DARLINGTON, S.C. — What used to be a test of man and machine became a test of mettle Sunday.
Darlington Raceway’s legendary wickedness struck often in a 500-mile race that ended with Kyle Larson bouncing off the fence as if in a video game to try to pass Denny Hamlin for the win.
It didn’t work. But at least both made it to the finish.
MORE: Points after Darlington
Not every playoff driver could say that — although some had much to say. Kyle Busch cussed his car’s performance after he crashed. After hitting the wall to end his race, Chase Elliott said “that’s what you deserved when you make that many mistakes.”
Then there were times drivers didn’t know what to say. Tyler Reddick was flummoxed trying to figure out what to tell his team on the radio.
“Everything that I would normally do to try to go faster made us suck worse,” he said.
Reddick holds the final transfer spot with two races left in the opening round. He is tied with Alex Bowman for that final spot but has the tiebreaker with the best finish of the round. Reddick was 18th. Bowman placed 26th after having essentially a computer glitch when cycling the engine at the start and hitting the wall 15 laps into the race.
“I don’t think we have any comfort going forward the next two weeks,” said Bowman, who won at Richmond – the next race in the playoffs – in the spring.
“We are going to places that we think we can be strong at, but this is a place where we felt like we should have been pretty strong at and our night was over five laps into the race.”
McDowell’s first playoff race as a title contender ended after 30 of 367 laps.
“Just heartbreaking for everybody on this Front Row team,” he said. “We had high hopes coming into the playoffs and this is not how we wanted to start it.”
Surviving Sunday felt like winning in a way.
“A lot of guys self-destructed and we were able to maximize our day and get every point, so we got what we got and we’ll move on,” Joey Logano said after placing fourth.
Martin Truex Jr., one of the favorites after he scored a dominating win at this track in May, overcame what he thought was a loose wheel before chances to win ended with a pit road speeding penalty with less than 50 laps left.
“I feel like we left something on the table there,” Truex said after finishing fourth.
It left Truex pondering what might have been.
“We came from a long way back that last run and passed a lot of cars that were in front of us,” he sad. “They weren’t that far ahead of us.”
Ryan Blaney also had a pit road penalty and then later spun. The driver who had won the past two races entering the playoffs and started on the pole Sunday finished 22nd.
“It was not a great night,” Blaney said, “but it could have been a lot worse.”
For all the chaos to the playoff drivers, Kevin Harvick, who finished fifth, simply called it a typical Southern 500.
“We’ve done this for a long time, so if anybody is surprised they’re very very new, and Darlington in general is just one of those places that creates chaos in itself,” he said.
“There are a lot of places that you can make a mistake. It’s the first race of the playoffs and everybody always loses their mind in the first race of the playoffs. It happens every year.
“If it’s not the first race, it’ll be one of the first three, or four, five in six, or seven, eight and nine. At some point they all lose their mind.”
If Darlington wasn’t that race, it makes one wonder what might happen in these playoffs.