As the saying goes, the cream rises to the top, and that has been mostly true about the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs since it went to its current format in 2017. According to Racing Insights, a driver seeded seventh or better entering the playoffs has never been eliminated in Round 1.
Round 1, of course, gets underway with the toughest of tests, Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). The average time of the four Darlington playoff races is four hours and one minute, and a lot can happen to a driver’s concentration or equipment during such a demanding race.
Even this week’s favorite, Martin Truex Jr., has seen his share of trouble lately at the track respectfully known as “The Lady in Black.” MTJ has failed to finish all three races at Darlington in the Next Gen car (twice for accidents and once for a water pump).
However, Truex has plenty going for him, including the stat that 75% of the drivers seeded in the top four entering the playoffs have made it to the Championship 4. Truex is also coming to Darlington riding momentum in the form of six top-10 finishes in the last seven races, including a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Let’s look at some of the other drivers who are carrying momentum into the postseason, as well as some who need to snap out of their funk before it’s too late.
BRAD KESELOWSKI: The driver/co-owner of RFK Racing is coming in hot, having seen his team take flight in the second year of his ownership. And although he hasn’t been able to break through with a win himself, he’s finished in the top six in five of the last eight races, including a runner-up last week at Daytona.
CHRIS BUESCHER: If Keselowski is hot, then Buescher is scorching. Buescher has won three of the last five races, an unprecedented streak for him in his career. Learn more about RFK’s resurgence in our feature story and full-length feature video.
DENNY HAMLIN: The only thing better than Hamlin lately has been RFK Racing. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished in the top three in four of the last six races, including his Pocono Raceway win. Hamlin has also been stellar at Darlington, with the best average finish (7.7) of all time among drivers with more than two starts.
ROSS CHASTAIN: On the flip side, Chastain comes to Darlington as cold as a frozen watermelon, with only three top-10 finishes in his last 14 races (Sonoma, Nashville, Michigan).
KYLE BUSCH: Busch also hasn’t done such a bang-up job of late, with only two finishes of better than 14th in the last seven races (Richmond, Daytona).
Projections as of Wednesday, Aug. 30.
RACING INSIGHTS’ PROJECTIONS FOR THE COOK OUT SOUTHERN 500
Racing Insights’ advanced statistical formula includes current track, current track type, recent performance, team data and pit-crew data to arrive at a projected winner and full race results.
Martin Truex Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.