Darlington Raceway, Darlington, SC — September 6, 2020
The Cook Out Southern 500 today at Darlington Raceway has a lot of storylines. One of NASCAR’s crown jewel races, the Souther 500 will run for the 71st time this evening at “the track too tough to tame.” It is the first of three races in the opening round of the NASCAR Playoffs.
It is also NASCAR’s traditional throw-back weekend, where cars are adorned with paint schemes reminiscent of memorable past Cup car designs. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson(48) is honoring the two other seven-time Cup Series Champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. The classic all-black of Earnhart’s famous #3 covers the bottom of Johnson’s car, the STP Red and Petty Blue of the King’s #43 appears on the top.
“The Lady in Black” is 1.366 miles in length and 367 laps make up the 501-mile distance of today’s race. Stage lengths are 115/115/137 laps and the defending champion is Erik Jones(20). The choose rule is in effect for this race. There will be 8,000 people in the stands as social distancing ticket sales allow a few fans to attend.
Chase Elliott(9) starts on the pole with Denny Hamlin(11) alongside on the front row. The Playoff drivers hold the first 16 starting spots on the grid. Except for Ryan Blaney(12), whose car failed inspection with improperly mounted ballast and will be forced to start at the rear of the field. Blaney was also penalized 10 points, a costly fine during the playoff elimination races.
Hamlin(X54) ran in the Xfinity Series race on Saturday and was involved in a classic Darlington finish with Xfinity regulars Ross Chastain(X10) and Brandon Jones(X19).
Elliott and Hamlin raced side-by-side for 3/4 of a lap until Elliott on the high side pulled in front across the start/finish line. Alex Bowman(88) and Martin Truex Jr.(19) both passed Hamlin until things settled down into single line racing. Hamlin complained of a loose race car and picked up a “Darlington Stripe” on his right rear quarter panel early in the first few laps. NASCAR scheduled a competition caution after lap 25 to allow crews to check and adjust their cars.
Elliott won the race off pit road to maintain his lead, Truex and Bowman followed. With a push from Truex, Elliott again took the lead, his car responds well in clean air. Green flag pitstops began on Lap 72 and Elliott surrendered the lead he has held since the start of the race. After pit stops cycled through, Elliott was again out front. But, Truex had cut into the lead by a full second and was within a half-second of the top spot.
Where the leaders catch lapped traffic determines how much the interval changes. On Lap 80, Brad Keselowski(2) cut down a right-front tire after contact with Aric Almirola(10) and hit the wall causing considerable cosmetic damage to the right side of his Ford Mustang. The caution flag waved allowing Keselowski’s crew was able to pull out the wheel wells and get Brad back on the track, only two laps down.
Truex used the quick action of his pit crew to beat Elliott off pit road during the caution and became the new leader. Keselowski stayed on the track getting one of his laps back with the free pass.
Truex held on to win the Stage earning the 10 stage points and 1 playoff point for taking the green and white checkered flag. Blaney worked his way up to 14th position after starting in the back after his pre-race penalty. Jimmie Johnson was the only non-playoff driver to capture Stage points, he finished 2nd.
Stage 1 Results
|1||19||Martin Truex Jr. (P)||10|
|3||9||Chase Elliott (P)||8|
|4||11||Denny Hamlin (P)||7|
|5||1||Kurt Busch (P)||6|
|6||88||Alex Bowman (P)||5|
|7||22||Joey Logano (P)*||4|
|8||24||William Byron (P)||3|
|9||18||Kyle Busch (P)||2|
|10||4||Kevin Harvick (P)*||1|
*Ford Mustang Drivers (P) Playoff Drivers
Truex was first off pit road followed by Elliott and the pair ran 1-2 on the restart. Just as the field was coming to the green flag, Blaney had to return to the pits. A flat left rear tire forced the stop and he fell two laps down joining Keselowski as the only two playoff drivers not on the lead lap.
Sundown gave the drivers relief from the blinding glare driving into Turn 3 and dropped the temperature from the mid-80s into the 70s. Green flag pit stops started on Lap 172, the middle of the 2nd Stage. Before the field could cycle through their visits to pit road, Bubba Wallace spun in Turn 4 bring out the caution. Pit stop timing, the free pass, and the wave around put all the Playoff drivers back on the lead lap.
Truex again maintained the lead, but there was a new driver in the Top 5. Kevin Harvick(4) ran 2nd, followed by Hamlin, Johnson, and Bowman. Truex lengthened the lead through the latter portion of Stage 2 and doubled up on Stage wins and points.
Erik Jones(20), the defending champion, joined Johnson as the only non-playoff drivers to earn Stage points in this segment.
Stage 2 Results
|1||19||Martin Truex Jr. (P)||10|
|2||11||Denny Hamlin (P)||9|
|3||4||Kevin Harvick (P)*||8|
|4||88||Alex Bowman (P)||7|
|6||18||Kyle Busch (P)||5|
|8||3||Austin Dillon (P)||3|
|9||14||Clint Bowyer (P)*||2|
|10||1||Kurt Busch (P)||1|
*Ford Mustang Drivers (P) Playoff Drivers
The Final Stage
Hamlin and Bowman were on the front row for the restart, Truex pushed his teammate Hamlin into the lead with Harvick, Bowman, and Jones rounding out the Top 5 at the beginning of the Final Stage.
John Hunter Nemechek brought out the caution on Lap 244 getting into the wall on the front stretch. Everyone hit pit road for fresh tires despite having just been in 10 laps earlier. Truex was out first followed by Hamlin, Kyle Busch(18), Harvick, and Johnson. Truex and Hamlin choose the top lane, Kyle Busch took the low side moving up to the front row. Truex drove off into Turn 1 with the lead and Busch was able to slide up into 2nd ahead of Hamlin.
Busch, who has not yet won this year, could be a factor in the Playoffs if he gets hot over the final 10 races. Kyle had said, earlier in the week, that getting a win this year was more important than the title as he wanted to keep his annual winning streak alive.
Truex, who has won three of the last four playoff openers continues to lead as the laps count down. The timing of the final pit stops may be a key factor in the finishing order. Johnson was the first of the leaders to hit pit road with 85 laps to go.
With 70 laps to go eight cars remained out including Truex. Harvick ran in the 9th position, one lap down, he caught Truex and Kevin unlapped himself. Bowyer pitted with 65 laps to go as his right rear tire began to come apart.
Truex pitted with 60 laps to go and his teammate Kyle Busch followed. If the race stays green they may be able to make it on fuel. If there is a caution, the strategy may blow up. As Hamlin tried to pit a lap after the other Joe Gibbs Racing cars, he had trouble getting low enough to make the entry. Johnson ran into the back of Hamlin causing the #11 car to miss pit road. The extra lap, at a slower speed, cost Hamlin a lot of track position.
After all the pit stops, Harvick led. Followed by Elliott, Jones, Austin Dillon(3), and then Truex. With 47 laps to go, the caution waved for debris on the track and the pit strategy went out the window. All of the leaders will have to pit for fresh tires.
The race off pit road went to Elliott. He was followed by Harvick, Jones, Truex, and Dillon. Truex was able to pass Harvick and Jones, while Elliott pulled out to almost a full second lead over the #19 car.
With 20 laps to go, Truex had closed the gap to just a couple of car lengths. Elliott moves away in Turns 1 & 2, Truex makes up time in Turns 3 & 4. With 15 laps to go, Truex got a run down the front straight. After passing, Truex moved up the track cutting off Elliott who ran into the #19’s rear bumper. Both cars hit the wall, the damage to Truex resulted in a flat right rear tire and he pitted to change all 4 tires. Elliott stayed on the track but the wall contact upset the handle on the car and Harvick moved to the lead.
Harvick grabbed the win with Austin Dillon taking an improbable 2nd place finish. Logano, Jones, and William Byron(24) rounded out the Top 5. Chase Elliott finished 20th and Martin Truex Jr. dropped to the 22nd finishing position.
Harvick automatically advances to the next round with the victory and pads his Playoff Points lead with the five bonus points awarded to the race winner.
Austin Dillon moved 10 points above the Round 1 cut line. The Busch brothers advanced their positions to sit 10th and 11th. Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola are tied for 12th and share the bubble.
Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney share the bottom of the standings and will have to pick up their performance significantly over the next two races.
|6||Martin Truex Jr.||2049||+16|
|Round 1 Cut Line|
*Ford Mustang Drivers
Next week it’s a Saturday night short track shootout at Richmond Raceway for Race 2 of the first round.
Results of the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway
|1||4||Kevin Harvick (P)||—||367|
|2||3||Austin Dillon (P)||0.343||367|
|3||22||Joey Logano (P)||2.109||367|
|5||24||William Byron (P)||5.037||367|
|6||88||Alex Bowman (P)||5.562||367|
|7||18||Kyle Busch (P)||8.260||367|
|8||1||Kurt Busch (P)||8.614||367|
|9||10||Aric Almirola (P)||11.405||367|
|10||14||Clint Bowyer (P)||11.926||367|
|11||2||Brad Keselowski (P)||14.887||367|
|12||41||Cole Custer (P)||15.060||367|
|13||11||Denny Hamlin (P)||15.078||367|
|19||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||23.714||367|
|20||9||Chase Elliott (P)||27.572||367|
|21||21||Matt DiBenedetto (P)||-1||366|
|22||19||Martin Truex Jr. (P)||-1||366|
|24||12||Ryan Blaney (P)||-1||366|
|36||38||John Hunter Nemechek||-122||245|