Different paths lead racers to Darlington for the Southern 500 - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

Different paths lead racers to Darlington for the Southern 500

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DARLINGTON, SC (WMBF) - Qualifying for the Bojangles Southern 500 continues Friday on "The Track too Tough to Tame."

Viewers will see many familiar faces at both races this weekend, but they all have very different stories on how they got here.

After suffering a compression fracture in his lower back at Fontana earlier this year in a crash with Joey Logano, there was the distinct possibility that Denny Hamlin would miss the entire season.

He didn't need major surgery, and after weeks of wearing a back brace, he makes his return at Darlington, where he'll compete in both the Friday and Saturday races. Hamlin is confident now is the right time to come back.

Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon is embarking on rare territory for any NASCAR driver. The 41-year-old is in his twenty-first year in the sport, and will make his 700th start this weekend. Even more impressive, the other 699 have all come consecutively.

With the feat, he'll tie Buddy Baker for 15th all-time in starts. Gordon leads all active drivers in laps led at Darlington as well, and just like he was for race number one, he's just hoping to land in victory lane tomorrow night...

Constant success does not come very often at Darlington raceway, but Carl Edwards has found a way to achieve that in his nine previous starts there.

Edwards has successfully completed better than 95 percent of his laps on the Darlington Raceway track and has finished in the top ten each of the last two times out.

His competitors haven't had as much luck running the course, but a victory has still eluded Edwards in all of his years on the Sprint Cup circuit.

He knows the ins and outs of the raceway well, and he's anticipating what to expect tomorrow.

"It's a tough track already and moving faster makes it even more of a nightmare," he said during an interview Friday. "You go down to turn three, and if you don't hit anything, it's great, but if you do, you smack the fence, so it's a tough racetrack, and if you can make it through practice without hitting something, that's great, and that's what I'm hoping for."

Edwards made it through his practice session cleanly, but it will still be a whole different track when he races against everyone else Saturday night.

One driver who undoubtedly comes in as a favorite is Jimmie Johnson.

The five time Sprint Cup Champion is also the current points leader, and won the Bojangles Southern 500 last year, a win that also gave Hendricks Motorsports its 200th victory. Johnson last won at Darlington in 2004.

Now an experienced veteran of the track and ready to try and bring home another title, he knows all too well that earning a win here Saturday night won't be easy.

"I would assume that tragedy ends up being a big part as to why the winner ends up in victory lane. its tough to pass, and we don't have a good idea of tire wear, but strategy in turn 4 and whoever has enough fuel - the first one to have enough fuel to go the distance will be a key point in the race too," Jimmie Johnson admits.

Johnson will try and become the first driver to repeat at Darlington since Greg Biffle did it in 2005 and 2006.

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