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Analysis: NASCAR playoff opener at Darlington leaves some contenders in big hole

·5 min read
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Nine of the 16 playoff drivers finished outside the top 15 in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener at Darlington Raceway on a night when no-one seemed immune to trouble.

Surprised? Kevin Harvick said you shouldn’t be.

“That really shouldn’t surprise anybody,” Harvick said after finishing fifth Sunday in the Cook Out Southern 500. “I mean, we’ve done this for a long time, so if anybody is surprised, they’re very, very new, and Darlington, in general, is just one of those places that creates chaos in itself. There are a lot of places that you can make a mistake, and it’s the first race of the playoffs, and everybody always loses their mind in the first race of the playoffs.

“It happens every year. If it’s not the first race, it’ll be one of the first three, or four, five in six, or seven, eight, and nine. At some point, they all lose their mind.”

Denny Hamlin (11) and Kevin Harvick (4) were among only a handful of playoff drivers that finished Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway unscathed.
Denny Hamlin (11) and Kevin Harvick (4) were among only a handful of playoff drivers that finished Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway unscathed.

Harvick finished behind winner Denny Hamlin, second-place finisher Kyle Larson, and Martin Truex Jr., who came home fourth. (Third-place Ross Chastain is not in the playoffs.) The other playoff drivers in the top 10 were Kurt Busch in sixth, Brad Keselowski seventh and Joey Logano eighth.

Keselowski said every time he saw chaos, he thought about his group not digging themselves a hole. But the No. 2 team, which struggled for most of the night and were not contenders, took advantage of those who fell out.

Logano also pointed out that others self-destructed while his team was able to maximize the day.

The list of issues for playoff drivers was extensive:

  • Alex Bowman hit the wall in Turns 3 and 4 on lap 15 and damaged his car. He ran multiple laps down all night. Bowman also had a small fire break out in his pit stall during one pit stop.

  • William Byron damaged his car running into Bowman on lap 15. Byron later crashed out of the race because of a flat tire on lap 200.

  • Chase Elliott damaged his left front fender hitting a tire while pulling out of his pit stall under the competition caution.

  • Michael McDowell crashed on lap 31 and finished last.

  • Kyle Busch crashed on lap 125 and finished 35th.

  • Elliott missed coming to pit road on lap 158.

  • Truex was trapped a lap down under the lap 163 debris caution because he had to pit for a loose wheel. He received the free pass under the lap 232 caution.

  • Ryan Blaney had an uncontrolled tire under the Stage 2 caution.

  • Christopher Bell was forced to pit under green for a vibration on lap 253.

  • Harvick pitted for a loose wheel under green flag conditions with 80 laps to go.

  • Blaney spun with 50 laps to go, complaining of not having brakes.

  • Truex was called for speeding under the caution Blaney brought out.

  • Kurt Busch had to pit for tires under the final caution and fell to the last car on the lead lap.

Four playoff drivers failed to finish the race: Michael McDowell, Kyle Busch and Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Chase Elliott.

“That was a big hit,” Byron said. “It looked like on that pit stop we dropped the jack, and the left front was still finishing up. I took off, and everything felt OK. I went to pass (Quin Houff) or somebody down the frontstretch and was just about to turn into (Turn) 1, and the left front went down. There was nothing we could do.

“The guys did an awesome job to fix it. We were running like top-12, I think, even with all the (earlier) right rear damage, and it’s just terrible. I don’t know, man. That sucks.”

Elliott’s incident came with 41 laps to go. Running three wide on the outside of Bubba Wallace and Bell, Elliott got into the outside wall and then blew a tire going into Turn 1. The defending series champion finished 31st.

“That’s what you deserve when you make that many mistakes,” said Elliott. “Onward.”

After Darlington, the four drivers below the cutline are now Bowman, Kyle Busch, Byron, and McDowell.

“It’s the Southern 500 at Darlington,” said race-winning crew chief Chris Gabehart. “These guys, they’re the best stock car drivers in the world, so they make it look easy, no different than Tom Brady makes winning the Super Bowl look easy. But it’s not easy. And Darlington, at the Southern 500 will remind you of that.

“NASCAR racing was born on endurance racing, and in a lot of ways it’s sort of ran its course. There are not a lot of 500-mile races that are a thriller anymore. But Darlington is the true quintessential NASCAR race in that the endurance really is the test. Man, machine for 500 miles and you saw that tonight. There were only a few guys left standing at the end with a shot to win, and that’s just a tribute to this racetrack and this race.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: NASCAR playoffs: Drivers caught in Darlington chaos in opening race