NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington

What happened?

Kevin Harvick won the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night (Sept. 6) after late contact between leaders Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. It was Harvick’s third Southern 500 win and eighth of the season, tying a career high.

Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Erik Jones and William Byron rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Starting from the pole, Elliott set the pace in the early going, leading the first 71 laps. Truex took over the lead on pit road after a debris caution on lap 82 from Brad Keselowski hitting the wall. Truex went on to win the first stage as Elliott faded to third. Jimmie Johnson, who started 22nd, worked his way up to second by the end of stage one.

The second stage lacked action, as Truex rocketed out to the lead. Harvick short-pitted from deep in the top 10 and a timely caution from a Bubba Wallace spin ultimately put him out front. Truex retook the lead after pit stops under yellow and cruised to another stage win.

As we’ve seen plenty of times this season, the final stage got wonky after mediocre (at best) early competition. Denny Hamlin took the lead on pit stops between stages and maintained it for 16 laps until John Hunter Nemechek wrecked and brought out a caution flag.

Next, it was Truex’s turn to take the lead on pit road. (Most passes for the lead were in the pits, if you couldn’t tell.) On the restart with 117 laps to go, two distinct strategies emerged. One – led by Truex, Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch – decided to make it a one-stop race. The other – led by Elliott, Harvick, Jones and Byron – decided to make it a two-stop affair.

The second group made their first stops and gained substantial ground as Truex and others limped on older tires. Soon after the first group made their only scheduled stop, a caution came out for debris (sheet metal on the backstretch) with 45 laps remaining. Elliott and Harvick led the field to the yellow and were able to maintain track position as everyone pitted again.

On the final restart after pit stops, Elliott and Truex pulled away from the field by over five seconds. It was clearly a two-man race. But Truex tried to force the issue when he wasn’t clear, ending both drivers’ chances at victory with 15 laps remaining.

After being wrecked out of a potential victory by Truex’s teammate Kyle Busch in May, Elliott fell victim to another poor decision by a JGR driver. Truex pitted after the contact and finished 22nd, while Elliott trudged around and dropped to a 20th-place finish.

Lurking in third was Harvick, who took over the lead and held off a charge from Austin Dillon to win yet again.

Who stood out?

Harvick has the ability to win any race at any moment, regardless of how the first portion of it goes. In the first stage, the No. 4 car was basically a non-factor. Harvick was around 10th all stage and only gained track position because he short-pitted. Once out in front, his Ford was able to stay inside the top five; there just didn’t seem to be winning speed.

Well, as usual, Harvick found himself in the right place at the right time. It’s uncanny how lucky this team is. Then again, is it really luck if it happens so often? Luck favors the prepared, and no one is better prepared than Harvick and Rodney Childers. It’s no surprise to me the No. 4 team added to its already record-setting playoff point total, locking themselves into the Round of 12.

Dillon was one of the guys counted out before the playoffs even began, but he started his postseason run by proving everyone wrong. After unapproved adjustments, the No. 3 had to start from the back and a flat tire left him in trouble early. Dillon collected no points in the first stage and three in the second stage.

Then, after some cautions fell right and the team improved the car, suddenly, Dillon caught fire. The No. 3 team rose into the top 10, then the top five before suddenly thrust in position to win late. Dillon is trying to show that his Texas Motor Speedway win was no fluke, and he’s quietly doing just that. In eight races since that win, he has five top 15s. Not great, but steady enough to potentially reach the Round of 12. With two sixth-place finishes in his last three Richmond starts, the first round could be playing right into Dillon’s favor.

STURNIOLO: STRONG SHOWING FOR DILLON IN PLAYOFF OPENER

Like Dillon, Alex Bowman was a popular pick to get bounced from the playoffs early. However, if his Darlington run is any indication, Bowman might be sticking around for a little while longer. He hung out in the top 10 most of the night even though the No. 88 wasn’t a race-winning car, winding up a solid sixth. These are the types of days needed in the early rounds for him to advance.

The criticism of Bowman was warranted after a brutal summer stretch. He had two top 10s to close the regular season, but failed to record a top 10 in eight of the nine races prior. Bowman might not be a championship threat yet, although Sunday showed he won’t be the pushover that many expected in the Round of 16.

Who fell flat?

Truex looked to be continuing his pre-playoff hot streak with another great performance at Darlington, but it went up in flames with his late-race misjudgment. With all the (rightful) talk about Harvick and Hamlin, Truex has gone under the radar this season. Entering the playoffs, Truex rattled off eight straight top fives to surge up the standings.

He appeared ready to either lock himself into the Round of 12 or be in great position heading into one of his best tracks, but the decision to try and clear Elliott proved costly. He’s now just 16 points above the cutoff line and another bad finish could put him in danger. Luckily for Truex, he’s won the last two races at Richmond.

MASSIE: TRUEX, ELLIOTT OFFER DIFFERENT VIEWS ON COLLISION

Ryan Blaney’s day started off with a crushing 10-point penalty, and it only got worse from there. He worked his way up through the first stage and appeared poised for a decent night. Then, Blaney had to pit due to a flat tire just as the field was restarting. He went a lap down and was unable to recover all night, finishing one lap behind in 24th.

Now, Blaney heads to a track he’s struggled at in Richmond. He’s never finished inside the top 15 there and has been outside the top 20 in five of eight starts. Team Penske’s young talent will need to put together the performance of his career at Richmond next week, or else he’ll risk being on the bubble heading into the final race of the Round of 16.

Unlike Blaney, most of Matt DiBenedetto’s struggles were of his own doing. He struggled over the summer months, posting no top 10s in the last four starts of the regular season. After narrowly making it, his playoff debut definitely didn’t go as planned. The Wood Brothers car just lacked speed all night and it resulted in a 21st-place finish.

DiBenedetto came in with no playoff points and he scored the fewest points at Darlington of all playoff drivers except Blaney. Fortunately for Matty D, we’re heading to two short tracks – traditionally his better skill set. Some of the best runs of his career have come at Bristol Motor Speedway, but he’s never had a top 10 at Richmond. He’ll need one next Saturday to avoid a must-win the following week.

What did this race prove? 

As we see every year, playoff drivers continue to rise to the top when the final 10 races roll around. It makes sense, given that their organizations put everything into these races to try and win a title. Still, it’s impressive how the top teams just churn out their best work each fall.

Playoff drivers finished in 12 of the top 13 positions and it would’ve been 14 of the top 15 if Elliott and Truex survived the finish. A playoff driver has won the last 22 playoff races, dating back to November 2017 at Phoenix when Matt Kenseth won his final race. Kenseth made the playoffs that year but was eliminated at that point. If Sunday was any indication, playoff drivers will continue to dominate up front in 2020.

Logano is lurking as a championship threat. The No. 22 was out to lunch for much of the race. Contact with Corey LaJoie on a restart gave him heavy damage; for a time, it looked like a top-15 run was all he could salvage. Then, as some late cautions fell his way, crew chief Paul Wolfe massaged the damage, then got Logano in position and he handled his business on restarts.

It’s been a strange season for Logano. He won twice in the first four races before the pandemic break and he hasn’t won since. Still, he has the fourth-most laps led this season and is currently the safest driver in points in the Round of 16 outside of Harvick and Hamlin.

I’m not sure that this team has proven to be capable of beating the Big Two, or even Truex, Elliott or Keselowski. But performances like Sunday show that this team is ready to pounce when others slip up.

Watching how great he ran early in the race Sunday night, it’s a shame Johnson didn’t get a chance to compete in the playoffs in his final year. Between the Coca-Cola 600 disqualification, missing the Brickyard 400 due to COVID-19 and many more self-inflicted wounds, he didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs. But, man, wouldn’t it have been fun if Johnson snuck in?

At Darlington, the Hendrick Motorsports veteran was a top-10 car most of the night, and at many points showed top-five speed. He fell to an 18th-place finish after contact with Hamlin, so it’s not like he would’ve had the greatest race points-wise. It just would mean a lot more and build more excitement if Johnson and the No. 48 team was still chasing No. 8.

Paint scheme of the weekend

It was definitely the toughest race of the season to choose just one scheme. There were some studs (Elliott, Ross Chastain) and some duds (Keselowski, Jones), but none stood out more than Alex Bowman.

Sure, there are dozens of other schemes I could mention. But in Johnson’s final full-time season, I have to give it up for the car that he’s most associated with. The only gripe I have is that I wish they changed the No. 88 font to match Johnson’s. Otherwise, this one was a home run.

Better than last year?

In the 2019 Southern 500, Erik Jones had a dramatic win after a hours-long rain delay, holding off teammate Kyle Busch late. It was a pretty good race, with lots of action, some major wrecks and an intriguing battle to the finish. Another positive of that event was Jones winning rather than a traditional powerhouse like Harvick. 

This year, Darlington just didn’t do it for me. Early on, it was Elliott dominating. Then, Truex took over and stunk up the show for a while. The final restart and ensuing drama between Truex and Elliott, then Harvick and Dillon, was fun and better than last year’s finish. Overall, though, the racing product wasn’t quite as good as 2019. It’s too bad NASCAR doesn’t utilize the short track package at Darlington.

Playoff picture

Harvick winning doesn’t shake up the cutoff line at all, but there was still ample movement throughout the grid. Blaney’s bad day put him on the outside looking in while just 25 points separate fourth place Keselowski and 14th place Cole Custer.

Anything can happen with two short tracks on deck to close out the Round of 16. No driver is in a must-win situation just yet, and only Hamlin can feel safe among the non-clinched crowd.

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads to Virginia for its first and only race of the season at Richmond Raceway. The short track marks the second race in the Round of 16 and the second-to-last chance for drivers to gain points and try to secure their spot in the Round of 12.

The Federated Auto Parts 400 is set for Saturday (Sept. 12) at 7:30 p.m. It will be televised on NBCSN with radio coverage provided by SIRIUS XM Channel 90 and your local MRN affiliate.

FULL SOUTHERN 500 RECAP & RESULTS

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About Logan Reardon

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7 comments

  1. Avatar

    “It just would mean a lot more and build more excitement if Johnson and the No. 48 was still chasing No. 8.”

    You’re kidding, right? Number 8 would be a bigger joke than the 7 Chase Chumpionships he already has been gifted.

  2. Avatar

    Not a Dillon fan, but to me the “3” Jr. Johnson scheme stood out the most.
    Please NASCAR use a different package at Darlington. The race didn’t live up to Darlington standards.

  3. Avatar

    Wow, Johnson chasing #8 – nope I was very happy that he didn’t make the “chase” this year. His 7 “championships” are a joke as it is.

  4. Avatar

    Truex’s comments that Chase should have just “let him go” prove that he is now as big a whiner as teammate Kyle Busch. At least Busch admitted his error when he cost Elliott an earlier win at Darlington.

    • Avatar

      Jo, could not agree more. But where have you been? Mad, Nasty Marty has been a whiner for years! Even when he was the back marker FOR YEARS holding up the guys with talent, listen to his audio of days gone by! Whining, complaining…and then he gets to the NASCAR royalty TOYS/GIBBS GIRLS stable he is not doing anything new. He has always been a whiner, a nasty guy..pull ova, pull ova..Marty wants you to let him on by!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Nothing new..always has been. Nasty POS. Marty does not like to be raced!