Turn 2 Blog: Darlington Drama & Chase Elliott in Playoff Trouble?

*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series race featured a great finish on Saturday. Darlington Raceway seems to have a tendency to do that, doesn’t it?

Richard: The closing laps of the Sport Clips 200 that saw Noah Gragson beat out Sheldon Creed and Kyle Larson in a sparks-flying, sheet metal-rubbing last few laps was one of the best finishes I have ever seen in any form of racing. I think each of the three cars hit each other and each of them also hit the wall at one time or another over the last couple of circuits.

And yes, that track seems to have a knack for producing great finishes. Of course, the NASCAR Cup Series win by Ricky Craven over Kurt Busch in 2003 has been used in promo ads for years. Last year’s late race showdown between eventual winner Denny Hamlin and runner-up Kyle Larson was another thriller.

The combination of an oddly configured track, a narrow racing groove, and a worn surface that takes its toll on tires seems to bring the top runners together at the end. I hope this track keeps two dates in the future. It’s one of the few places that creates this type of racing.

Michael: The ending to that race was one of the best finishes of the year. A combination of hungry drivers and a championship winner made for a good combination and a great finish.

The Xfinity cars have produced some better racing at certain tracks than the Cup cars. Those old school cars are great for certain types of tracks and Darlington is one of those. That will keep things interesting as they get into and go through their playoffs.

Kyle Busch’s blown engine was just one of the crazy things to happen at Darlington(Getty Images)

The Southern 500 was not lacking for drama, was it?

Richard: This had to be one of the most intriguing races in recent memory due to all of the crazy things that happened. The Southern 500 had more twists than the cinnamon sticks at Taco Bell.

Just when you felt like you had it figured out, something totally unexpected would happen. Chase Elliott looked good early then just spun completely on his own. Kyle Larson had some unexplained engine glitch that apparently went away on its own as quickly as it came. Kevin Harvick’s car burst into flames seemingly without provocation. Martin Truex Jr. looked as if he had the race won until his car began overheating. Kyle Busch looked as if he might inherit a win then his engine blew as the cars circulated under caution. And finally, Erik Jones comes out of nowhere to take the lead then held off Denny Hamlin for the win.

That’s a lot of stuff to take place in any race much less the opening round of the NASCAR Playoffs. In many ways, this race was somewhat of a microcosm of the entire season. Just when it looks like the picture is coming into focus, it goes back blurry again.

I think some of the issues we saw on Sunday had to do with the Next Gen car that teams are still trying to get a handle on but I also think there might have been some Playoff jitters as well. As crazy and drama-filled as this season has been up to this point, there was no reason to expect otherwise at Darlington and Darlington delivered.

Michael: As we discussed last week, there always seems to be something unexpected in the opening round with one of the favorites. Who knew it would happen to several of them all in one race?!?

I thought Busch’s engine blowing up under caution was the strangest of them all. It’s not very common to see one do that under caution.

Elliott’s crash seemed innocent enough compared to some others we have seen where the cars are repaired and continued. It’s like there was giant hex over the front runners in the field.

Harvick’s comments after the fire in his car are comments we’re hearing more often from the drivers. They said all the right things early in the season. Between Kurt Busch’s concussion at Pocono and now Harvick’s mystery fire, drivers are being more vocal. NASCAR needs to take a close look, now, at the issues with this car.

Chase Elliott found early trouble at Darlington

What driver is under the most pressure for the next two races?

Richard: This may sound crazy, but I am going to say Chase Elliott. Yes, Kevin Harvick’s fire has put him last in the standings, but in my opinion, that may have actually taken some of the pressure away that he and his team might have been feeling after people began to label them as favorites following their two wins late in the regular season.

On the other hand, Elliott came into the first round with more Playoff points than anyone else and essentially threw that advantage away by crashing early in the Southern 500. Even though he still has a 14-point cushion above the cutoff line, he and his team can’t afford another race like the one they had in Darlington. Any spin, crash, mechanical issue or other unforeseen problem could eliminate the believed favorite after the first three races.

Michael: Wouldn’t it be something if Elliott is on the verge of missing the next round going into Bristol and Harvick delivers a payback for last year’s Bristol race? I think if he’s on the bubble going into Bristol, the pressure will really be on. Considering how things went at Darlington, I’m not so sure the pressure wasn’t already there.

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