NASCAR has had a crazy and tumultuous schedule this past summer as they crammed in an extra two months of races into the current four-month period. Finally, the Cup Series has returned to (mostly) normalcy as the playoffs begin, back at the track where the restart of the season began, Darlington Raceway.
The round of 16 begins with the first race being the Southern 500 followed by night races at Richmond and Bristol.
Last year, Darlington was the second to last race before the playoffs began and Erik Jones took the victory with second place going to Kyle Larson. Neither driver is in the playoffs as Jones missed the playoffs after wrecking last week at Daytona, and Larson is still out of NASCAR after his racial slur during the COVID-19 suspension.
On May 17, NASCAR resumed after two months of suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington. Alex Bowman put on a strong performance with a second-place finish but lost to Kevin Harvick, who won his first race of the season.
Three days later, Clint Bowyer swept both stages, giving him much-needed playoff points in the playoff hunt. The race ended with a (literal) bang as Kyle Busch wrecked Chase Elliott when battling for second place. A rainstorm forced NASCAR to call the race early, giving Denny Hamlin the win, his second of the season.
The biggest story to watch is Busch, the defending Cup Series champion. He comes into this postseason without a single win in the Cup Series in 2020 and only 14th in the playoff standings. As it stands, Busch is two points below Aric Almirola on the round of 12 playoff cutline with only three playoff points. He has struggled in 2020, but a win in any of the next three races would automatically lock him into the next round. Last year, Busch only won in the playoffs at the championship race but he needs to win in order to advance deep into the playoffs once again and defend his title. Busch will start 15th.
The two previous Darlington winners, Harvick and Hamlin, have dominated 2020 as they have won a combined 13 races this season (seven for Harvick and six for Hamlin).
Harvick is the playoff points leader with 57 while Hamlin has 47. Brad Keselowski is a distant third place with 29. Between the two, they have only won one Cup Series championship (Harvick in 2014). Hamlin still has yet to win a championship as he hopes 2020 will be the year he captures the elusive title. Harvick will start eighth and Hamlin will start second.
Keselowski and Joey Logano round out the current top four with a combined five wins this season for Team Penske. They will start fifth and 13th respectively. As for the third Penske playoff driver, Ryan Blaney, this postseason has started poorly as Blaney failed pre-race inspection due to improper ballast. He loses 10 points for this round, his crew chief, Todd Gordon, is suspended for the race and Blaney must start at the rear.
Below the round of 12 cutline is Bowyer (will start ninth), Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch (will start 16th) and playoff-newcomer Matt DiBenedetto (will start 11th).
Coverage for the Southern 500 begins at 6:00 p.m. EST. The stages end on laps 115, lap 230 and the finish on lap 367 with a competition caution on lap 25. You can catch the race on NBCSN and the Motor Racing Network.
Pit stall assignments:
Goodyear tire notes: https://www.jayski.com/2020/09/01/goodyear-fast-facts-darlington-3/