What matters at Darlington: Southern 500 win goes through Martin Truex Jr.


What matters in today’s race from Darlington Raceway and can anyone topple Martin Truex Jr.? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Does anyone have anything for Truex?

The degree to which Martin Truex Jr. dominated the spring race in Darlington can be quantified far past him leading 85% of the race:

  • His median lap time (31.826 seconds) was the fastest across 400 miles.
  • He ventured to a 14.5-second lead before the end of the second stage.
  • He turned in the best singular restarts from three different positions: first (+0, three times), third (+2, taking the lead on lap 115) and fourth (+1, twice, in a spot that saw a 0.17-position average loss). For the day, he had 100% position retention on restarts.

It’s easy to forget about Truex’s early-season strength. Since his Darlington win (on May 9), he’s earned just three top-five finishes in 17 races. In fairness, none of the tracks that followed have playoff representation. This team, it seems, was built to win at 750-horsepower tracks in the playoffs. They were victorious in two other races — at Martinsville and Phoenix — that hold prominent positions as the cutoff event of the semifinal round and the winner-take-all finale.

But those other two wins weren’t the result of woodshed-whippings like the one Truex put on the field at Darlington. There, he ran wilder than any previous winner at the 1.366-mile track since Dale Earnhardt’s rout of the 1986 TranSouth 500, in which he led 335 of 367 laps.

Anticipate Truex remaining a favorite for the win today, but the notion that he regresses from his historic performance is likely a smart one, with a couple of drivers poised to benefit based on a variety of measures.

Denny Hamlin bested Joe Gibbs Racing stable mate Truex in both average median lap rank on playoff tracks during the regular season and points accumulated on those tracks (with Talladega omitted). While the focus of Hamlin’s team hasn’t resulted in wins, it’s certainly on par with what Truex’s team turned its energy towards, a make-good on last year’s season finale.

“It’s kind of a learning period for us, but we put our best effort forward,” Hamlin said after finishing fourth last fall in Phoenix with the fourth-fastest car. “We made no mistakes today. I did everything I possibly could. I had nothing there … Our car didn’t have enough speed to go up there and compete.”

Kyle Larson finished second to Truex in the spring, in spite of having the fourth-fastest car. The top-seeded driver entering the playoffs, Larson doesn’t necessarily need a win in order to advance to the next round, but a showing closer to equal footing to that of Truex — Larson failed to lead a single lap in the spring — would help us understand how well Hendrick Motorsports prepared for a slate of races where the majority of them favor Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske’s Joey Logano, driver of the second-fastest car this season on 750-horsepower tracks.

Might early strategy be dictated by the point standings?

At first blush, there isn’t much wiggle room in regards to strategy in the early goings of tonight’s race. Darlington sees a two-second lap time degradation on old tires, and the respect teams have for fresh rubber was universal in last year’s Southern 500.

No team pitted in advance of the competition caution in an effort to inherit better track position. It was a proposition deemed too risky with an ensuing restart making vulnerable anyone with even a lap or two on their set of tires. But tonight, for some, it may be a risk worth taking.

Kevin Harvick enters the playoff opener in an unfamiliar position, seeded last among the 16 championship-eligible teams. So, he’s in need of as many points as he can possibly score to stave off a first-round elimination. Additionally, he recorded the fastest single lap in Darlington’s spring race, a potential sign that the car was optimized for clean air that he didn’t regularly have.

Pitting before the competition caution not only falls into the strategic wheelhouse of crew chief Rodney Childers, but it may represent Harvick’s best shot at taking advantage of a car that was more competitive than meets the eye, ranked sixth in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks. A stage win tonight would be his first of the entire 2021 season.

Harvick isn’t the only driver walking this particular line. Fellow Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola and JGR’s Christopher Bell both have quantifiably good 750-horsepower speed (ranked 12th and ninth, respectively) and a dearth of playoff points. The choice for strategic aggression is one that’s viable, though not without risk.

The 137-lap final stage could see a splitting of tactics, as 2v1 pit stop battle is on the table. Last year, JGR attempted a one-stop final stage while the Chevrolet contingent, famously Harvick, Chase Elliott and eventual runner-up Austin Dillon, attempted two, utilizing fast lap times on fresh rubber to make up for time lost on pit road.

There will be but one winner, who’ll automatically advance to the next round, but a multitude of paths toward “maximizing the day” in terms of points.

This is just one-third of a round, but some teams may already be in trouble

Aside from the winner — assuming it comes from the title-eligible 16 teams — 15 others will leave Darlington with unfinished business. Two other events, occurring at 750-horsepower tracks Richmond and Bristol, comprise this initial round. That the entire round consists of one track type is beneficial to some and a hindrance to others. For the latter, the problem compounds with a lack of points.

Michael McDowell, ranked 28th in 750-horsepower speed, enters the playoffs with 2,005 points, the third-least of any driver. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer confirmed to NBC Sports that the Front Row Motorsports team would require “luck,” in addition to doing “everything at the highest level Front Row could ever do” in order to advance to a second round that suits them far more favorably, with Talladega and the Charlotte Roval as two of the featured races.

Kurt Busch, ranked 17th by the same speed metric, holds just three more points than McDowell. In the spring Darlington race, Busch had the 27th-fastest car, earning two points from his 35th-place finish. And while that may have been an aberration, his 13th-place finish (and 24 points earned) at Richmond didn’t necessarily inspire. The Atlanta race winner was well suited for 550-horsepower tracks — ranked sixth in average median lap this season — but faces a steep challenge across these next three weekends.

If it wasn’t for his New Hampshire performance — his median lap ranked second while his best lap ranked first — all signs suggest Brad Keselowski is in for a world of hurt through the next three races. It’s a remarkable dip in speed, going from the fastest team of the 2020 season finale in Phoenix to ranking as the 15th fastest on 750-horsepower tracks. And considering his points tally is on par with that of Busch, he’ll need results (and points) beyond what he’s shown. Races heavy on cautions could provide an escape route: He ranks in the 99th percentiles for restart offense and defense compared to other playoff drivers this season on playoff tracks.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front


A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments


TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”


Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”


Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 


NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race


In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.



AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.



Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.


Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway


A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:


Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.


Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.