Darlington 101: Odds, Goodyear tire info and more for the playoff opener

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Darlington 101: Odds, Goodyear tire info and more for the playoff opener
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The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs are here and kick off with one of the sport‘s crown-jewel events: the Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

With 16 drivers set to begin their fight for a championship, it‘s time to preview what makes Darlington “Too Tough to Tame,” who to watch and much more:

RELATED: Darlington schedule | Playoff hub page | Buy tickets to Darlington

TO THE GREEN

Coming off his first set of back-to-back race wins, Ryan Blaney has earned pole position for the Southern 500. Alongside him on the front row will be two-time Southern 500 winner Denny Hamlin, while former Cup champions Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott make up Row 2. Check out the entire starting lineup here.

RULES PACKAGE

The lower-downforce, 750-horsepower package will be used this weekend at Darlington Raceway. Shorter spoilers and front splitters minimize the aerodynamic dependency on the race cars while more power means drivers have more input using the throttle.

PARTIAL REPAVE

A 600-feet long, 32-feet wide segment of asphalt was repaved in Turn 2 following years of needed attention after race weekends at Darlington. With the addition of a second event to its yearly schedule, the track‘s leadership determined it was time to address the issues head on.

“We’ve been nursing that part of the race track for several years now,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition, in a Monday appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “(It was) old asphalt, and there comes a point like we got to with what’s going on at Atlanta right now where you just can’t feel good about the surface and potentially breaking up on the weekend. So that section of the track has been a bit problematic for a while now, and it was just time to fix it so we could avoid any problems with the track breaking up or pieces coming out.”

HISTORY OF THE LADY IN BLACK

— Darlington held its first race on Sept. 4, 1950, the 21st race in Cup Series history and 13th of the 1950 season.

— Darlington native Harold Brasington leased cotton and peanut farmland on the west side of town from his friend Sherman Ramsey in 1949 to build the raceway. He created an egg-shaped oval with one corner tighter, narrower and more steeply banked because he promised Ramsey that the new track wouldn’t disturb his minnow pond at the west end.

— Sunday‘s race marks the third playoff race Darlington has hosted and second consecutive playoff opener.

— Of the last 12 Darlington winners, 11 were age 34 or older.

— Six drivers have gotten their first career win at Darlington, the most recent of which was Regan Smith in 2011.

— There have been five last-lap passes for the victory at Darlington, most recently Ricky Craven over Kurt Busch in 2003.

Source: Racing Insights

GOODYEAR TIRES

Goodyear will supply teams with the same tire compound used since 2019 on Darlington‘s notoriously abrasive surface. Tire management is critical at this 1.366-mile oval and those who conserve early are often rewarded later in a green-flag run.

“The abrasive track surface puts the onus on drivers to manage their tires and team members to keep up with the track and perform fast and consistent pit stops throughout a long race,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear‘s director of racing.

Despite all the aged and rough asphalt, though, fresh pavement in Turn 2 may provide an added twist in how tires react, according to 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch.

“I think the tire is made for the older asphalt, so to me the fresher asphalt will be free grip,” Busch said during his playoff media availabilities. “It‘s a matter of slip-sliding into the asphalt, grabbing it, and then having the car straight launch out of the asphalt and back onto the older stuff. A lot of eyeballs will be watching the preliminary races, because we will have no practice and we will just have to go for it.”

DARLINGTON STORYLINES

— Joe Gibbs Racing (three) and Stewart-Haas Racing (two) have won each of the last five races at Darlington.

— JGR has won six of the last 11 Darlington contests and has not gone more than one race between wins at the track too tough to tame since 2011-12.

— Martin Truex Jr.‘s May 2021 victory was the only time a stage winner has won at Darlington. Truex swept both stages.

— In five of the last nine Darlington events, the race winner has led 35 or fewer laps.

— Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two Cup Series races, the only repeat winner in the last nine events.

— Toyota has six wins this year but one in the last 14 races.

— A stage winner has not won each of the last five races.

— Kevin Harvick has won at least one playoff race in each of the last nine seasons, the longest active streak. The longest streak all-time is 13 seasons set by Jimmie Johnson.

— Only one of the last 31 playoff races was won by a non-playoff driver.

Source: Racing Insights

ODDS TOO TOUGH TO TAME

Despite winning the spring race this year, Martin Truex Jr. is not the favorite entering the 2021 Southern 500, according to BetMGM. That honor goes to Kyle Larson at 3-1 odds, just over Truex‘s 5-1 chances.

Behind them, Kyle Busch (6-1), Denny Hamlin (7-1) and Chase Elliott (9-1) have earned quite the respect from Las Vegas entering this weekend‘s grueling event.

RELATED: BetCenter | Darlington odds | Playoff betting preview

Darlington is a track where the sport‘s best typically triumph. But as always, there are drivers flying under the radar who may be worth considering when putting money on the line.

For example, Erik Jones won the Southern 500 in 2019 and had a strong car in May until a tire failure dropped him through the field. In Jones‘ seven tries, May marked his only Darlington finish outside the top 10. And at 150-1 odds, putting a little cash on him wouldn‘t hurt.

FANTASY LIVE

Want to manage a team and race your way to the top of the leaderboards? Check out the playoff version of NASCAR Fantasy Live, which is open now and offers a fresh start for those of you who played the regular-season contest. The free-to-play game lets you choose your drivers each week and show off your crew-chief instincts, and there is a $10,000 prize for the winner.

The 2021 Fantasy Live points leaders are Kyle Larson (1,013), Denny Hamlin (1,005) and Chase Elliott (881).

This year, NASCAR.com also has the Playoffs Grid Challenge game, presented by Ruoff Mortgage, where you can pick the winners for each round of the playoffs right up through the Championship 4. First prize is $10,000.

RELATED: Fantasy advice | How to play: Playoffs Grid Challenge | Playoff Fantasy Live

ALSO ON NASCAR.COM

Get additional camera views by logging on to NASCAR Drive, where each week a select number of in-car cameras will be available — as well as a battle cam and an overhead look.

New for this season, NASCAR has partnered with LiveLike to add fan engagement in the NASCAR Mobile App. Log in to the mobile app during the race for polls, quizzes, the cheer meter and more — and see instant results from NASCAR fans like you.

And finally, head over to the NASCAR Mobile App for AR Racing presented by Mobil 1, where you can design your own car and race the playoff drivers at the playoff tracks in augmented reality.