Darlington takeaways: Early part of season reveals clues on playoffs

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — With NASCAR’s throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway past, it’s time again to look ahead.

Sunday marked the last Cup regular-season points race at a playoff track this year (Texas, which hosts a playoff race, has the All-Star Race next month). Examining how drivers and teams have done on playoff tracks shows who the early favorites are.

Yes, Darlington winner Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and William Byron are among those who have fared best at those tracks, but the numbers show differences between them.

For those behind the trio, well, they have about four months before the Cup playoffs begin to improve.

MORE: Darlington winners and losers

Although Truex has won at three playoff tracks this year, he does not have the best average finish at the seven playoff tracks Cup has raced this season (the Bristol dirt race is not included because the conditions were so different from what the Bristol playoff race will be).

William Byron, who scored his 10th consecutive top 10 on Sunday, has the best average finish.

He has an average finish of 6.0 at the seven playoff tracks, excluding the Bristol dirt race, run this season. Truex is next at 7.3, followed by Denny Hamlin (8.7 average finish), Kyle Busch (9.7) and Chase Elliott (9.7).

“I feel like for us to run where we’re finishing all day is impressive and that’s kind of what the good teams do,” Byron said after his fourth-place finish at Darlington. “I feel like we’re in that mix. We’re kind of in that fourth-to-sixth range right now. So we just have to break that seal to get into that top two or three, which I think it’s pretty obvious what cars those are.”

When one examines points scored at the seven races on playoff tracks, it’s not the same order as how they ranked in averaged finish.

Hamlin, who has scored points in every stage but one in those seven races, has 299 points. He’s followed by Truex (291 points), Byron (276), Ryan Blaney (268) and Brad Keselowski (249).

With 60 points the most a driver can score in a race, Hamlin is more than 1/3 of a race ahead of Byron in points even though Byron is finishing, on average, nearly three positions better at these tracks. The difference is stage points scored. Hamlin has outscored Byron 101-59 in stage points at these tracks.

Hamlin said he and his Joe Gibbs Racing team have excelled despite only having race-winning speed in two events this year (Richmond and Daytona).

“Didn’t really have a race-winning car anywhere else,” Hamlin said after placing fifth at Darlington. “We just were executing well, doing a good job on pit lane, getting good restarts and finishing extremely well. We’ve maximized our day all year long. Twice we haven’t won with the best car.”

BEST AVERAGE FINISH

Here is how the drivers in a playoff spot and the first driver outside it have fared in the seven races at playoff tracks. (Results from the Bristol Dirt race are not included because the Bristol playoff race is not on dirt.)

6.0 — William Byron (Best: 2nd, Talladega; Worst: 9th, Kansas)

7.3 — Martin Truex Jr. (Best: 1st, Phoenix, Martinsville & Darlington; Worst: 31st, Talladega)

8.7 — Denny Hamlin (Best: 2nd, Richmond; Worst: 32nd, Talladega)

9.7 — Kyle Busch (Best: 1st, Kansas; Worst: 25th, Phoenix)

9.7 — Chase Elliott (Best: 2nd, Martinsville; Worst: 24th, Talladega)

10.1 — Kevin Harvick (Best: 2nd, Kansas; Worst: 24, Richmond)

10.7 — Ryan Blaney (Best: 5th, Las Vegas; Worst: 21st, Kansas)

11.3 — Matt DiBenedetto (Best: 4th, Kansas; Worst: 19th, Darlington)

11.6 — Brad Keselowski (Best: 1st, Talladega; Worst: 33rd, Martinsville)

12.3 — Christopher Bell (Best: 4th, Richmond; Worst: 28th, Kansas)

12.4 — Austin Dillon (Best: 8th, Talladega; Worst: 17th, Phoenix)

12.7 — Joey Logano (Best: 2nd, Phoenix; Worst: 39th, Talladega)

13.1 — Kyle Larson (Best: 1st, Las Vegas; Worst: 40th, Talladega)

15.0 — Tyler Reddick (Best: 7th, Talladega & Kansas; Worst: 29th, Phoenix)

15.4 — Chris Buescher (Best: 8th, Kansas; Worst: 25th, Richmond)

20.1 — Michael McDowell (Best: 3rd, Talladega; Worst: 31st, Martinsville)

21.1 — Alex Bowman (Best: 1st, Richmond; Worst: 38th, Talladega)

MOST POINTS SCORED

Here is how the drivers in a playoff spot and the first driver outside it have fared in the seven races at playoff tracks. (Results from the Bristol Dirt race are not included because the Bristol playoff race is not on dirt.)

299 — Denny Hamlin

291 — Martin Truex Jr.

276 — William Byron

268 — Ryan Blaney

249 — Brad Keselowski

245 — Chase Elliott

243 — Kyle Busch

225 — Kyle Larson

221 — Joey Logano

217 — Kevin Harvick

202 — Christopher Bell

199 — Matt DiBenedetto

179 — Tyler Reddick

175 — Austin Dillon

161 — Chris Buescher

154 — Alex Bowman

129 — Michael McDowell

“Racing for her”

William Byron announced last week on social media that his mother has a brain tumor.

He wrote that when his parents were at Martinsville that his mother started to have “numbing in her right arm.” Shortly, it was hard for her to speak. She was transported to a local hospital and a mass was discovered on the left side of her brain.

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William Byron is the first driver for Rick Hendrick to score 10 top 10s in a row since Jeff Gordon in 2007. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Byron wrote that his mother has lymphoma and that it is treatable. He noted that she would be starting treatment soon.

“I’m definitely racing for her and trying to support her,” Byron said at Darlington.

Byron said he had lunch with his mother the day before the Darlington race, which was on Mother’s Day.

“Definitely excited to see her get home,” Byron said. “She means a lot to me.”

On the track, Byron is having a breakthrough season. His 10 top 10s in a row was last done at Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 by Jeff Gordon. Byron didn’t turn 10 years old until November 2007.

Crew chief Rudy Fugle likes the performance for the No. 24 team this season but seeks more.

“We just need to get a little bit better,” he said. “That’s driver, that’s engine, that’s setup, that’s downforce. We’ll just keep climbing.”

Good finish … but

Kyle Larson’s runner-up finish broke a string of three consecutive finishes outside the top 10.

Larson struggled at Richmond and finished 18th. His engine blew after three laps on track and he finished 40th at Talladega. He was in position to win late at Kansas but circumstances on two restarts were against him and he fell to 19th.

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Kyle Larson’s Darlington result marks the second time he’s been a runner-up this season. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“We definitely needed to get a good finish,” Larson said at Darlington. “I thought we were going to get one last week, and I messed that up. Three bad weeks in a row and to come back and contend for a win and finish second and get good stage points after speeding at the end of the first stage, too, yeah, it was a good day.”

But he looked back and wondered if it could have been even better. Larson chased Martin Truex Jr. in the final stage and wonders if he let an opportunity get by.

“When we closed a bunch throughout the green flag cycle, that final one, and I could see that I was really close and noticed that I was gaining on him, I definitely had to tell myself to just calm myself,” Larson said. “I wish I was. Even the whole last stage I felt like I did a good job for where I was at and who I was battling with to take care of my stuff.

But yeah, when the leader is in front of you, it is tougher to remind yourself. But in a way I maybe was too patient at one point. I got to his back bumper in (Turns) 1 and 2 and I could see he was struggling in front of me, and I thought, ‘Well, if I am just patient here and stay behind him and put some pressure on him, maybe he’ll use his stuff up or get into the wall in (Turns) 3 and 4 because he was running so close to it.’ So I was just hoping that he would make a mistake.

Looking back, if there was something I could do different, I would have taken advantage of that opportunity and tried to get to his inside and maybe tried to clear him off of (Turn) 2 and maybe block him in my dirty air the rest of the race.”

Another dominating win

Martin Truex Jr. led 84.6% of the laps Sunday at Darlington but that’s not even his best work in a Cup race.

He led 98% of the laps on the way to winning the 2016 Coca-Cola 600.

That Cup race is one of 10 since May 2016 that a driver led at least 80.3% of the laps. Truex is the only driver to do it three times in that period.

His 2016 Coca-Cola performance ranks No. 1. He led 92.8% of the laps in the 2019 Martinsville playoff race to rank third on the list. The Darlington run ranks eighth.

Via Racing Insights, here is the top 10 highest percentage of laps led in a race since May 2016:

98.0% — Martin Truex Jr. (2016 Coca-Cola 600)

94.3% — Kyle Busch (2018 Coca-Cola 600)

92.8% — Martin Truex Jr. (2019 Martinsville playoff race)

89.8% — Kevin Harvick (2017 Atlanta)

89.2% — Brad Keselowski (2019 Martinsville regular-season race)

88.9% — Chase Elliott (2019 Watkins Glen)

87.6% — Kyle Busch (2016 Brickyard 400)

84.6% — Martin Truex Jr. (2021 Darlington regular-season race)

82.8% — Kyle Larson (2021 Atlanta regular-season race)

80.3% — Joey Logano (June 2019 Michigan regular-season race)

All those drivers won except Harvick at Atlanta and Larson at Atlanta. A pit road speeding penalty on Harvick’s last scheduled stop thwarted him. Larson lost his lead in the final laps to Ryan Blaney.