Column: NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Begin At The ‘Track Too Tough To Tame’

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – 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 Kevin Harvick, 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.

XFINITY KICKS OFF THE WEEKEND

With four races remaining to set the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff field, this Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) may be one of the most pivotal afternoons of the late season.

Darlington- with all its nuances and unpredictability – is typically considered a season wildcard event. And the final points position in the 12-driver Playoff field is as close-quartered competitively as the cars will be on the 1.366-mile historic track this weekend.

Only one fulltime Xfinity Series driver, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe, has won previously at Darlington. Briscoe scored the victory this May in a race that wasn’t originally on the schedule for Darlington, but was added as NASCAR carefully re-opened its season in South Carolina during the COVID-19 situation.

The race featured a very competitive battle among Briscoe, who led 45 laps, Kyle Busch, who led 45 laps and Briscoe’s fellow Xfinity fulltime driver Noah Gragson, who led a race high 46 laps and won Stage 1.

Interestingly, half the current Playoff-eligible field earned their best Darlington finishes this Spring, from current points leader Austin Cindric (fourth in May) to Gragson (fifth), to veteran Justin Allgaier (third) to Ross Chastain (eighth).

The uptick in finish is perhaps a very encouraging sign for Chastain, who is ranked third in points earned, but eighth in the Playoff adjustment – best among drivers still looking for their first win of 2020. Not only did Chastain earn his best Darlington finish this May, the track was the site of a superb showing in 2018 – even if the 25th-place finish doesn’t properly reflect the effort.

In September, 2018 while driving a short schedule of races for Chip Ganassi, Chastain won the pole position and led a dominant 90 of the opening 112 laps of the 147-lap Darlington race – winning both the opening two stages. But while racing veteran Kevin Harvick for the lead on lap 111, the two collided, ending Harvick’s day and derailing any hope of Chastain earning his first career Xfinity Series win. That would come two weeks later, however, driving Ganassi’s car to a victory in Las Vegas.

With the near-miss in 2018 and a career-best finish this Spring, Chastain – who now drives the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, is undoubtedly eager to see if Darlington can be his first victory venue of the 2020 season.

Certainly a victory this week would boost the Playoff hopes for Brandon Brown and Jeremy Clements too, who are separated by only 32 points contesting that final 12th place points position. Brown, the driver of the No. 68 family-owned Chevrolet, scored his best finish (13th) in four Darlington starts this May. That was one position behind Clements in his family-owned No. 51 Chevrolet.

Clements has 10 starts at the track, earning his only top 10 (eighth place) in 2016. Brown is still looking for his first top 10.

Justin Haley will be starting from pole position alongside Briscoe. Championship leader Cindric will start fourth. Clements will start 13th and Brown will start 17th.

THE GANDER TRUCKS RETURN

The NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series will hold its first race at the historic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in nearly a decade with Sunday afternoon’s South Carolina Education Lottery 200 (2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Not only will drivers be tasked with figuring out the notoriously “Too Tough To Tame” Darlington oval without any practice, they will be doing so with Playoff implications on the line. Only two races remain to set the 10-driver championship-eligible field for the 2020 Playoff run.

There are no former winners in the field. The last to drive a truck to Darlington’s Victory Lane was Kasey Kahne in 2011. In six Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races at Darlington (from 2005-11) – four were won by Dodge and two by Toyota.

In 2011 – the last truck race at Darlington – the average age of nine of the top-10 drivers currently in the championship standings was 13.9 years old. Sheldon Creed, for example, who has a series-best three wins was only 14-years old in 2011. Tyler Ankrum, who is ranked ninth in the standings, was only 10 years old when Kahne was celebrating his run at Darlington..

Of the current top-10 in the standings, only reigning champion Matt Crafton has raced a truck at Darlington previously. He has four top-10 finishes in six starts with a career best of fourth place in 2011. Another veteran, Johnny Sauter, who is also still hoping to race into Playoff contention, has two previous Darlington starts with a best of fourth place in 2010.

It all creates a distinctive feel of intrigue and intensity – a new venue at a must-win time for so many of the competitors with only two races remaining in the regular season.

Creed’s victory at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway last week certainly had big Playoff implications. It was his third win of the season (and his career) and that is most among the full-timers to date, placing him as the current top-seeded driver. His good day, however, was Todd Gilliland’s bad day and the two were intertwined.

Gilliland, driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, led a race best 75 laps and scored key points winning both Stage 1 and Stage 2. But he was wiped out of contention by Creed as the two contended for the lead early in the third stage. Gilliland was able to continue racing, but finished 24th and now sits on the Playoff bubble, only 13 points to the Playoff-eligible good over 11th place Derek Kraus.

It puts a lot of pressure on the Darlington outcome for both.

For the last eight races, Gilliland, 20, has alternated between a top-10 finish and a result of 20th or worse. In the last four races, for example, Gilliland was fifth at Michigan and then 33rd the next race at the Daytona Road Course. He was fourth at Dover, Del. and then 24th last week at Gateway. It has all resulted in a perilous points position with just that 13-point cushion on Kraus with Darlington and then the Richmond (Va.) Raceway short track to decide which 10 drivers qualify for the Playoffs.

Moffitt and Creed will start Sunday’s race from the front row, followed by Hill and Smith in row 2.

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