After 26 weeks establishing the ultimate competitive groove and seeing the sport’s best raise their game, the premier NASCAR Cup Series begins its 10-week Playoff run Sunday night in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
It’s hard to imagine a way to top last week’s regular season finale on the Daytona high banks with 22-year old William Byron scoring his first career win and ensuring his Playoff position in a dramatic, high-action, high-stakes 400-mile run. But fans can expect that same intensity as teams start a championship push this weekend on one of the series’ most venerable and similarly unpredictable venues, the 1.366-mile, Darlington oval.
The Playoff standings have been re-set and the drivers have been re-seeded based on Playoff points earned to date. Regular season champion Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford takes a slim 10-point advantage over Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into Saturday’s opening event of the first three-race elimination Playoff format.
Eleven drivers start the Playoffs having earned a victory – the seven-race winner Harvick, six-race winner Hamlin, three-race winner Brad Keselowski, two-race winners Joey Logano and Chase Elliott and one-race winners Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Byron, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer.
The remainder of the 16-driver Playoff field is set on points-gained and includes Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto.
There are six former NASCAR Cup Series champions among this Playoff group – Harvick, Keselowski, Logano, Truex, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch, the 2019 champion and only two-time champ (also 2015) in the field.
Among the 16 Playoff drivers, only five have ever won a Cup race at Darlington previously. Hamlin (three) and Harvick (two) are the only multi-time winners. Keselowski, Truex and Kyle Busch also have past victories. Hamlin and Harvick both won races there this Spring as the sport returned to competition after time-off during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Counting Xfinity Series wins at the track too, Hamlin has an impressive five more trophies. Kyle Busch has two and Keselowski and Elliott have won one Xfinity Series race there as well.
This week the full Playoff field conducted national media interviews offering their predictions going forward – about the races themselves and the drivers to beat. There was a general agreement on both Harvick and Hamlin’s amazing pace on the season and that they were absolutely the teams to get past. The pair have won HALF of the 26 races – Harvick seven and Hamlin six and this weekend, return to a venue where they have BOTH already won this season. The big question may be which two drivers join them to settle the title Nov. 8 at Phoenix.
The three-race first round of the Playoff takes place on an assortment of NASCAR’s most challenging facilities – from a Darlington track nicknamed “Too Tough To Tame” to the unpredictable three-quarter mile Richmond (Va.) Raceway, to the famously wide-open Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway half-miler. The four drivers with the lowest point total after the Sept. 19 Bristol race will be eliminated from the title run.
Among the Playoff drivers, Harvick, Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the only drivers with previous wins at all three of the opening round tracks. Hamlin’s three at Darlington are most there among the Playoff contingent. Kyle Busch leads the drivers in wins at Richmond (six) and Bristol (eight).
“What a terrific Playoff schedule, much better than any format I think we’ve seen to date with respect to the schedule, so I’m really pleased to see our sport make those kind of adjustments,” said Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
“Looking at the first round, the first round is your tried and true NASCAR tracks. Darlington, South Carolina, tough track, 500 miles, one of your most historical events in all sports. And then you throw in there, Richmond, which is again back to one of the more traditional short tracks, beating and banging NASCAR races. And then Bristol.
“That first round is a power round with tracks that I think should have been in the Playoffs since day one and I’m glad they are in there now.”
Always a big topic, but never more so than this year, is the group of drivers that is likely to be eliminated after the opening round. This is the lowest Kyle Busch has been ranked entering the Playoffs in this format. He’s had a well-documented frustrating year, going winless. His 13 top-10 finishes is notable considering he had 27 last year and 28 in 2018.
In fact, his championship-winning victory in the 2019 season finale at Homestead, Fla. is his only win in the last 47 races. He has won at least one race by the 26th week of the season every other year of his 16-year fulltime career.
And despite the frustration he’s faced in 2020, Busch remains very much a contender, if you ask his competition.
“Maybe you’d consider the 18 [a dark horse],” Blaney said Wednesday noting that he’s certainly not counting Busch out. “Those guys on that team, the Gibbs organization has been really strong.
“I’m gonna be selfish and say I think our group has been check-boxed as a dark-horse team by a lot of people. Anybody can do it. The 11 [Hamlin] and 4 [Harvick] have been good all year, but there are a bunch of other teams that can step up and have really good rounds and I guess. You could say upset what those guys have been doing all year.
“I think anybody can,” said Blaney.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!