The Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway kicks off the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Sixteen drivers are still alive for the title, but 36 cars are still in contention for every race win.
Darlington is a 1.366-mile oval with high tire wear and high banking. Teams visited here earlier this year when William Byron drove to victory lane.
Homestead is the best comparable track to Darlington, but teams haven’t raced there yet in 2023. However, I’ll still be relying on Homestead from 2022 as well as Darlington track history to lead the bulk of my driver-+performance evaluation. That’s aided, of course, by Saturday’s practice session.
Before we jump into my picks, don’t forget all my NASCAR projections can be found in the NASCAR Models on FantasyLabs, complete with floor, ceiling, median, and ownership projections.
Let’s not skip the best part — my Perfect% metric — a metric that tells you how often certain racers appear in the optimal lineup when running 10,000 race simulations.
Here are my NASCAR DFS picks for Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Darlington DraftKings DFS Cash Game Picks
Denny Hamiln ($11,000): Darlington is one of Hamlin’s best tracks, and he thinks he has a great car Sunday. Hamlin said they are better here this weekend than they were earlier this year.
In that first race, Hamlin had a top-three car by my FLAGS metric prior to him smacking the wall in the latter half of Stage 1. However, that damaged his car and he was driving a relative lemon the rest of the day.
Hamlin is rightly the favorite for the race win, but he will have to get around teammate Christopher Bell to grab those valuable laps-led points.
PrizePicks projects Hamlin to lead 44.5 laps, with Bell at 59.5. Be sure to check out all the pick’ems PrizePicks has to offer with PrizePicks promo code LABS for a $100 deposit match.
Martin Truex Jr. ($10,800): Hamlin’s teammate starts 31st after getting very loose on his qualifying lap. That means Truex has the most upside of anyone in the field thanks to 30 potential spots of place differential.
Truex can absolutely win this race, and he has one of the best cars and track histories in the field. He’s a lock in cash-game formats, but I don’t mind a tournament fade since he projects to be rostered above his optimal percentage.
Kyle Larson ($10,500): Larson starts 18th, but he’s arguably the best driver at Darlington based off skill set.
Larson has yet to win at the Lady in Black, but he has led 18.7% of all possible laps here in his career.
That place differential is too good to pass up, so ride with Larson in cash formats.
Harrison Burton ($5400): Young Harrison Burton heads to one of his best tracks where he claimed a sixth-place finish earlier this year. That was no fluke, as he was 14th in FLAGS, showing he had a ton of speed at this track earlier this year.
In fact, Burton’s career average finish at Darlington is 13.7 over three races. He finished second here in his last Xfinity race at this track, and won at Darlington’s closest comp, Homestead, also in the Xfinity Series.
Burton starts 32nd and had the 10th-best, 20-lap average out of 22 cars that ran that distance in practice, so look for him to move forward.
Darlington DraftKings DFS Tournament Picks
Christopher Bell ($9400): Bell is strong at Darlington, but he hasn’t quite put together a race-winning effort yet.
What I really like about Bell, though, is that while everyone loads up on Hamlin, Truex, and Larson, Bell quietly paced the field in practice of the drivers that went out in Group A.
Bell also gets the benefit of now having the pit crew that serviced Ty Gibbs all year thanks to a pit-crew swap between the No. 20 and No. 54 teams. That crew has been fast all year and made far fewer mistakes than the crew that was working with Bell previously.
That should help Bell stay out front by having the optimal pit stall and fast stops.
William Byron ($10,200): I like Byron in cash formats too, and if you want to swap him in for either Hamlin or Larson, I can’t argue with you.
But I think Byron will probably be rostered less than those guys, making him a strong tournament play in addition to cash.
My model has Byron projected at 31% optimal while only expecting about 25% usage. That’s some pretty solid leverage.
Todd Gilliland ($5200): Gilliland didn’t make a long run in practice, so that makes him hard to compare to other drivers. However, he did turn five consecutive laps and was 25th of 36 drivers.
His teammate Michael McDowell starts inside the top 10 and had a five-lap average that was fourth among all drivers.
Gilliland also was 22nd in FLAGS earlier this year, so he has shown speed at this track relative to his price point and starting position.
So while everyone is on Burton, Ryan Preece, and Justin Haley from the cheaper tier, Gilliland makes for a great pivot.
Darlington DraftKings DFS Paul Menard Pick of the Week
Kyle Busch ($10,000) and Ross Chastain ($9600) make a double-dose PMPOTW this week.
The top tier of drivers is super strong with Hamlin, Truex, Larson, Byron, and Bell all in play in various formats. That leaves the door open for Busch and Chastain to sneak by.
Both are fantastic at Darlington and both have reasons to leave DFS owners concerned, although probably not rightly, in my opinion.
Starting with Busch, he will start from the rear of the field thanks to making an unapproved adjustment after qualifying. However, he still retains the 11th-place starting position as his official starting spot based upon qualifying. That often scares people away.
But Darlington is a track you can pass at thanks to the high tire wear. It’s also a 500-mile race. Barring a major incident, Rowdy should be there at the end.
As far as Chastain, people are writing him off because that team has been slow in recent weeks. But we’re coming to arguably his best track.
People are also hesitant thanks to his slow practice times, but I’m much more interested in his lack of falloff. Chastain had the smallest tire falloff in the field when looking at the difference between five and 25-lap averages.
By starting 27th, there’s also a ton of safety baked in.
Mix in these two in place of some of the other chalkier options in that expensive tier in a multi-entry portfolio.