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.

NHRA: John Force-like motor explosions get contagious during Sunday’s Gatornationals

Photo and video courtesy NHRA
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John Force is rubbing off on others – but probably not the way they or he would like.

The 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion has had spectacular motor explosions in each of the first three races of the new NHRA season, including during Friday’s qualifying for this weekend’s Gatornationals.

During Sunday’s quarterfinals of eliminations, Force’s teammate (and son-in-law and president of John Force Racing) Robert Hight squared off with fellow Funny Car driver Matt Hagan.

As the duo closed in on the finish line, both cars experienced spectacular motor explosions of their own – virtually side-by-side and nearly at the same time.

Hight’s car was the first to explode, tossing its body high in the air. A split-second later, Hagan’s car exploded, also sending the body flying.

Check out the NHRA video:

Hight wound up losing the race.

Hagan, meanwhile, and his crack pit crew rolled their backup car off the hauler, put in a new motor and went on to race through the semifinals and into the finals, losing to race winner “Fast Jack” Beckman.

“We had a pretty great race day, to be honest,” Hagan said. “I’ve never been to the finals in Gainesville.

“We obviously had a huge blow up in the second round, then to watch these guys pull the other car back out and put it together in the amount of time they had, then turn a win light on against Capps (Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the semifinals), then to be able to go to a final, it was huge and it speaks for itself.”

As for Hight, here’s his take on what happened with the motor explosion:

“I couldn’t see (Hagan) over there and it wasn’t like it was hazing the tires or anything else. As it turns out it wasn’t spinning at all. It kicked two rods out when it blacked the bearings in the crank then it hit the valves and blew up.

“The thing gave me no indication at all before that. What really scared me was once I got it under control and I look over and see his body is off his car. I am thinking ‘Oh man, he got gathered up in me.’ Then I stood up and looked and his injector was sideways so I realized he had an explosion as well. We are just lucky we didn’t get into each other.”

As for the guy who has had so much trouble in the motor department, John Force, he lost in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations to daughter Courtney Force.

John Force planned on shutting the motor off on his car at around the 700-foot mark of the 1,000-foot dragstrip, not wanting to risk another motor explosion – even though it meant a likely loss to his daughter.

Now John Force and his entire four-car team, including Courtney Force, Robert Hight and daughter and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, will be off for extensive testing to try and determine what’s been causing the motor explosions.

“We have to evaluate it and go test,” Force said. “We’ll figure it out.”

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