By Lars Anderson
May 10, 2013
Denny Hamlin expects to drive Joe Gibbs' No. 11 Toyota for the entire race at Darlington.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

He hurriedly walked throughout the garage at Talladega Superspeedway last Sunday afternoon, eager to return to a seat atop one of his three drivers' pit boxes. Out on the track Matt Kenseth of Joe Gibbs Racing was dominating the Sprint Cup race -- he would lead 142 of the 192 laps -- and now his owner was attempting to reach pit road after spending a few minutes in the garage.

But a security guard stopped Joe Gibbs, demanding to see a proper credential. Gibbs merely smiled -- his face was his credential. Upon realizing it was Gibbs, who was wearing a black Joe Gibbs Racing jacket and a black JGR baseball cap, the security guard quickly asked for an autograph, which Gibbs happily supplied.

It was one of the few times all season that Gibbs has been slowed -- at least at the track. Though he hasn't captured a championship since 2005 with Tony Stewart, Gibbs, in 2013, oversees a team that has won 40 percent of the Cup races (Kenseth and Kyle Busch each have two two wins) and both drivers appear to have the speed, the crew and the car to contend for the title this fall.

On Wednesday Gibbs won a major victory off the track as well: A NASCAR appeals panel reduced the penalties that initially were leveled on him and his team after it was discovered that an illegal part had been in Kenseth's engine when he won at Kansas Speedway on April 21. The appeals board reduced the point deduction on Kenseth from 50 to 12 -- which vaulted him from 11th to fourth in the standings -- while also awarding Kenseth three bonus points for that victory at Kansas. NASCAR also lightened the suspension of Kenseth's crew chief, Jason Ratcliffe, from six races to one and eliminated the six-race suspension of Gibbs.

"This has been a tough, tough week for everyone," Gibbs said. "Certainly no one wanted this to happen."

It was also certainly a significant win for Gibbs, who has a reputation for honesty and integrity. The illegal part, it was deemed, didn't give Kenseth a mechanical advantage and Toyota Racing Development, which supplied the part to Gibbs, has acknowledged that it was at fault.

Now that this messy episode is behind Gibbs, I think his organization will be energized this weekend as the Cup series rolls into Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. It says here that Gibbs will be celebrating in Victory Lane on Saturday night after one of his drivers -- Kenseth -- takes the checkered flag.

Kenseth is one of five drivers to watch when the engines roar on the track nicknamed "The Lady in Black."

1. Matt Kenseth

Though Kenseth had the fastest car in the field at Talladega, he lost the lead late and finished eighth. Still, it was his second dominating performance of the season at a restrictor-plate track. In February he led the most laps in the Daytona 500 (86) before suffering engine failure late and coming in 37th. As long as Kenseth can avoid mechanical problems and the big wrecks that the plate tracks are famous for producing, you've got to like his chances at Daytona in July and again at Talladega in the fall.

Though Kenseth has never won at Darlington -- a quirky, 1.366-mile oval that almost has an egg-shaped design -- he's finished 10th or better here in five of his last seven starts. And in the last three Sprint Cup races (at Kansas, Richmond, and Talladega) Kenseth has led the most laps in each event. So no one is hotter in the series right now. Expect that roll to continue on Saturday with a win.

2. Jimmie Johnson

Johnson is off to a fast start in 2013. He leads the points and has an average finish of 7.0, which, if he maintains the blistering pace, will be the best of his already storied career. Given that his points lead is so large (41 points over Carl Edwards), Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus can afford to take chances and aggressively charge for wins in the remaining 16 races of the regular season.

Johnson typically flourishes at Darlington. In 14 starts, he has three wins, including taking the checkered flag a year ago. He should run up front all evening and contend for his third victory of 2013.

3. Kyle Busch

Busch is in a mini-slump as the series heads to Darlington. In his last three starts, he's finished 38th at Kansas, 24th at Richmond, and 37th at Talladega. He's currently 10th in the standings.

But Busch has an impressive record at Darlington. He's led laps in each of his last five starts at the track, has one win, and finished fourth here in 2012. I expect him to be very, very fast Saturday night. He's past due for a strong performance.

4. Denny Hamlin

After missing four races with a fractured vertebra, Hamlin returned to the cockpit at Talladega. He only drove to the first caution flag and then, on pit road, pulled himself out of his No. 11 Toyota and was replaced by Brian Vickers (who then got caught up in a big crash only minutes later). Because he started the race, Hamlin earned the 10 points for the 34th place finish.

Hamlin expects to be in the car for the entire race Saturday night. Will he be the same driver who finished second at Darlington last year? We'll soon find out. But this is clear: Hamlin, currently 31st in the standings, needs to string together a slew of quality runs -- including probably at least two wins in the regular season -- to have any shot at advancing to the Chase this season.

5. Carl Edwards

Over the last month Edwards has been one of the most consistent drivers. In his last four starts he's finished third twice (Texas and Talladega) and sixth (Richmond). During this stretch he's risen from seventh to second in the standings.

So Edwards appears to have put the nightmare of his 2012 season in his rear-view mirror, when he finished a career-worst 15th in the standings. Edwards has never won at Darlington in nine career starts, but he's come in second twice. If a Ford driver is going to challenge for the checkers Saturday night, it will be Edwards.

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