Darlington Turning Point: What happens now, after closest finish ... ever?

Here‘s what‘s happening in the world of NASCAR with Kansas in the rearview and Darlington (Sun., 3 p.m. ET, FS1) right around the corner.


1️⃣ Closest. Finish. Ever. Now what?

2️⃣ No time to catch your breath, Throwback Weekend is here

3️⃣ A game of ‘risk vs. reward‘ at Darlington

4️⃣ Finding the front of the field — and staying there

5️⃣ Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

kyle larson celebrates at kansas
kyle larson celebrates at kansas

1. Closest. Finish. Ever. Now what?

Everyone expected Kansas Speedway to deliver another electric race. Nobody expected it to be, perhaps, the greatest one of all time.

Last week in this space, we asked the question: “What ‘big moment‘ might be in store for Kansas?”

Little did we know, the next big Midwest Moment would come in the form of, well, the closest finish in NASCAR Cup Series history.

In the aftermath of Kyle Larson‘s legendary finish (literally just) ahead of Chris Buescher on Sunday, plenty has been written about how truly unbelievable the racing product is at Kansas Speedway, and it has deserved every last drop of digital ink put to digital paper. But what about the fallout in terms of what it means for the 2024 season at large?

For a brief moment in time, it appeared Ford‘s season-long winless drought — that actually stretches back to the Martinsville fall race last year — was finally ended, which would‘ve shifted some of this year‘s narrative and taken a significant load off of the manufacturer. Instead, the points leader and championship favorite Larson walks out of the Sunflower State with his second victory and Ford heads back to the Carolinas empty-handed after yet another bang-bang finish that didn‘t go its way.

MORE: Closest finishes in NASCAR Cup Series history

The blue ovals are still the back-to-back defending NASCAR Cup Series championship winners, however, and will surely make noise the second half of the year and into the playoffs. We‘ve seen how quickly things can turn around with the Next Gen — essentially every team at this point has found its way into an inexplicable cold streak at some point since its debut as engineers continue to tinker in its toddler stage.

That said, having just one driver (reigning champ Ryan Blaney) in the top 10 in points one race shy of the halfway point of the regular season likely wasn‘t how Ford teams drew it up over the winter, and it‘s worth keeping an eye on as each week passes.

Beyond the two above who door-slammed their way into the NASCAR history books on the way to the checkered flag, the rest of Kansas‘ top 10 otherwise featured a slew of familiar faces among 2024‘s top drivers — along with Noah Gragson, whose three straight top 10s are almost enough to put him in that category — as the potential long-haul Championship 4 contenders are starting to make themselves known. After Larson and Buescher, who each have championship aspirations, the next four in the finishing order are either past champions or multi-time Championship 4 attendees. It‘s important to note that winning at Kansas in the playoffs — and my goodness, what a race that‘s likely to be after what we just witnessed — is one of the most pivotal things a driver can do en route to a title; scooting into the Round of 8 unscathed while your competitors have to sweat out the chaos of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Take note of those noted above who seemed to have it dialed in at Kansas, along with Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch also landing in the top eight and Ross Chastain leading 43 laps before fading to 19th.

And remember, perhaps more notably — who didn‘t.

All the talk leading into Kansas was about how dominant 23XI Racing was at the track — and it had been, winning three of the last four there and its team owner winning the fourth — but a frustrating race for both Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace left them with finishes of 20th and 17th, respectively, with seven laps out front between them.


william byron crosses the finish line at darlington
william byron crosses the finish line at darlington

2. No time to catch your breath, Throwback Weekend is here

Buckle up, because NASCAR‘s month of May is shaping up to be an all-timer with a Mother‘s Day Throwback Weekend contest at Darlington up next.

Obviously, it will be difficult to top the literal closest finish in the history of Cup racing, but if it‘s any consolation — we‘re racing this weekend at the site of the previous all-time record, Darlington Raceway.

Not to mention it‘s Throwback Weekend.

Another special one lies ahead, as Darlington tends to deliver moment after moment as drivers soak in the history all weekend, before trying to then become part of it on Sunday night.

The “Lady in Black” has been a formidable dance partner in the Next Gen era, and the last seven races at the track “Too Tough to Tame” have seen a fresh face in Victory Lane. It‘s a track that often sees a driver come out ripping and seem like the clear one to beat, before track conditions change over the course of the evening or he acquires one too many stripes on the right side of his ride. The Stage 2 winner has yet to finish a race better than 25th in the four Next Gen races there.

And this isn‘t just a case of final-stage nerves striking when it‘s time to close. The three drivers with the most laps led at Darlington in the Next Gen are Hamlin (234), Truex Jr. (221) and Busch (174) … the three most experienced drivers in the field. The former Joe Gibbs Racing compatriots have led a combined 48% of Next Gen laps at Darlington, but have netted just one top-five finish, two top 10s and exactly zero wins among them. JGR as a whole has not quite hit it at the South Carolina facility yet, with just three of its 16 results since 2021 going for top 10s. Given how strong the Toyota group has been on a weekly basis in 2024, this could be the team‘s first true measuring stick.

Another interesting wrinkle to this weekend? For the past few years, the Southern 500 has opened the NASCAR Playoffs. This year, it closes the regular season.

As we know, when NASCAR visits a track in the regular season and also the playoffs, teams tend to give those races a little more emphasis on notebook-building — find something that works, and it could be your key to a lengthy postseason. But now, with what the regular-season finale entails and the fact that it‘s every team not locked in at that point‘s last chance to make the playoffs … who knows what could happen?

More playoff hopefuls and dark horses will be up on the wheel this weekend and it‘s not impossible to think some alternative strategies could be used. Darlington is always intense — and no stranger to unexpected winners — but this could ratchet up the drama a bit more.

That is all to say, yes — last Sunday at Kansas Speedway was one we will never forget.

ANALYSIS: So far, 2024 shaping up to be an all-time NASCAR season

But the way this season is going, the next unprecedented, highlight-reel moment always feels like it could happen on any lap.

So let‘s race 293 of them on Sunday in tribute to legends across the sport — while perhaps another emerges.

3. A game of ‘risk vs. reward‘ at Darlington

Kim Coon and Skip Flores take you ‘Around the Track‘ in a preview of the weekend ahead at Darlington Raceway, where the sport will celebrate its rich history.


4. Finding the front of the field — and staying there

With a dozen races in the books, the elite are starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. These are the drivers with the most laps in the top five so far:


Laps in top five

Percentage of all laps run in top five

Kyle Larson



Denny Hamlin



Martin Truex Jr.



Chase Elliott



Ty Gibbs



Tyler Reddick



Kyle Busch



Ryan Blaney



Christopher Bell



Bubba Wallace



5. Catch the pack — news and notes from around the garage

Power Rankings: Has 2024‘s best driver not won yet?

Paint Scheme Preview: See the schemes for Darlington

See 2024 Darlington throwback schemes

Michael McDowell set to leave Front Row Motorsports after 2024 season

Three Up, Three Down: Drivers in focus leaving Kansas

NASCAR betting: Opening odds for Darlington race

Inside photo-finish tech, its evolution and how it decided Kansas win

TNT Sports, Amazon Prime add Dale Earnhardt Jr. to broadcast team starting in 2025

Analysis: A love letter to the heartland‘s incredible racing at Kansas

Inside photo-finish technology, its evolution and how it decided the Kansas winner

@nascarcasm: Fake texts to Kansas winner Kyle Larson

Which driver is favored to win 2024 title after Kansas?


cars race at darlington
cars race at darlington