Darlington Southern 500 opens NASCAR playoffs

By Pete Pistone  () 

One of the NASCAR season’s most traditional races takes place Labor Day weekend, but with a very distinct new twist. For the first time in its nearly six-decade history, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway will kick off the Cup Series playoffs Sunday.

NASCAR was able to make up every race postponed during the COVID-19 shutdown. With the regular season complete, the revamped playoff schedule picks up. Tradition and history will be front and center this week, as the annual pilgrimage to the storied South Carolina track has been part of NASCAR since the beginning of the sport. But now significance is added as the 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs begin their quest for the Cup championship over the final 10 races.

Darlington’s 1.366-mile layout is unique, with the ends of the track completely different from one another. The egg-shaped configuration with its 25-degree banking through the corners produces one of the narrowest racing surfaces in NASCAR. Drivers have to hug the wall as 

the fast way around the track, leading to inevitable contact and more than a few infamous “Darlington stripes” on the right sides of cars by the end of the grueling 500 miles.

Teams have an added benefit of already having raced at Darlington twice this season. NASCAR held two Cup races at the track in May when it returned to action. Both provided a baseline of information on how crew chiefs will set up their cars for drivers to succeed in one of the longest events on the schedule.

Here’s a look at the favorites for the Southern 500:

KEVIN HARVICK

The No. 1 seed roars into the postseason after putting seven wins on the board in the regular campaign. One of those victories came May 17 at Darlington, and Harvick followed it by finishing third at the track three days later. Harvick has the best Darlington average finish over the last 10 races at the track with a 5.0 mark, which includes a streak of four straight top-5 performances.

DENNY HAMLIN

The other half of the Cup Series’ dynamic duo registered six wins in the regular season, also including a Darlington victory in May. Hamlin won the 2017 Southern 500 and has finished inside the top 10 in six of the last seven races at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”

ERIK JONES

Something about Darlington has appealed to Jones during his Cup career. He has never finished outside the top 10 in five career starts, with a pair of eighth-place runs his worst performances. Jones is the defending Southern 500 winner. He won’t be back with Joe Gibbs Racing next season and is looking for a ride, so he might have a little extra motivation Sunday night.

BRAD KESELOWSKI

Three of the last four Darlington races have found Keselowski inside the top 5, including his 2018 Southern 500 victory. He also drives a Ford, which has won two of the last four races at the track.

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