Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – The next phase in the battle for the NASCAR Cup Series championship starts Sunday at Darlington Raceway in the Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
For many of the 16 drivers who claimed Playoff spots during the 26-race regular season, it’s as much about trying to survive the Round of 16 by whatever means possible as it is about attempting to advance by winning one of the three races in the opening round—at Darlington, Richmond or Bristol.
With a hefty 28-Playoff-point lead over second seed Ryan Blaney and third seed Martin Truex Jr., Regular Season Champion Kyle Larson enters the Playoff as the heavy favorite. Farther down the grid, however, only 13 Playoff points separate Alex Bowman (sixth seed) and Denny Hamlin (seventh seed) from 16th seed Kevin Harvick.
Accordingly, the 11 drivers from Bowman on down have little or no margin for error if they hope to stave off elimination in the first round.
With 2,002 points to start the Playoff, Harvick has the highest hill to climb, but the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is perhaps best equipped to accomplish the task of survival.
A nine-time winner in 2020, the 2014 series champion has failed to find Victory Lane so far this year, but his six top-five finishes are most among the bottom five seeds, and his average finish of 11.7 likewise is the high-water mark for that group.
“I feel good about our team,” says Harvick, who won two of the three races at Darlington last year. “I think our team has done a great job with the circumstances we’ve been presented with, and I think the last four or five weeks our cars have run a lot better.
“We’ve still got some work to do with some things on the balance side of the car to start these races, but in the end, our team has done a great job, and those numbers could have been a lot better if it weren’t for three or four ill-timed accidents at the end of a few of the races.
“You obviously want to win, but some years just don’t go exactly how you want them to go, and I think those are the years that you’ve got to dig down and do the things that our guys have done this year. So (you’ve) got to be in it to win it, and we’ve given ourselves a chance and see where it all falls in the end.”
Aric Almirola, Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and Tyler Reddick each posted just two top-five results in the regular season. Those three drivers likely will need a flawless first round to advance.
Reddick, who secured the final Playoff berth with a battle-scarred fifth-place finish in last Saturday’s regular-season finale at Daytona, nevertheless is optimistic entering the Round of 16.
“For most of this year, especially once we got it rolling the way it needed to be, we were running inside the top 10 a lot, having shots, one pit stop or one decision here or there away from top fives, which unfortunately haven’t had a lot of those this year,” Reddick says. “But we’ve been right there. Little details will either make or break this Playoff run for us.
“But I like where we’ve been going. I still feel like we’re still improving, but we’re right where we need to be for the right time at the start of this.”
Doubtless, the likely frontrunners at Darlington will garner most of the headlines, but the most significant action may involve those near the bottom of the grid trying to gain an early advantage in the fight to make the Round of 12.
NASCAR Xfinity Playoff grid is taking shape as series heads for Darlington
With three races left in the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular season, seven drivers have clinched Playoff berths—defending champion Austin Cindric, AJ Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier, Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton, Jeb Burton and Last week’s Daytona winner, Justin Haley.
That leaves five spots open entering Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help a Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Myatt Snider will clinch one of the remaining spots as soon as he takes the green flag at the Lady in Black. Already a winner at Homestead in the third race of the season, Snider needs to score one point to cement his position in the top 20 in the standings.
Starting the race on Saturday takes care of that detail.
Four other drivers can clinch a Playoff spot outright with a victory—Noah Gragson, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements and Riley Herbst. Ryan Sieg and Brandon Brown could clinch with a win if they also secure an unassailable position in the top 20.
Gragson is particularly confident heading to the Track to Tough to Tame. In four Xfinity Series starts there, he has scored four top 10s, two top fives and an average finish of 6.0.
“Darlington has been a great track for this No. 9 JR Motorsports team in the past,” says Gragson, who announced earlier this week he will return to his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series ride next year.
“Our worst finish is eighth, and we have continually gotten better since that finish in 2019. We led laps here in the spring and finished fourth, so now we’re looking to be a few spots better to hopefully get some more Playoff points as we close in on that part of the season.”
Standing in the way of all the Xfinity regulars hoping for a win is one massive challenge in the person of NASCAR Cup Series veteran Denny Hamlin, who will drive the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Supra in Saturday’s race. In 13 Xfinity starts at Darlington, Hamlin has five victories, 10 top fives and an average finish of 5.6.
Darlington gets its first taste of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoff
Defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed started the 2021 Playoff where he left off in 2020—with a victory.
Creed’s decisive win at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway last weekend ensured his advancement to the Round of 8 in the postseason, as the other nine Playoff drivers scramble to secure the remaining seven positions in that round.
Creed bagged the first of his two victories this season at Darlington in May, and he’s enthused about the series’ return for Sunday’s In It to Win It 200 at the 1.366-mile track (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Sunday’s event is the ninth Truck Series race at the Lady in Black and the first Playoff contest at the track since the series adopted a postseason Playoff format in 2016.
“Winning at Gateway to open the Round of 10 was a huge confidence booster for our No. 2 team,” Creed says. “I’m excited to return to Darlington this weekend because this track fits my style perfectly.
“We had the dominant truck last year, but it got away from us, so winning there earlier this season made it seem like we redeemed ourselves. I think we might have the truck to beat once again on Sunday, and I’m looking forward to chasing after another win.”
Ben Rhodes, who won last year’s race, is the only other previous Darlington winner in the field this week.