Playoff grid gauntlet: Darlington, Southern 500 remain as tough as ever for postseason opener

DARLINGTON, S.C. — There isn’t any easing into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and no risk-loose, 30-day trial that makes the preliminary experience into the season-ending 10-race stretch any extra soothing.



The sixteen drivers who met the clicking in the course of Playoffs Media Day only a few days earlier than Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 got here in with usual pre-postseason “I assume we’ve got a good shot at it” optimism, all of the while acknowledging the punishing challenge that greeted them at the very first weekend.


Old, rugged Darlington Raceway — a music that’s been around for all but a couple of NASCAR’s 75 years — lived as much as that billing Sunday, remaining undefeated.


Kyle Larson emerged because the track’s most effective true tamer past due Sunday evening, incomes secure passage to the playoffs’ next round together with his first Darlington victory.


Several of his competition for the Cup Series title observed out the meaning at the back of the egg-shaped song’s “Too Tough to Tame” nickname.


Some pushed thru the adversity to attain respectable finishes and minimize the damage, while others did now not.


Sunday’s 500-mile test did no longer discriminate primarily based on experience or in advance success. Veteran drivers nicely conversant in the challenge that Darlington’s annual marathon brings couldn’t steer clear of the pitfalls.

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Denny Hamlin threw an otherwise dominant day into the neighboring minnow pond, preventing an additional time on pit avenue after a wheel felt like it become coming unfastened on Darlington’s rough floor. He led 177 of the 367 laps — most of everybody — and become left to stew on a 25th-region end.


Kevin Harvick, every other forty-some thing with a confirmed Darlington document, had smiled for a team photo to commemorate his final begin on the South Carolina facility and the very last playoff run of his storied Cup Series career.


He regarded poised to pen the final chapter of a storybook end, lunging into contention overdue earlier than an unwell-timed sequence foiled him.


Harvick drove to 2nd place within the final degree and pointed his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to pit lane on Lap 310.

Fellow playoff driving force Tyler Reddick tried to counter the method move and whoa-ed up through Turns three and 4, however the pit-road call from the lead got here too overdue, and the trailing Ryan Newman spun in a determined act of coincidence avoidance.


The caution flag and illuminated pit-street lighting fixtures flashed just an immediate before Harvick crossed the pits’ entry line, and the dedication violation dropped him to 26th inside the order.


“Unbelievable,” cracked the No. 4 radio. Harvick ended up nineteenth on the checkered flag.

Add Martin Truex Jr. To the trouble list of veteran names. The everyday-season champ started a lackluster 31st and made his personal unscheduled pit stop on Lap 153.

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He never fully recovered and finished 18th at a song that were a candy spot for sturdy finishes in current years.


Joey Logano’s identify defense started out with a check of resilience in a crash with newly minted playoff driving force Bubba Wallace, who lost manipulate of his No.


23 Toyota and squeezed the 2-time champion’s No. 22 Ford into the outdoor wall at the cease of Stage 1.


Logano’s team made lengthy modifications to try to restore the toe, and he worked returned to finish 12th. Wallace made his very own recovery, accepting the blame for the incident as he surged lower back to location seventh.


Christopher Bell broke out from the pole position and set the early pace, but the new pit group established on his Joe Gibbs Racing No.

20 crew stumbled early with a untimely drop of the jack.


He clobbered the wall after the opening degree and fought to make his broken automobile hold up the rest of the manner, finishing twenty third.


In all, 10 drivers within the 16-driving force playoff area had a few form of glitch, penalty or misfortune.


Chalk a number of the peril as much as Darlington’s treacherous traits but additionally issue within the exacting nature of the playoffs, which demands near-flawless execution from each driving force and group.

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In the Southern 500, that precision is required for almost 4-plus hours on a narrow ribbon of asphalt.


The pathway receives little less difficult within the center event of the hole three-race round, Sunday’s Hollywood Casino four hundred (3 p.M. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) at Kansas Speedway. The 1.5-mile tune had one of its maximum memorable and eventful races in its tons briefer records in May, making it a stealthier supply of ability playoff hassle as the postseason rolls on.


But there’s at least a smidge of collective exhale after Sunday’s playoff opener at Darlington, with one of the time table’s biggest hurdles cleared — or at least tripped over and kicked out of the manner.


The location turned into once in comparison to venerable Augusta National and described as “a heavenly little bit of hell” within the identical sweep of a six-column broadsheet by means of the fantastic Bob Myers of The Charlotte News again in 1977, and it remains an apt depiction.


For drivers who’ve scraped Darlington’s partitions with varying degrees of severity, that hellish ordeal stays a Labor Day subculture and a blunt advent to the playoffs.


For racing purists and the fans who packed Darlington’s grandstands for a 1/3 instantly Southern 500 sellout, it’s still every bit the promised land.


By Jhone Marky

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