Denny Hamlin could be a sleeper tonight at Darlington

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Tonight’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway could see the eighth different winner in as many Sprint Cup races this season. There’s still multiple big names that haven’t broken through for a spot on the Chase Grid, but one of them seems to be going under the radar.

That guy is Denny Hamlin, who has had a relatively quiet year so far outside of his season-opening runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the Daytona 500 and his absence from Fontana due to a sliver of metal getting stuck in his eye.

But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver could be ready to star tonight on the track “Too Tough To Tame,” where he has consistently been a contender in his Cup career.

In eight Cup starts at Darlington, Hamlin’s earned one win (2010), four Top-5s, and seven Top-10s – including second-place results in each of the past two Southern 500s. The only time he didn’t finish in the Top 10 was in 2009, when he finished a still-respectable 13th.

His average finish at the 1.366-mile oval is a remarkable 5.4, which is tops among active Cup drivers. Also, his average running position in Darlington races, 8.6, is second-best in that regard.

Yesterday in qualifying, Hamlin made it into the final round, where he would wind up 10th on the grid for tonight.

“We’re looking forward to [tonight],” he said afterwards. “This is a pretty good track for us and has been in the past.  I thought our car was pretty good today in practice. We didn’t quite qualify where I hoped we would, but we still made it past all three rounds and at least got ourselves a chance at it.

“All the Toyotas really look like they’re struggling for a little bit of speed right now. We’re towards the front of those guys and that’s really all we can ask for.”

Last weekend at Texas, Hamlin looked like a threat mid-way through the race until a pit road speeding penalty knocked him to an eventual 13th place finish.

Don’t be surprised if he rebounds nicely this evening in South Carolina.

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.