Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Bojangles’ Southern 500
The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Sunday, September 2
The Time: 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 5 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 501.3 miles (367 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 100),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 200), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 367)
1. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota
2. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet
3. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota
4. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet
5. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota
6. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet
7. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota
8. (22) Joey Logano, Ford
9. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford
10. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet
11. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet
12. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford
13. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford
14. (21) Paul Menard, Ford
15. (6) Matt Kenseth, Ford
16. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota
17. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford
18. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet
19. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet
20. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet
21. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford
22. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford
23. (38) David Ragan, Ford
24. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet
25. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford
26. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford
27. (43) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet
28. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet
29. (95) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet
30. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford
31. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet
32. (52) JJ Yeley, Chevrolet
33. (15) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet
34. (72) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet
35. (00) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet
36. (66) Timmy Hill, Toyota
37. (51) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet
38. (99) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet
39. (23) Joey Gase, Toyota
40. (96) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Toyota
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Sitting Pretty For The Playoffs
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series arrives at the famed Darlington Raceway this weekend following its final off-week of the season and there is an unmistakable Playoff push in the air for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Seven-time winner Kevin Harvick, six-time winner and regular season points leader Kyle Busch, four-time winner Martin Truex Jr. and two-time winner Clint Bowyer – the series’ only repeat winners to date – have already secured a shot at the championship and enter the Playoffs considered the favorites.
However, there is a talented group of drivers filling out that top 16 championship-bound group equally as motivated and arguably, peaking at the right time. A win this weekend would booster their case. Race winners Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, and first-time trophy hoisters Chase Elliott and Erik Jones are Playoff-eligible by victories. And Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson have clinched their spots based on the points standings.
As of now, the four drivers who tentatively make up the remainder of the Playoff field still need to secure their positions inside the 16-driver Playoff field – Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman, who holds a 79-point advantage on the field in the final Playoff transfer position.
Clinch Scenario Not Too Tough To Tame For Hamlin
Following the last Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, three drivers locked up a spot in the Playoffs, despite a ‘zero’ in the wins column – Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski. The trio has scored enough points during the regular season to ensure that there is no way for them to fall out of the 16-driver grid.
That now makes 12 drivers who have locked up a spot in the 10-race Playoffs. We may see a few more added after Sunday’s race at Darlington, with Denny Hamlin the most likely candidate to add his name to the prestigious list.
Here are the clinch scenarios for Sunday’s race at the Track Too Tough to Tame:
Denny Hamlin – If Hamlin scores 8 points, he will clinch a Playoff spot. If there is a repeat winner at Darlington, Hamlin would clinch regardless of points scored.
Aric Almirola – If there is a repeat winner, Almirola would clinch with 25-points. He could also clinch with a new winner and help.
Jimmie Johnson – Johnson could clinch with a repeat winner and help, or by winning the race.
The following drivers can only guarantee a Playoff clinch by winning at Darlington: Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez, Paul Menard, William Byron, Jamie McMurray, Chris Buescher, AJ Allmendinger, David Ragan, Darrell Wallace Jr., Kasey Kahne, Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon.
Matt DiBenedetto could clinch with a win but would need help clinching a top 30 spot.
Hamlin is a two-time winner and defending race champion at Darlington. With three Darlington trophies, Johnson is the winningest driver in Sunday night’s field
The “Big 3” At Darlington
All members of the current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series “Big 3” have previous wins at Darlington. And points leader Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, ranks among the series’ top-three drivers at Darlington in five of the six key loop data statistical categories. His 598 passes there are best among the competition. In 13 starts, he has posted one win (2008) and three top fives and eight top 10s.
Seven-time 2018 winner Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, is second only to Denny Hamlin in top-five finishes at Darlington with five. And he’s on a streak of six top-10 finishes this summer, including victories at Michigan and New Hampshire in the last five weeks. Interestingly, his last win at the “Track Too Tough to Tame” came in his 2014 championship season.
Truex, the 2016 Darlington winner, has a streak of three top-10 finishes at the track. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota has had three finishes of 14th or worse in the season’s last four races, but was running among the top-five when he was crashed out at the series’ last race, in Bristol, two weeks ago.
Stewart-Haas Racing Looks To Be All In
The Stewart-Haas Racing team looks to have a perfect team Playoff mark for the first-time since fielding a four-car stable. And it may be the only team Playoff sweep of the season. Three of the four SHR drivers have already qualified for the playoffs with victories. The veteran Harvick has seven wins, Bowyer has two and Kurt Busch picked up his first of the season at Bristol two weeks ago.
The newest addition to the driving stable, Aric Almirola, has looked prime for a trophy hoist, as well. He has three top-10 finishes in the last six races. His 10 top-10s on the season are already a career-high, with 12 races still remaining. And his 115 laps led is also already a career-high mark for the driver of the No. 10 SHR Ford.
For whatever reason, Denny Hamlin has had an instant, positive and productive connection with one of NASCAR’s notoriously toughest ovals – Darlington Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is still looking for his first win of the season and as the defending winner of the Southern 500, this week’s venue may well be circled on his schedule.
Hamlin boasts the top driver rating (110.3 – well above the next statistical best of Kyle Busch at 105.1), the best average running position (7.8) and tops the list of fastest laps run (272) in this race. His average start is 9.417 – and he’s the only driver (who has made more than one start at the track) averaging better than 10th on the starting grid. His two pole positions ties Kurt Busch for most among the Playoff drivers.
And most importantly for the driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota, Hamlin has 10 top-10 finishes in 12 career starts at Darlington, including seven top-fives and two wins.
Hamlin has won the Busch Pole position at two of the last venues on the 2018 schedule – Watkins Glen and Michigan, but he’s had only two top-10 finishes in the last seven races.
No driver entered this weekend has won more races (three) at Darlington than seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson. However, for the first time in his NASCAR Hall of Fame-bound career, Johnson is winless on the season as he arrives in South Carolina for Sunday’s race.
Johnson’s last race win here – in 2012 – was a historic 200th win for his Hendrick Motorsports team, and this weekend his No. 48 Chevrolet will have a “throwback” paint scheme honoring that special weekend.
And although Johnson is still looking for that first win of 2018, there is historical reason to believe it may be close. Of his 83 Monster Energy Series wins, Johnson has won 34 of them in the months of September (10), October (14) and November (10).
There has been progress this year, if still no trophy, yet. Johnson is coming off a top 10 at Bristol Motor Speedway in the last race – his eighth top 10 of the year. He’s looking for his first top 10 at Darlington since a third-place finish in 2014.
Throwback Look Back
While there are certain drivers who historically have faired well at Darlington, recent races have proven that the driver out front for most of the day may not win.
In the last six races, the driver who led the most laps has won only half the races – and that includes last year when Hamlin and 14th-place finisher Kyle Larson both led a race-high 124 laps.
Four of the last six races have featured at least 20 lead changes – including a high of 24 lead changes in Carl Edwards’ 2015 Southern 500 win. Edwards beat out Brad Keselowski in that race despite the fact Keselowski led a dominant 196 of the 367 laps.
Three times in the last six races a driver has led at least 200 laps and twice that driver did not win. Harvick led 214 laps in 2016 despite finishing runner-up to Truex; Harvick led 238 laps in winning the 2014 race and Kyle Busch led 265 laps in his sixth place run to Matt Kenseth in 2013.
Sunoco Rookie Race
The summer, of late, has been a bit of a tough run for the Monster Energy Series’ Sunoco rookies. Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron still leads the rookie race over Richard Petty Motorsports driver Bubba Wallace, but both young drivers are hopeful to turn things around this week at Darlington.
Byron, 20, is ranked 21st in the Monster Energy Series points standings. He qualified an impressive fifth at Bristol – his first ever top-five Cup start – but finished 23rd. The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had back-to-back top-10 finishes at Pocono (sixth) and Watkins Glen (eighth) but has finished 36th at Michigan and then 23rd at Bristol since. In his only NASCAR Xfinity Series start at Darlington in 2017, he finished fifth.
“I love Darlington,’’ Byron said. “I went there as a kid to watch the race a few times. As a driver, it’s just a fun track to get around. It’s really challenging – you have to run against the wall on both ends of the racetrack, which is very demanding on the equipment and mentally on the driver.
“I really enjoy it and we had a pretty good run there last year (in the NASCAR Xfinity Series), so I’m looking forward to it.”
Wallace, 24, the driver for the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, is 26th in the Monster Energy Series standings and hoping to rebound from a tough luck incident at Bristol when he was collected in a crash only three laps into the race. He has had DNFs in two of the last four races this summer. His Xfinity Series finishes at Darlington are 14th and 17th.