The sixteen drivers and teams that make it to the NASCAR Playoffs are the best in the sport, right? The top-16 finishers in a NASCAR Playoffs race should be loaded with the names of drivers who are, in fact, in the running for the championship, right?
The Cook Out Southern 500 held on Sunday night at the Darlington Raceway, however, did not live up to expectations for anyone who might have thought the opening round of the Playoffs would be dominated by title contenders. Instead, one championship hopeful after another suffered significant issues which either took them out of contention for the win and even for a top-16 finish.
In all, seven Playoff drivers finished outside of the top-16 leaving some with ground to be made up or no room for further mishaps in the upcoming races at Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson was the first to experience trouble when he reported to his crew that his engine seemed to be giving up. After pitting and losing three laps, the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet somehow revived itself and began to run better. Despite a later spin, Larson made up those lost laps and ended his night in the 12th position when it looked as if he might fare much worse.
Larson’s HMS teammate and the driver considered the championship favorite by many was not able to recover when disaster struck. Chase Elliott entered the night as the standings leader after his Playoff points were added to his totals but much of that advantage was lost when the No. 9 car tagged the outside wall and then collected fellow Playoff driver Chase Briscoe.
The damage done proved to be catastrophic for Elliott who finished 36th while Briscoe limped to a 27th place result.
Playoff contender Kevin Harvick took his turn at experiencing disaster when his race ended, literally, in a ball of flames at the two-thirds mark of the race. As the 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion said in the aftermath, “crappy-ass parts” led to his fiery demise in the race and relegated him to a 33rd place finish.
After Joe Gibbs Racing and non-Playoff driver Martin Truex Jr. suffered mechanical issues that ended his night prematurely, his JGR teammate Kyle Busch appeared destined to win. However, as the cars were being lined up for a late race restart, the No. 18 Toyota began puffing smoke which eventually resulted in a trip to the garage area. Busch was listed as the 30th place finisher when all was said and done.
Less than ideal runs left Austin Dillon(17th), Daniel Suarez(18th) and Ross Chastain(20th) outside of the top-16 at the checkered flag as well.
With all the craziness that befell the championship contenders over the course of the 500-mile distance took place, it began to seem apparent that the only logical ending for such an unpredictable race would be for a non-Playoff driver and team to score a victory. And proved to be exactly what happened.
Erik Jones took the lead on the final restart and held back a challenge from title hunter Denny Hamlin to put the historic No. 43 car in victory lane for the first time since Aric Almirola won at Daytona in July of 2014. It was the first win since Richard Petty Motorsports was rebranded as Petty GMS Motorsports.
I, for one, have not always been a fan of the NASCAR Playoffs format with its elimination process. But there is no denying that there was plenty of drama and intrigue wrapped up in a stock car race on Sunday night at the Darlington Raceway in the Cook Out Southern 500. And I will add that I was entertained.
NASCAR Playoffs Standings After Darlington(Number inside parentheses indicates position relative to the cutoff line): 1. Joey Logano(+38), 2. William Byron(+32), 3. Denny Hamlin(+30), 4. Christopher Bell(+28), 5. Tyler Reddick(+23), 6. Ryan Blaney(+20), 7. Kyle Larson(+17), 8. Ross Chastain(+15), 9. Chase Elliott(+14), 10. Alex Bowman(+10), 11. Kyle Busch(+8), 12. Daniel Suarez(+2), 13. Austin Cindric(-2), 14. Austin Dillon(-4), 15. Austin Dillon(-10), 16. Kevin Harvick(-13)
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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