me of a couple of sprint car tracks - tracks like Winchester (Ind.) Speedway - that are super-fast but you have to respect it or it could ruin your day. Darlington is just a cool, fast place - you get that sensation of speed there because you run right up next to the wall. And the track drives you. At other places, we are typically trying to put the car in specific spots on the track. At Darlington, the track naturally feeds you to a certain area which is right up next to the wall. Success always starts with the race team and the race car, and I've had good ones here. Another key to success at Darlington is being able to push the limits of the car and the track, and keeping it on that edge without going over. At Darlington, it's very easy to go over the edge."

LOOKING BACK: Gordon had the car to win, led 40 laps, but on the final restart lost the lead and came up just a bit short to Joey Logano this past Monday at Texas.

ETC.: Gordon has completed 93.9 percent (10,350) of the 11,023 total laps contested in 33 career starts at Darlington. His average start there is an outstanding 6.8 and his average finish is an excellent 11.5. He has six DNF's there.

20 MATT KENSETH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: For the second consecutive week, Matt Kenseth remained in second place in the Sprint Cup standings. He trails points leader Jeff Gordon by four points and leads third-ranked Carl Edwards by eight points.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 20 career starts, 1 wins, 2 top-5s, 9 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: First in 2013. Finished first in this race last year and was sixth in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Kenseth is still seeking his first win of 2014, and being defending winner at Darlington gives him a leg up for this Saturday's race there.

LOOKING BACK: Kenseth didn't lead any laps and finished seventh at Texas. "We just didn't qualify well and then we just really struggled," Kenseth said. "So, were just really far off. We were really loose. We got a little bit better, but really nothing we could compete with."

ETC.: Kenseth has completed 96.7 percent (6,616) of the 6,841 total laps contested in 20 career starts at Darlington. His average start there is 20.8 and his average finish is 16.6. He has one DNF there.

99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Carl Edwards remained in third-place in the Sprint Cup standings after Texas. He trails points leader Jeff Gordon by 12 points, is eight points behind second-ranked Matt Kenseth and leads fourth-ranked Joey Logano by 12 points.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 10 career starts, 0 wins, 3 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Second in 2008 and 2011. Finished seventh in this race last year and was seventh in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Edwards is looking for his first career win at Darlington and his second win of the season this Saturday.

LOOKING BACK: After finishing 13th at Martinsville the week before, Edwards finished 14th at Texas.

ETC.: Edwards has completed 96.2 percent (3,538) of the 3,677 total laps contested in 10 career starts at Darlington. His average start there is 15.9 and his average finish is an excellent 12.5. He has one DNF there.

22 JOEY LOGANO, Ford

Team: Penske Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: After winning Monday at Texas, Joey Logano climbed four places in the standings, from eighth to fourth. He trails points leader Jeff Gordon by 24 points, is 12 points behind third-ranked Carl Edwards and leads fifth-ranked Kyle Busch by four points.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 5 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 2 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Ninth in 2009. Finished 22nd in this race last year and was 10th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Logano became the seventh different winner in as many races with his win Monday at Texas. Here's his thoughts on Darlington: "It is definitely one of those places where you find yourself out of breath when you take the checkered flag. I remember the first time I did a qualifying lap at Darlington as a rookie and I got out of the car and was just shaking. I think my first words were 'whoa' when it was all finished. And we qualified fifth that year. You are right on the edge, trying to go as fast as possible, just inches from the wall. It makes you a little jittery. I heard it was even crazier before they repaved it as well, although since they repaved it, the speeds are up. But it feels really good when you finish and you see that you have posted a really good lap time. But it takes all of your focus for that lap that's for sure."

LOOKING BACK: Logano led 108 of 340 laps at Texas. He had an outstanding jump on the final restart and overtook Jeff Gordon on the final lap to earn the victory.

ETC.: Logano has completed 96.8 percent (1,781) of the 1,839 total laps contested in five career starts at Darlington. His average start is 17.2 and average finish is 20.6. He has zero DNFs there.

18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Kyle Busch continued to move up in the standings, gaining one spot from sixth to fifth following Monday's race at Texas. He trails points leader Jeff Gordon by 28 points, is four points behind fourth-ranked Joey Logano and leads the sixth-place tie of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. by three points each.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 9 career starts, 1 win, 2 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in 2008. Finished sixth in this race last year and was fourth in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: As an avid student of NASCAR's past history, Kyle Busch loves returning to Darlington Raceway, the second-oldest track on the NASCAR circuit. He not only loves racing there, but has been very successful. Here's his thoughts on Saturday's race: "Going back to Darlington, it's a place that's really tough, really challenging. ... I'm looking forward to going back there and seeing what Darlington has got in store for us again. I'm hearing that the track color has changed a little bit more with another year for the surface to mature, so maybe the grip level is not going to be old Darlington, but something similar."

LOOKING BACK: Busch led 10 laps at Texas. Had he not washed up the racetrack on the final lap, he may have had a shot at the win, but wound up with a still respectable third-place finish.

ETC.: Busch has completed 97.2 percent (3,216) of the 3,310 total laps contested in nine career starts at Darlington. His average start there is 16.9 and average finish is 14.4. He has zero DNFs there.

48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: Jimmie Johnson fell one spot in the Sprint Cup standings, into a tie for sixth-place with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., after his disappointing 25th-place finish at Texas. He trails points leader Jeff Gordon by 31 points, is three points behind fifth-ranked Kyle Busch and is 10 points ahead of eighth-ranked Brad Keselowski.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 15 career starts, 3 wins, 8 top-5s, 11 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in spring and fall 2004 and 2012. Finished fourth in this race last year and won the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Johnson is still looking for his first win of the 2014 season. Darlington, and upcoming races at Richmond and Charlotte seem to be the best locales for Johnson to break through. Here's his thoughts on Saturday's race at Darlington: "Darlington has been a great track for us over the years. The most memorable was winning the 200th for Hendrick Motorsports a few years ago. From a track standpoint, Darlington has character so track position and strategy will be pretty important. There is a ton of history and a great race for the fans to watch. It's a high speed track - it's one of my favorites. Texas was disappointing for us - we had such a fast car and had some bad luck so I'm looking forward to this weekend and getting back after it."

LOOKING BACK: He came into Texas as one of the favorites, but being caught up in debris from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s early wreck essentially ended Johnson's day. Still, his crew worked hard to repair the damage and he finished a respectable 25th, considering all the things he went through.

ETC.: Johnson has completed 96.4 percent (5,100) of the 5,290 total laps contested in 15 career starts at Darlington. His average start there is 11.8 and his average finish is an outstanding 8.8. He has one DNF there.

88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. fell five spots, the biggest drop he's had this season, from first into a tie for sixth with teammate Jimmie Johnson after Texas. He trails new points leader Jeff Gordon by 31 points, is three points behind fifth-ranked Kyle Busch and leads eighth-ranked Brad Keselowski by 10 points.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 19 career starts, 0 wins, 3 top-5s, 8 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Fourth in spring 2002 and 2008. Finished ninth in this race last year and was 17th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Earnhardt has never won at Darlington, but more importantly, he has to find a way to bounce back from the terrible last-place finish he had at Texas.

LOOKING BACK: Earnhardt suffered a season-worst 43rd-place finish Monday at Texas. He inadvertently hit a soggy patch of grass on the infield heading into Turn 1, lost control, crashed into the outside retaining wall, his car caught on fire, and that abruptly ended his day. "Just didn't see the grass," Earnhardt said. "Didn't know the grass was down there. With the way the A-post is on these cars you can't really see that good to that angle. I just didn't have a good visual of where the apron and the grass was and got down in there pretty good. You can't run through there they way they have these cars on the ground like that. Just a mistake on my part. I just didn't know I was that close to the grass, and made a mistake."

ETC.: Earnhardt has completed 98.4 percent (6,467) of the 6,571 total laps contested in 19 career starts at Darlington. His average start there is 17.2 and average finish is 14.9. He has one DNF there.

2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Ford

Team: Penske Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Brad Keselowski's freefall down the Sprint Cup standings continued after Texas. Heading into Darlington in eighth-place, Keselowski has now lost seven places in the standings in the last three weeks. He trails new points leader Jeff Gordon by 41 points, is 10 points behind the sixth-ranked tie of Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and leads ninth-ranked Brian Vickers by 13 points.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 5 career starts, 0 wins, 1 top-5s, 2 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: third in 2011. Finished 32nd in this race last year and was 15th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski has to find a way to snap the freefall he's been in since winning five races ago at Las Vegas. Here's his thoughts on Saturday's race: "The history of the place is the first thing that comes to mind. I have a lot of respect for places that have tradition and history. Tracks like Darlington are the very foundation of our sport. The next thing that I think of is the track itself. The line that we take around that place - the way we run so close to the wall is unique. The track also has a truly distinct shape that lends itself to great racing. The facility has an air of antiquity - I enjoy racing at Darlington and I certainly want to win there."

LOOKING BACK: Keselowski led 85 laps, most early on, at Texas. But the handling on his car began to fad about midway through the race and he wound up with a final finish of 15th.

ETC.: Keselowski has completed an impressive 99.5 percent (1,830) of the 1,839 total laps contested in five career starts at Darlington. His average start there is 18.2 and average finish is 13.8. He has zero DNFs there.

55 BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota

Team: Michael Waltrip Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Brian Vickers climbed three spots in the standings and into the top-10, following Texas. He's now ninth in the rankings, 54 points behind series leader Jeff Gordon, 13 points behind eighth-ranked Brad Keselowski and two points ahead of 10th-ranked Paul Menard.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 9 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 1 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 10th in 2010. Has not competed in the Sprint Cup Series at Darlington since 2011, when he finished 34th. He was a career-best 10th in the 2010 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Saturday marks Vickers' first Sprint Cup start at Darlington in three seasons (although he did compete in last season's Nationwide Series race there, finishing a strong third). Here's his thoughts on Saturday's race: "Having a win (2003, Nationwide) at Darlington is beautiful. It was an amazing win. It was one of my favorite wins. Darlington has always been a special place to me. Being close to where I grew up (Thomasville, N.C.) made it special. It's just an amazing track and it should be a great race Saturday night."

LOOKING BACK: Vickers had his best finish of the 2014 season, rallying late to finish fourth at Texas on Monday. While he completed all 340 laps, he never had the opportunity to lead any laps in the event. Still, an overall very strong run for him.

ETC.: Vickers has completed a terrible 80.1 percent (1,006) of the 1,256 total laps contested in nine career starts at Darlington. His average start there is 14.9, and average finish is 17.7. He has three DNFs there.

27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Paul Menard returns to the top-10, climbing one spot from 11th to 10th after Texas. He trails points leader Jeff Gordon by 56 points, is two points behind ninth-ranked Brian Vickers and leads the 11th-place tie of fellow Richard Childress Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon by just one point.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 7 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 0 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: 13th in 2012. Finished 19th in this race last year and a career-best 13th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Darlington is one of Menard's worst tracks. He's continued to struggle in his first seven starts there. Will that be able to change in Saturday's eighth appearance for him there? Here's his thoughts: "Darlington Raceway is a very unique track with the way it's laid out. We race right up against the wall in the turns, which is even more challenging with how the cars transition out of Turn 2 for the backstretch. ... We get to race under the lights on a Saturday night and drivers and fans seem to enjoy these types of race. Being one of the original tracks on the NASCAR circuit means there is some great history to the Lady in Black. We just hope we get to add our name to the history books this weekend."

LOOKING BACK: Menard had a strong top-10 run at Texas, ultimately finishing ninth, the highest finish of the three Richard Childress Racing cars there.

ETC.: Menard has completed 98.2 percent (2,527) of the 2,573 total laps contested in seven career starts at Darlington. His average start is 24.4 and average finish is 23.7. He has zero DNFs there.

31 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 11th, only one point out of the top 10. Lost one spot last week to fall out of the top 10.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 10 top-10 finishes including seven top-five's in 15 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Newman calls Darlington "my favorite Sprint Cup Series track. It's so challenging. You have to race the track in order to get to the end. It's a challenge to pass there. You drive it like no other track on the circuit. I don't know what it's going to be like with the new rules package or the tire combination they've come up. Regardless, it's such a fun race track to drive because you have to hustle the car around."

LOOKING BACK: An unscheduled pit stop when a competitor's windshield tear off stuck the splitter on the front end of Newman's Chevrolet ended any hopes Newman had of a top-10 finish. "The Caterpillar team once again gave me a fast Chevrolet to race today," said Newman. "It's a shame we lost a lap early because of an unscheduled pit stop. We were fast and that's all I can ask for. Sooner or later, our luck will turn around to show just how good this 31 Caterpillar team is."

ETC.: Newman feels "the history of the track (Darlington) is what makes it so amazing. The race track was designed to race on the apron and not on the banking. It's amazing how much it hasn't changed, but yet, it still produces great races. It took me awhile (to get his first Darlington stripe). It actually took me a long time to get mine which was good. I was probably more paranoid than anything. I just didn't want to get one. It's not cool to get one."

3 AUSTIN DILLON, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, only one point out of the top 10. Lost three spots to fall out of the top 10.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Will be making his Sprint Cup debut.

LOOKING AHEAD: Dillon said, "I'm looking forward to competing there (Darlington) in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. I've never been there in a Cup car, so it will really be a learning experience. Bristol treated us well (as he finished 11th in his first start there) and hopefully Darlington will also."

LOOKING BACK: Dillon finished 21st at Texas. "I just needed to be tighter to start and we could have gotten the Dow Powerhouse Chevrolet where we needed to be at the end of the race," said Dillon. "I had a blast out there, though. I really learned a lot out there today. It will be fun to come back here in the fall with Gil Martin (crew chief) and all the guys on my RCR team." Dillon is a rookie on the Sprint Cup Series.

ETC.: Martin admits "we've run conservatively so far and I've called races conservatively because we're building this deal to gain momentum down the road. We'll gamble more when we got to summer, but we're into building a solid base."

11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, only six points out of the top 10. Lost one spot last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Will be seeking his fifth straight top-six finish. In the last four races has finished first, sixth, second and second respectively. Has finished in the top 10 in seven of his eight starts. Worse finish is 13th.

LOOKING AHEAD: Hamlin can't wait to get to Darlington. "We have really run well there the last four times we've been there," said Hamlin. "We probably should have more than one win. We've had some really good cars there and we expect to have another one this weekend. Like everyone else without a win this year, we want that first win to get us in the Chase. And Darlington is certainly a place we can get it."

LOOKING BACK: Hamlin was the leader as he pitted on lap 141. But he was caught speeding as he exited pit road to drop out of contention for the top spot. Hamlin was never able to completely recover as he ended up 13th. "Obviously, we had a great car at the beginning of the race," said Hamlin. "Once I got back in traffic, the car didn't drive as good. Couldn't make up any track position and the car took a long time to come in. Our car was way better than 13th. It (the penalty) was clearly a mistake I made." Hamlin also overshot his pits on his final stop of the race. "It's the same old story, where the driver overshoots his pit trying to get everything he can," added Hamlin.

ETC.: Hamlin admits that being a father has changed him. "In a lot of ways," said Hamlin. "I feel like I'm a better person. I definitely enjoy the time at home a whole lot more. Every day she's smarter and half says one more word and every time she sees even a picture of me now anywhere she's saying, 'Dada.' So, that for me is fun and I just find joy now in different things other than - now it's all about her. It really is."

14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, 14 points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: 11 top-10 finishes in 21 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Stewart is still looking for his first win at Darlington. "I think people underestimate how much we know about Darlington and the history of that track and how hard it is to win races there," said Stewart. "I guess that's why a Sprint Cup win at Darlington is something that's really important to me."

LOOKING BACK: After winning the 15th pole position of his career, Stewart led 74 of the first 76 laps as he became the all-time Sprint Cup lap leader at Texas with 801 laps. But shortly afterwards, Stewart began to drop back as he became "way too tight. The track changed a lot and the setup we had didn't really change with it," said Stewart. "Chad (Johnson, crew chief) did a really good job of keeping us competitive, but it was a big swing from start of the race to the end of the race with the way the track changed." Stewart finished the day in 10th place.

ETC.: Stewart feels the new rules package for 2014 has actually been a big benefit to his organization that features two new teams this year. "You never know who is going to hit on things first and who is going to get out of the gate strong," said Stewart when asked if he was surprised that both of his new drivers - Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch - won a race this early in the season "I guess that is one thing that is probably an equalizer more than anything is the ability to come out with a new package and have the same opportunity that everybody else, even though we have new people in place this year. If you are going to learn a new set-up package you might as well learn new people at the same time so it probably worked hand-in-hand."

42 KYLE LARSON, Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, 16 points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Will be making his Sprint Cup debut.

LOOKING AHEAD: Larson is "looking forward to going to Darlington because the groove is right on the wall so it kind of suits my driving style. I like going to the top, and it seems like the closer you get to the wall there the faster you go. The track is also pretty rough so the times slow down a lot. After a few laps when times slow down it's a little bit easier to pass because you can move around more and it just seems like there are more lanes to these worn out tracks. I did well there last year in the Nationwide car (finished sixth), so it should be good going back to race the Target Chevy."

LOOKING BACK: Larson was part of a four-car race for the third spot on the last lap of the race as he ended up fifth for his third top-10 finish in the last four races. "We had a really good Target Chevy today," said Larson. "We were average on short runs but I thought we were the best car on a long run. Shine (crew chief Chris Heroy) and everybody did a great job working on it after practice on Friday. We were terrible, so they worked their butts off all weekend and gave us a good finish."

ETC.: Larson believes his first Sprint Cup victory isn't that far away. "I feel like we've been a top-10 car most races," said the rookie driver. "I think if we just keep ourselves in contention, things will work out late in the race or we might have a dominating car one day and get our first win. I feel like right now it could come at a mile-and-a-half or a little bit bigger track. They just suit my driving style better. It reminds me of dirt track racing where you can search around for different lines. I didn't see anybody else as high as I was, at least on the exit of the corners (at Texas). Just always searching for grip and it seems like it pays off."

16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, 16 points out of the top 10. Gained two spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Two wins and five top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Biffle said, "I love the Darlington race track, it's been good to us over the years and I've got a couple of wins there. I'm proud of have American Red Cross on the car this weekend and hope to get them a good finish, hopefully even a win. I know how important donating blood is and I hope we are bringing awareness to that campaign."

LOOKING BACK: Biffle ran up front all afternoon as he finished sixth at Texas. "We had a shot at a top five," said Biffle. "Things got a little wild on that last lap and we came up just a little short (in the race for a top-five finish). This is a step in the right direction for the 16. But we're just not where the other guys are yet, so we've just got to keep getting better. We just have to keep getting our cars better."

ETC.: Crew chief Matt Pucci is quick to point out "Darlington has two distinct opposite different configurations of corners. It's a balancing act between each end trying to get the car to do one thing at one end and not be the total opposite at the other end. A balancing act you have to work on pretty hard. You've got to keep up with the race track all night long as the track changes over the course of the night to be there at the end."

15 CLINT BOWYER, Toyota

Team: Michael Waltrip Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, 16 points out of the top 10.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Only one top-10 finish in nine starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Even though he has had more finishes of 31st or worse (three) than he has had top-10s (one) at Darlington, Bowyer enjoys going to the South Carolina facility. "It has so much history, and it is such a neat place to race at," said Bowyer. "We've actually ran well there the last two times (finishing 11th both times). We just need to put a whole race together and we will get the results we deserve for the way we are running. Hopefully that will happen this weekend."

LOOKING BACK: Bowyer was running fifth when he was forced to make a second pit stop during a yellow flag for a missing lug nut. The extra stop dropped him to 15th in the running order. Bowyer rallied to finish eighth, but he felt he could have challenged for the win without the problems on pit road. "We had another shot at it (the victory) today," said a frustrated Bowyer. "Our Willie's Duck Dinner Toyota was really good. We just had a problem on a stop there at the end. The car was great today. We're going to get ourselves a win here soon if we keep running like this."

ETC.: Crew chief Brian Pattie, like Bowyer, is frustrated with the team's problems on pit road. "You can't come in first and come out tenth (like the team did at Martinsville)," said Pattie. "Our problem is lack of execution and lack of focus. If we can't fix that we won't win races and we won't make the Chase. We have to be a better team at the end of the race."

9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, 17 points out of the top 10. Lost four spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: One top-10 finish in five starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose struggled big time last year at Darlington as he finished 34th. "We probably left Darlington last year as disappointed as we could be," said Ambrose. "We just didn't know what was wrong with the car and had a terrible night. When you have races like that, you just want to go back and get better. Now is our time, and our race team is better than ever. This weekend is a little about avenging last year's race."

LOOKING BACK: Ambrose battled a loose race car all day as he finished 20th at Texas. "I thank Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) and the rest of the guys who worked during the race to get the car better and put us in the best position as possible," said Ambrose. "It's difficult when the track is changing like it did today, the car wasn't reacting to the changes the way we wanted, but we got the best out of it. We'll take what we learned and continue to work hard to get better."

ETC.: Ambrose knows all about the long history of Darlington. "The legends of NASCAR defined this track, this race and it's a 'Crown Jewel' event," said Ambrose. "Darlington is so different. It's egg-shaped and you're just working on the car the whole race. It's 500 miles and that's a long night at Darlington. With our improvement, I believe we can avenge last year and compete for a win."

5 KASEY KAHNE, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 19th, 25 points out of the top 10. Gained three spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Two top-eight finishes in the last three races. Hasn't qualified worse than fourth in the last three races.

LOOKING AHEAD: Kahne said, "We were really good in the Darlington race last year. We ran inside the top four through the majority of the night. We were by far the best car at the end of the race, but just didn't get the win because of circumstances when I was hit by another car as I was making my move for first. I'm looking forward to going back there this weekend."

LOOKING BACK: After starting 32nd, Kahne quickly raced his way into the top 10 despite repeated problems on pit road. And he stayed there for most of the race despite battling a "tight" race car. Kahne ended the day in 11th place. "We had a pretty good car all day," said Kahne. "Starting that far back hurt us and we had some problems on pit road because of our pit stall, but all in all it was a pretty good day. Things got a little wild on that green-white-checker (finish) or we would have another top 10."

ETC.: Although the season hasn't started as well as Kahne had hoped, he believes that first win is very near because of the tracks "coming up. I'm really looking forward to going back there (Darlington) this weekend. It's a track I've always wanted to win at, and I definitely think we're capable of doing so this weekend."

47 A J ALLMENDINGER, Chevrolet

Team: JTG Daugherty Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 30 points out of the top 10. Lost four spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Best finish in six starts is 17th.

LOOKING AHEAD: Allmendinger feels when you race at Darlington "you know you're going to earn your money. I feel like it is one of those places if you get around it well, you have accomplished something. At the same point if you struggle there, there is nowhere to hide. It is one of the races I actually missed last year. Even though I haven't really been that good there in the past, I really enjoy it."

LOOKING BACK: Allmendinger suffered major damage to his car early in the Texas race. As a result, he finished 23rd. "The car was not very good, but I didn't know there was damage to the car until after the race and (crew chief Brian) Burns told me about it," said Allmendinger. "I knew I hit some stuff when the wreck happened with the 88 (Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) car. We didn't know it, but there was a hole in the nose and the crush panel was knocked out." Burns quickly added, "Without the damage, we would have had a totally different race car. Basically, the damage is like putting a parachute on the front of the car."

ETC.: Co-owner Brad Daugherty has been "very pleased with the way we have run" this year. "We have got speed, which is something we haven't had in two or three seasons," adds Daugherty. "I am happy with the direction we are going with the cars and the team. We just have to work harder at minimizing mistakes. We have made some mistakes that have cost us five or more positions at some of these tracks. We will polish up on the areas we need to and make some noise throughout the season."

1 JAMIE MCMURRAY, Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

WHERE HE STANDS: 21st, 36 points out of the top 10. Gained two spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Five top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: McMurray hopes his recent run of bad luck comes to a stop this weekend. "We've had really good cars everywhere we've been this year," said McMurray. "We haven't always got the results we deserve and that is why we are so far back in the points (21st). But we've run a lot better than that. We've had some really good runs at Darlington, almost winning there in 2010. So if we can run the whole race without any trouble, I feel we can have a real good night."

LOOKING BACK: McMurray ran in the top 10 for the first 204 laps of the 334-lap event before a cut left-rear tire forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop. This dropped him a lap down and ended any hopes he had of his third top-10 finish of the season. Instead, he ended up 17th. "So frustrating," said McMurray. "We had a really good Bell Helicopter Chevrolet today and our crew was doing a good job with pit stops and keeping up with the changing track conditions. I hate that we had that cut tire, but we were able to salvage a top-20 finish."

ETC.: McMurray admitted that last Sunday was a very frustrating day after waiting to see if the race would be run and then having it delayed a day because of rain. "It's different for everybody, but I really like the structure of waking up and knowing when your first appearance is and the driver meeting and then coming back and having lunch," said McMurray. "I like the structure and during the rain delay you don't really know. Part of the frustrating part is looking at it and knowing a week ahead of time there's 100 percent or 70 percent chance that the weather is coming. It's a long day."

43 ARIC ALMIROLA, Ford

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 22nd, 39 points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Best finish in two starts is 19th.

LOOKING AHEAD: Almirola admits "Darlington is not my best track, so I'm hoping Trent (Owens, crew chief) can bring his success with him. It's his home track, so we really want to run well there. They call Darlington the track 'Too Tough to Tame' and it really lives up that name. We really need to focus on racing the race track. I say it every week, but it is especially true there. It's important to stay focused on your race and not let the cars around you change your focus or strategy."

LOOKING BACK: Almirola rallied in the final 100 laps to finish 12th at Texas. "The car was loose all day," said Almirola. "The guys worked hard to get it better, and they did, but the weather and track conditions kept changing and we weren't there (as good as it needed to be) at the end. Our intermediate track program is still not where we want it to be, but this was a good improvement. A 12th-place finish will help us in the points."

ETC.: Almirola surprised Army Sergeant Ralph Harroff and his family with a shopping spree at a Kroger grocery store prior to the Texas race as part of Eckrich's "Operation Inspiration" campaign which supports and honors military families. Harroff and his family were also special guests of Almirola and the race team for the entire race weekend. "I know we put a smile on their faces and hopefully we helped them out with some of their needs," said Almirola. Harroff said, "It's something I'll never forget. Operation Homefront has done so much for our family. There are so many deserving military families. I just feel lucky to be honored like this."

17 RICKY STENHOUSE JR., Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 24th, 49 points out of the top 10.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Finished 18th in his Cup debut last year.

LOOKING AHEAD: Stenhouse said, "Darlington has so much history and every driver wants to add their name to the winners of the Southern 500. Darlington is a driver's race track where you can race really hard. Racing under the lights creates more excitement. It's just a fun night, and one I hope where we really have a lot of fun."

LOOKING BACK: Stenhouse had high hopes heading into the Texas race, but his day didn't go as he had envisioned as he finished 26th. "It was a tough day for us," said Stenhouse. "We just couldn't get our Ford to turn and fought tightness for a majority of the day. We will have to look at our teammates (Greg Biffle, who finished sixth, and Carl Edwards, who finished 14th) setup and go back to work."

ETC.: Crew chief Mike Kelley is "looking forward to Darlington It's a tough place to run, but has a lot of history. The track really asks a lot of a driver and team. It's a long race and you will see the cars right around the top. We are taking a brand new car so we are excited to see what we can do under the lights."

41 KURT BUSCH, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 25th, 52 points out of the top 10. Lost five spots last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Won the pole last year. Has five top-10 finishes in 17 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Busch still enjoys talking about the spring Darlington race of 2003 when he and Ricky Craven were involved in one of the best races in the long history of the track. "The biggest moment at Darlington I ever had was finishing second (in a photo finish) to Ricky - everyone knows that race," said Busch. "But probably the next biggest moment would be during my championship run in 2004. I had an ill-handling car and still managed to finish sixth with it due to good pit stops. That was a perfect moment because it was our championship to lose with where we finished that day in 2004. That was back when Darlington used to be in the Chase (the next-to-last race of the year)."

LOOKING BACK: It was a long, long weekend for Busch as he battled tire problems throughout practice and the race. On Friday, he had a left-rear tire come apart as Busch slammed hard into the wall forcing him to go to a back-up car for the race. The tire problems continued in the race as Busch suffered three flat tires resulting in three caution flags. As a result, Busch finished 39th a week after winning at Martinsville. "We took a little too aggressive setup today, and it cost us," said crew chief Daniel Knost.

ETC.: Gene Haas, co-owner and founder of Stewart-Haas Racing, is expected to go Formula One racing in 2015. Bernie Ecclestone, chief of Formula One racing, said last week that Haas' application to join the worldwide organization "will be accepted." Haas said he is still waiting on official word. "But Bernie is kind of half Formula One, so I'm sure what he says goes," said Haas. "It (the challenge of Formula One racing) is nothing to be taken lightly. It's fitted with peril and there's a million ways to fail. For all those reasons, that's why you do it, to see if it is something you can do."

4 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 26th, 65 points out of the top 10. Lost one spot last week.

DARLINGTON RECORD: Finished fifth last year for his sixth top-10 finish in 17 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Harvick feels "any lap around Darlington is a lap where you have got to be paying attention to what's going on because you can get yourself in trouble at any point on the race track. You carry a lot speed into turn one and you run right up the banking right up next to the wall and you're right back into the throttle. Turns three and four are probably the hardest because you carry so much speed off of turn two into three and the line kind of moves around a bit there. It's probably the easiest place to get in the wall."

LOOKING BACK: Harvick continues to show flashes of having one of the strongest cars in the field in 2014, but his luck of bad luck also continued at Texas as he suffered engine failure early in the event after leading a lap and running second to teammate Tony Stewart. "The Jimmy John's Chevrolet was really fast - again," said Harvick. "It's frustrating. I don't know what else to say. It's a disappointing end to the day." Since winning the second race of the season, Harvick has had a strong enough car to win one or two more races but mechanical problems have resulted in four finishes of 36th or worse to leave him 26th in the points. Even with the win, Harvick has to rank in the top 30 to make the Chase. Harvick set a new track record of 198.282 miles per hour in the opening round of qualifying.

ETC.: Even though his team has shown impressive strength early in the season, Harvick feels the best is yet to come. "Honestly, I don't even think we've scratched the surface as a team," said Harvick. "We're still trying to get all the cars built and everything organized and flowing exactly how it needs to flow in the shop and the fab shot with all the stuff that we've changed over the winter. I think we've just got a few things to clean up and things are going to be coming together even better."