Darlington Speedway, Darlington, SC — September 5, 2021
Here we go! The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin today at Darlington Speedway in the Cookout Southern 500. Check out The Lasco Press predictions in our Inside the Garage column as we take you round by round, Who’s In, Who’s Out.
“The Lady in Black” will have a big impact on who gets off on the right foot and who will struggle to advance to the next round. Playoff points earned during the regular season will also prove significant in defining the first four drivers eliminated during the Round of 16.
Driver Standings Entering Darlington
|3||19||Martin Truex Jr.||2024||3|
*Ford Mustang Drivers
Today’s race on the 1.366-mile oval Darlington Raceway, also known as “The Track Too Tough To Tame,” is scheduled for 367 laps, a grueling 501.322 miles. Stages are 115/115/137 laps.
Kyle Larson(5) owns the best average finish (6.00) at Darlington all-time among drivers with more than two starts. Ryan Blaney(12) has a series-best 6.6 average finish over the last nine races in 2021. They are the favorites heading into tonight’s event.
Blaney starts on the pole looking for his 3rd victory in a row. Denny Hamlin(11) starts beside Blaney as they lead the field to the green flag. Kurt Busch(1) and Chase Elliott(9) sit on row two. The Playoff drivers start in positions 1-16 depending on their results in the Coke Zero 400 last week at Daytona.
The 6 pm start time will allow drivers a break from the high 80s temperatures early in the day. A forecast of partly cloudy, no rain, and the thermometer dropping to 66 degrees after sundown should produce ideal race conditions.
Blaney jumped to the lead down into Turn 1 with the pack quickly lining up in single file as they tip-toe their way around the track getting used to the racing surface. A new asphalt patch was put down in Turn 2 after the race earlier this year and drivers have had no practice or qualifying this weekend.
A competition caution is scheduled for after Lap 25 and with the abrasive racing surface, expect all drivers to head to the pits for fresh tires.
Early on Alex Bowman(48) tapped the wall and sustained some damage to the right side of his race car. His crew opted to keep him on the track to see if he could make it to the scheduled caution. Big mistake! Bowman’s right-front tire went down and he sustained significant damage hitting the wall a 2nd time.
It proved costly for the Hendrick Motorsports team as a whole, William Byron(24) collided with his teammate’s vehicle and damaged his car as well. Kurt Busch(1) passed Blaney for the lead. Just before the caution displayed.
Kevin Harvick(4) moved into the 2nd spot just prior to the competition caution, which saw almost everyone come to pit road for service. More trouble for a Hendrick driver as Elliott hit a tire being carried by a crewman from the James Davison(53) crew pitting directly in front of the #9 team. The crewman was ok, but the tire dented the left front of Elliott’s car causing a tire rub forcing a return to pit road.
As drivers scrambled for positions on the restart, playoff contender Michael McDowell(34) got loose, spun, and hit the inside wall separating the track from the pits. McDowell’s car was damaged beyond repair and he became the 1st driver out of the race. The misstep puts him in an even deeper hole points-wise. Likely making the #34 car one of the first to be eliminated after Round 1, just 30 laps into Race 1.
Teammates Cody Ware(51) and Davison got together in Turn 2 bringing out the 4th caution of the evening with just 46 laps complete. It looks like it will be a late night at Darlington, it’s a good thing most people have the Labor Day holiday on Monday to sleep in and recover.
Denny Hamlin(11) was the first car off pit road and jumped to almost a full second lead on the restart. Blaney, Kurt Busch, Larson, and Harvick rounded out the Top 5. With the abundance of cautions early, the cars could make it to the end of the Stage at Lap 115 with the fuel onboard. The debate was if the tires would hold out for a 70 lap run. It will be interesting to see who gambles and who plays it safe.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.(47) was the first of the drivers opting to pit with 33 to go in the Stage. On the next lap, most of the leaders and playoff drivers came in for service. When stops cycled through the Top 5 were, Hamlin, Larson, Blaney, Kurt Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.(19).
Hamlin held on for the Stage win. All 10 points-paying positions went to playoff drivers except the 9th spot that Ross Chastain(42) inserted himself in.
Stage 1 Results
|1||11||Denny Hamlin (P)||10|
|2||5||Kyle Larson (P)||9|
|3||1||Kurt Busch (P)||8|
|4||12||Ryan Blaney (P)*||7|
|5||4||Kevin Harvick (P)*||6|
|6||19||Martin Truex Jr. (P)||5|
|7||8||Tyler Reddick (P)||4|
|8||10||Aric Almirola (P)*||3|
|10||22||Joey Logano (P)*||1|
(P) Playoff Drivers *Ford Mustang Drivers
With daylight quickly fading, the adjustments crews make during the stage ending caution will be critical. The Top 5 remained the same exiting pit road.
This time Larson was able to edge ahead of Hamlin and take the lead into Turn 1. Kyle Busch(18) got into Austin Dillon(3) exiting Turn 2 and lost control. The #18 car went right rear first into the wall, bounced off, and hit the right front.
The caution came out for the 6th time and Busch pulled his car behind the pit wall and directly to the team’s hauler. Almost running over several people passing through the opening to the garage.
If Rowdy is not fined for speeding through the garage, he will likely pay a few bucks for using profanity to describe the handling of his car in his interview with NBC after leaving the medical center. All drivers involved in an accident must receive a mandatory check-over by doctors on-site.
On the restart, Larson maintained the lead followed by Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Blaney, and Chastain making his first appearance in the Top 5.
More Pit Stops
Drivers began making green-flag pit stops on Laps 43-45 of Stage 2. Truex complained of a loose wheel after his stop. Fortunately, debris on the track brought out another caution flag just in time for Truex to head for his pit stall to correct the condition. Due to his track position, Truex lost a lap on pit road but might have lost two laps with a green flag stop.
Christopher Bell(20) hit the debris causing damage to the right front of his car that was repaired during his stop on pit road.
The second round of green-flag pit stops began with 33 laps to go. In the middle of cars visiting pit road, Byron cut down a left front tire and hit the outside wall in Turn 1 destroying his car.
On the restart, Larson continued to show his dominance pulling out to a 1.5-second lead quickly. Hamlin, Bell, Harvick, and Chastain followed.
Larson took the stage win, Ross Chatain again stole Stage points from the playoff drivers finishing 3rd. So did Corey LaJoie who took the 10th spot.
Stage 2 Results
|1||5||Kyle Larson (P)||10|
|2||20||Christopher Bell (P)||9|
|4||11||Denny Hamlin (P)||7|
|5||4||Kevin Harvick (P)*||6|
|6||1||Kurt Busch (P)||5|
|7||22||Joey Logano (P)*||4|
|8||9||Chase Elliott (P)||3|
|9||12||Ryan Blaney (P)*||2|
(P) Playoff Drivers *Ford Mustang Drivers
The Final Stage
Larson, Bell, Hamlin, Harvick, and Chastain lead the field back to green. Blaney’s crew allowed a tire to escape their pit box during their stop and the penalty sent the #12 Ford Mustang to the rear of the pack for the restart.
The first series of green-flag pit stops began with 98 laps to go as Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson came in for service. Hamlin, Truex, Chris Buescher(17), and Brad Keselowski(2) stayed on the track and may opt to try and finish with two pit stops instead of three.
All four came in for service with 87 laps to go. The three-stop guys were back on pit road with 69-66 laps to go. Chastain made the fastest stop and is set to hold the lead when the two-stop cars come in.
Keselowski bailed on the two-stop guys, so it is Hamlin, Truex, and Buescher rolling the dice. Blaney had a right-front tire go down and he spun in Turn 4 with 49 laps to go bringing out the 10th yellow flag of the race. And causing the pit strategy to go out the window.
Truex was caught speeding on pit road and will have to start at the rear of the lead lap cars, likely taking him out of contention for the win.
A restart with 42 laps to go will allow everyone to finish without another required pit stop. Hamlin and Larson sit on row one, Chastain and Kurt Busch on row two.
Elliott got pinched into the Turn 4 wall in a three-wide squeeze and cut a tire down. He hit the wall in Turn 1 and pancaked the right side of the race car. He was forced to retire to the garage from the damage.
Back to green with 36 laps to go and a change upfront. Chris Buescher(17) replaced Busch on Row 2 as Kurt was forced to pit during the caution for damage to his car. Hamlin raced into Turn 1 with the lead, but Larson will not let him get away.
Without clean air on the nose of his car, Larson was forced to search for a line that would allow him to challenge Hamlin for the top spot. With 30 to go the running order was Hamlin, Larson, Chastain, Logano, and Harvick.
Larson backed off Hamlin’s bumper allowing his tires to cool and saving the car for a late run at the lead. Truex began to work his way forward with 23 to go he passed Harvick. Four laps later, he passed Logano for 4th.
Larson began to close on the leader, as did Chastain who got beside Larson with 15 laps to go. Kyle held off the charge and the three leaders once again backed off to cool their tires. Truex has the fastest car on the track, but the laps are going to run out on him.
With 2 laps to go, Larson closed some but it did not appear he would be able to get to Hamlin’s bumper. In a last-ditch effort, Larson actually drove into the wall in Turn 3, rode it through 4, and tapped the rear of Hamlin’s car as they headed for the checkered flag.
Hamlin kept his car straight and crossed the line just ahead of the #5 car. His first win of the year could not have come at a better time as he advances to the next round automatically and carries 6 additional playoff points with him.
|3||Martin Truex Jr.||2062||+36|
|NASCAR Playoffs Round of 16 Cut Line|
*Ford Mustang Driver
Despite all of the difficulties playoff drivers experienced, most can recover with solid outings at Richmond and Bristol. Michael McDowell may have put himself in a must-win position unless he can put together back-to-back Top 10 runs and other driver problems continue.
Next Race: The Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Motor Speedway, Saturday, September 11, 7:30 PM
Results of the Cookout Southern 500 from Darlington Raceway
|1||11||Denny Hamlin (P)||—||367|
|2||5||Kyle Larson (P)||0.212||367|
|4||19||Martin Truex Jr. (P)||2.227||367|
|5||4||Kevin Harvick (P)||12.467||367|
|6||1||Kurt Busch (P)||13.005||367|
|7||2||Brad Keselowski (P)||13.037||367|
|8||22||Joey Logano (P)||15.872||367|
|16||10||Aric Almirola (P)||-1||366|
|17||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||-1||366|
|18||8||Tyler Reddick (P)||-1||366|
|20||20||Christopher Bell (P)||-1||366|
|22||12||Ryan Blaney (P)||-1||366|
|26||48||Alex Bowman (P)||-4||363|
|31||9||Chase Elliott (P)||-40||327|
|34||24||William Byron (P)||-168||199|
|35||18||Kyle Busch (P)||-242||125|
|37||34||Michael McDowell (P)||-337||30|
(P) Playoff Drivers