Southern 500 Massively Tightens Playoff Grid

Darlington changed the complexion of the playoffs just one race in.


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So much for literally each of the commonly held convictions about how the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs would start to shake out.

Top seeded Chase Elliott would have an easy path to the championship race
Defending champion Kyle Larson wasn’t too far behind
Kyle Busch would return to contention in the playoffs
Kevin Harvick always gets hot when it matters

Okay, the last one was technically true but not as originally intended.

Harvick was the latest Ford Performance driver to experience the rocker panel on the car catching fire. This one occurred during the Southern 500 and forced Harvick out of his inflamed car to finish 33rd. The 2014 champion now has two races to either win or make up what is currently a 13-point deficit.

"What a disaster for no reason," Harvick said. "We didn’t touch the wall; we didn’t touch a car, and here we are in the pits with a burned-up car, and we can’t finish the race during the playoffs because of crappy parts."

Rubber build-up on the header seemingly contributed to the fire and it appears to be related to the construction of the Ford body in relation to how rubber collects through the mandated grill opening on the most abrasive tracks.

Overall, Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway effectively blew the figurative Cup Series playoff doors wide open. Elliott was the only driver who had any sizeable points lead to fall back on entering the first round and the 2020 champion used up almost the entirety of it with a mulligan early the race on Sunday night.

Elliott spun early and contact with the wall and Chase Briscoe broke the toe link on the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet and forced him to finish 36th, while falling to the playoff grid mid-pack.

"(The damage) was all from the contact from the 14 and I obviously hate he got swept up in our mess," Elliott said. "You never want that to happen to someone like that who is an innocent bystander and that's why we couldn't continue.

"It was too hurt."

With Elliott scoring so few points, he is right up against a suddenly star studded cutline with two important races before the bottom four winless drivers are eliminated from the multi-round tournament.


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. Chase Briscoe -10
16. Kevin Harvick -13

As for Busch, he looked poised to validate the expectations of resurgence as well, before an engine failure knocked him out of the lead during a caution inside of 20 laps to go. The engine overheated due to a broken water pump belt.

Thus, Busch went from potentially winning his way into the next round and securing five additional playoff points to go towards that round from remaining in 11th in the standings and just barely above the elimination cutline.

"You can’t pass, so that right there, leading, being No. 1 off of pit road with 20 to go is a certified five points (for the win) and an automatic ticket to the next round," Busch said.

It remains a tough on track season, not to mention his lingering free agency process that seems likely to last for at least a week or two longer, during a year in which he has only won the Bristol Dirt Race.

What are the vibes right now?

"I don’t know, the sun will come up tomorrow."

Busch is only one spot ahead of Daniel Suarez, who left Darlington wondering what could have been as he recovered from a pre-race penalty that had him take the green flag with a pass-through penalty, before racing inside the top-10 for much of the final stage.

That’s when a pit road speeding penalty cost him a top-10 and contributed to a 18th-place finish.

"There were a lot of positives today, but definitely some negatives as well," Suárez said. "We were able to overcome the issues fairly quickly. I would say that probably Stage 1, it took the entire Stage 1 to be able to recover. And then after that, I felt like we were fine. I felt like we were a car capable of running in the top five, and then on that green-flag stop, I just sped on pit road. It was very, very tight.

"But anyway, that was my bad. It was on my end, and we have everything cleaned up. But overall, like I said, there’s a lot of positive things. The car had good speed, and the guys did a good job, pit crew did an amazing job. We just have to continue to build."

That’s to say nothing of a lap 227 tussle with Joey Logano and Christopher Bell that left the Team Trackhouse driver feeling particularly vengeful.

"With (Logano), I don’t remember. I don’t think we had contact with him. For sure, with (Bell)," said Suárez said, "He owes me one. I will decide when to get that one back because it shouldn’t have happened like that. He hit me pretty good. I feel lucky that actually I was able to continue. I hit the wall very, very hard, and I lost like five positions on that stage.

"I will get him back eventually, but I mean that just tells you how smart are some drivers. This is only Round 1, it’s the first race and we’re racing like that. We weren’t even in Stage 3 yet. But it is what it is. I can only control the 99 car."

Could this be something that has playoff implications too?

"Whenever I need, I’m gonna get him back," Suárez said. "I’m not saying that it’s gonna be in Kansas or Bristol, but it’s definitely … he owes me one, and I’m gonna save that for later."

With so much attrition, the likes of Joey Logano and William Byron helped themselves massively in this first round with top-10s and a decent number of playoff points. Hamlin finished second and chose to race winner Erik Jones especially clean and also has a much easier pathway to the next round as a result.

Byron, especially was pleased, having scored just his second top-10 in 18 races.

"We did some things over the summer that was wrong, and we knew they were wrong and knew what to do but just showed back up here with what we knew how to do," Byron said. "Happy about that, that we are capable of doing great things but went through a stretch during the summer that we tried some things that wasn't working but got back to our bread and butter.

"It was good to see the speed, and maybe didn't finish the race the way we wanted but still had good speed."

And even though the likes of Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon finished 16th and 17th, and not particularly proud of their days, it was enough to stay within view of a transfer spot ahead of these next two races.

"I'd like to show some speed at Kansas and Bristol," Dillon said "I was hoping for better than this tonight to be honest. We were never good the whole night and all did is get behind and tried too hard, coming here with something that didn't work."

And treading water wasn't enough for him either.

"We have to go," Dillon said. "You have to go get all you can get the next two weeks and be aggressive and make our way to the front because stage points are how this is going to play out."

Cindric was equally disappointed, but for a rookie to even be in this spot, he took away the positives

"I take the perspective that I'm racing against guys with all this experience that I lack and I need to remember that it's a bad day, but it's 16th in the Southern 500 and I was 16th best in the world today," Cindric said. "It's still a great opportunity and a lot of fun but I'm driven to be the best and I have work to do."

But again, back to Elliott, the number one seed who suddenly sits just eight points above the cutline in advance of Kansas and Bristol -- not that he is counting.

"I just went home and looked at the results when I landed," Elliott said. "There wasn't nothing I could do during the race to change anything that happened and now we're going to go to Kansas and see what we can do to make it better."

And that doesn't mean doing anything different than what got them in this position in the first place.

"For me, I'm going to stick with my gut regardless of what happened last week or two weeks ago or a month ago," Elliott said. "I'm going to stick with my gut inside of the car and I think that's the best way personally for me to perform my best -- to go with what I think is right in that moment.

"I'm not going to adjust that at this point. I'm going to do what I think is right and what my gut is feeling inside the car and how I approach a certain run, lap or situation, always."