Fantasy Update: Toyotas pace the field in practice and qualifying at Darlington

Fantasy Update: Toyotas pace the field in practice and qualifying at Darlington

With the Cup Series Playoffs set to get underway Sunday evening at Darlington Raceway, championship-eligible teams came out swinging in practice and qualifying, taking the top nine qualifying positions. For the first time since 1982, Chevrolet didn‘t crack the top 10 in qualifying for a Darlington race, and the leading Chevy driver Kyle Busch will have to drop to the rear for a change in practice. The Toyotas looked blistering fast, and it would be hard not to have a few of those drivers eligible in your lineup.

PLAYOFFS: Playoffs hub page | Playoffs Grid Challenge game

Dustin Albino‘s race-day lineup:

Starter 1: Denny Hamlin

Starter 2: Kyle Larson

Starter 3: William Byron

Starter 4: Christopher Bell

Starter 5: Martin Truex Jr.

Garage pick: Brad Keselowski

NEXT IN LINE: Tyler Reddick, Kyle Busch, Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney

RISING: Earlier this week, we covered Blaney‘s Darlington woes, but the No. 12 team showed up on Saturday for practice and qualifying. In 13 Darlington starts, Blaney has a pair of top 10s, including a ninth-place finish in May. He also has an average finish of 17.8. But this weekend, he was second in 10-lap averages and qualified fourth.

Michael McDowell enters the Cup Series playoffs playing with house money. The No. 34 team has nothing to lose and a lot to gain should it continue overachieving. That‘s exactly what McDowell did on Saturday, as he made the final round of qualifying for the third time in the last four races. I wouldn‘t put the No. 34 team in my lineup just yet, but McDowell does have a pair of top 10s in the last three Darlington races.

FALLING: Having a car that is loose on entry and in the center of the corner can be treacherous at Darlington. Truex had a remarkable save in qualifying but dropped to 31st on the scoring chart. With three Toyotas pacing the field in qualifying, the former Southern 500 winner will have the speed to overcome the mishap in qualifying. He‘s got 500 miles to get to the front, but it could potentially cost you some stage points in the opening stage.

There were certainly concerns with how Chastain closed the regular season. In the nine races since winning at Nashville, the No. 1 team has just one top-10 effort. At Darlington, a place where Chastain is historically fast, he ranked 27th in qualifying. The No. 1 car wasn‘t much better in practice either, sitting 23rd on single-lap speed and 24th on 10-lap averages.


Denny Hamlin vs. Kevin Harvick

Hamlin and Harvick are among the most elite talents to ever strap into a race car at Darlington. Hamlin has four victories at the track to Harvick‘s three, though it‘s the 2014 Cup Series champion who has shown more consistency in recent years, with 12 top-five finishes in the last 15 races — just one of which was outside the top 10. However, Hamlin‘s savvy 7.7 average finish shouldn‘t be overlooked. Hamlin looked to have one of the best cars on both the short and long runs, so he‘s my pick.

Tyler Reddick vs. Christopher Bell

These two Toyotas had lights-out speed on Saturday. Bell was quickest of all drivers in practice and paced Group A in qualifying. Reddick was quickest in Group B. It was Bell who had the last laugh, scoring his third pole of the season, edging out Hamlin and Reddick. One would assume that a worn-out track surface would suit Reddick better, as he did finish second and third in the two races last season. But the No. 45 team has continuously failed to execute in 2023, and I think that costs Reddick in this matchup.

Martin Truex Jr. vs. William Byron

Both drivers have recent wins at Darlington, with Byron taking the charge in the spring race. Disappointing is probably the best way to describe their respective qualifying efforts, with Byron turning the 23rd quickest lap and Truex‘s struggles dropping him to 31st. According to the speed chart, both will excel on the long run, and though Truex has more track position to overcome, my feelings have switched from earlier in the week after seeing how strong Toyota unloaded.

Brad Keselowski vs. Ryan Blaney

Blaney‘s No. 12 team should give itself an A for how well Saturday went. The 1.366-mile oval is a track Blaney hasn’t been able to get a handle on, while Keselowski is a former Southern 500 winner. We‘ve seen this song for Blaney before at Darlington, where he can put one solid lap together and fall off in the race. Keselowski is the pick, even though Blaney was second on 10-lap averages. Keselowski wasn‘t far off in ninth.