Who… should you be talking about after the Cook Out Southern 500?
With the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season winding down, many wondered if we would ever talk about a Denny Hamlin victory this year. At times during the summer, his postseason bid was in jeopardy despite leading the points for several months.
In the Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday (Sept. 5), however, Hamlin finally had his breakthrough performance after scoring seven victories last season. And what better driver to beat in the opening playoff race than regular season champion Kyle Larson in a thrilling, wall-banging fight to the finish?
Throughout the 367-lap event, Hamlin and Larson led a combined 302 laps, highlighting two drivers that had dominated the point standings throughout the entirety of the regular season.
The duo found each other and fought for the lead during the last green-flag run to the end. Larson was unable to track the No. 11 down, sticking about a half-second behind during the final 30-some laps of the race.
On the white flag lap, Larson made one last-ditch effort to overtake his Toyota-driving rival by sending himself into the outside wall while slamming the back bumper of Hamlin. It didn’t work. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver went on to earn his first Cup victory of the year.
And don’t forget: This finish appeared to be a trip back to the days of old classic Darlington Raceway finishes, such as the legendary battle between Kurt Busch and Ricky Craven in 2003. If you look in any reel of that finish, however, you’ll notice a winless driver was looming in third, looking for a first Cup win in case the duo of Kurt Busch and Craven were to wreck each other.
Back then, it was Dave Blaney. On Sunday night, it was Ross Chastain.
Chastain led only one lap throughout the night, but he always seemed to be looming and waiting somewhere inside the top 10. In stage one, the Floridian finished ninth, a gain of 14 positions after starting 23rd. In stage two, he charged up to third.
Before the final caution, the watermelon farmer had overtaken Larson during a cycle of green flag pit stops and was seemingly in position to earn his first career Cup Series win. Unfortunately, that’s when Lady Luck intervened, as eventual winner Hamlin stayed out and caught the caution while running in front.
After the final restart, Chastain fell to third behind Larson, where he stayed until the checkered flag fell.
Chastain may not be in the playoffs, but he showed Sunday night that he can run – and maybe soon, win – against the best the sport of stock car racing has to offer.
What… is the buzz about?
There are problems in playoff paradise for many Cup Series championship contenders after this one.
Let’s start with Michael McDowell. He and the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team are very likely not the championship favorite for many and never were even after his upset Daytona 500 win in February.
After tonight, his chances didn’t get much better. By lap 30, McDowell was in the garage after spinning on the backstretch and slamming into the inside wall. It’s the second week in a row he and the FRM crew were the first team to retire. Heading into next week at Richmond International Raceway, the Arizona native is 20 points behind the cutoff line.
Who else is in trouble? Despite Larson’s second-place finish, Hendrick Motorsports also had a rough night.
All three of Larson’s teammates had tire issues that either sent them behind the wall or behind the rest of the field.
After both secured wins early on in the 2021 season, both William Byron and Alex Bowman are now in an elimination zone after their respective tire issues took them out of contention. Chase Elliott is the only one of those three drivers that is still playoff safe for now, albeit by only four points. After what began as a dream season for the HMS team, it only took one playoff race to put them in a danger zone points-wise.
Then, there’s Kyle Busch.
After a crash with non-playoff driver Austin Dillon forced him out of the race, Rowdy took his No. 18 Toyota to the garage, knocking a whole row of orange cones out along the way. Busch sits 14th right now in the standings, only two points below 12th place Tyler Reddick.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Fresh off two consecutive wins, pole sitter Ryan Blaney led the first 17 laps of the night before being passed by Kurt Busch. Blaney finished fourth in stage one and ninth in stage two.
It appeared to be a reasonable points day for the Team Penske driver in comparison to many other playoff contenders, but it was still a rough ending for the No. 12 team. After spinning late in the final stage, complaining of brake issues, Blaney ended the Southern 500 in 22nd, one lap down.
At one point on Sunday night, 2020 Southern 500 Champion Kevin Harvick led 20 laps and appeared to have a competitive car. However, that was during the daytime hour of the race early on. Anybody who’s watched racing long enough knows someone fast in the beginning of a day-to-night race is unlikely to stay fast by the end. Unfortunately, that was the case for Harvick.
The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran placed fifth in both stages one and two and remained there when the checkered flag waved. It certainly was not the worst night for the team this year, but the winningest driver in 2020 still remains winless in 2021 with only nine races remaining.
Two of those nine wins for Harvick last year were at Darlington, making him the first driver to win two Cup races at Darlington in one year since Jimmie Johnson in 2004. It feels like a missed opportunity for this team.
Martin Truex Jr. was trying to match Harvick’s feat after a stirring victory at Darlington earlier this year. He came close, easily the fastest car in the race’s final segment.
Truex won the race off pit road during the penultimate caution and was poised to restart as the leader only to be penalized for speeding on pit road. The No. 19 team then restarted in the back of the pack, where Truex drove back into the top five before settling in fourth.
When… was the moment of truth?
As Darlington races go, tires were as precious as they always are at the “Lady in Black.”
With laps winding down in the final stage, both Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Hamlin and Truex had stayed out during a round of green flag pit stops to try to catch a caution. Both race leader Larson and Chastain had pitted, gaining quickly on the two limping Toyotas.
Both the Nos. 19 and 11 were attempting to make it to the end of the race on two pit stops while the Chevrolets were going to do three. It’s not a strategy that occurs very often in NASCAR, but it’s only possible because of how crucial tires are at Darlington. At the 1.366-mile oval, tires wear so quickly that fuel is no longer as important as it is at other circuits.
Finally, to the advantage of Hamlin and Truex, Blaney spun in turn 3 and the yellow waved. It was exactly what the JGR cars were looking for. They were able to pit with the Chevrolets of Larson and Chastain, drivers who had no choice but to pit with the group for those precious fresh tires. Truex won the race off pit road, but because of a speeding penalty, teammate Hamlin inherited the lead and never gave it back.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Richmond International Raceway will be the first of two consecutive short tracks and the last two in the playoff Round of 16. Short tracks have historically been the site of many of those aggressive door-to-door clashes we have seen out of NASCAR racing over the years. Now, on top of the close-quarters action of short track racing, there’s playoff drama added into the mix.
In April this year, the field was under the mercy of Hamlin when they visited the Virginia-based short track after he led 207 of 400 laps. On the final restart, however, it was Bowman who practically stole the victory right from underneath him and went on to win his first of three races this year. Bowman only led 10 laps that day, and it was a win that seemingly came out of nowhere.
Now imagine Reddick or Aric Almirola doing that and securing themselves into the next round of the playoffs, taking away another spot in an already tight points battle on the cutline. Not to mention, there are drivers that aren’t in the playoffs who will likely be as aggressive in order to get that coveted first win – drivers like Chastain.
How… should drivers below the cutline approach the next two races?
It’s simple. Don’t panic.
There are still two whole races left to be run in the Round of 16, and the cutoff battle is tight. In fact, it’s dead even.
Bowman is tied with Reddick for that cutoff 12th-place spot, and only two points behind him is Kyle Busch. Both those drivers know what it takes to win at Richmond and can use that experience to at least get themselves back into the top 12 before chaos erupts at Bristol Motor Speedway in two weeks.
Even 16th-place McDowell is only 20 points behind Reddick, which can easily be made up within one race – let alone two.
Even if Bowman, Kyle Busch, Byron, and McDowell don’t feel safe below the cutoff, anybody that isn’t Hamlin or Larson likely doesn’t feel any more comfortable than they do. Third in the standings is Truex, who is only 36 points above 13th-place Bowman.
It only takes one mechanical failure, one flat tire, or one wrong-place-wrong-time incident and suddenly, anybody can be below the cutline. On top of that, there’s still two whole races left to be run before elimination, and it’s absolutely possible for the playoff picture to look completely different after the checkered flag falls on Saturday night.
So, don’t panic. At least not yet.
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