Sixteen drivers will continue their pursuit of the NASCAR Cup Series championship in Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
The first round of the playoffs has drivers competing at Darlington, Kansas and Bristol. After the Bristol race, the playoff grid will be trimmed by four drivers to 12. Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval make up the next round, followed by Round 3 (Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville). After the Martinsville race, the final four drivers will race for the title at Phoenix Raceway.
First, though, there is tough ol’ Darlington and the playoff opener.
Drivers to watch at Darlington:
- Points position: 1st
- Last three races: 29th at Daytona, 4th at Watkins Glen, 5th at Richmond
- Past at Darlington: Best career finish is 4th
Elliott scored one of the most amazing wins of his NASCAR career in an Xfinity Series race at Darlington in 2014. He passed several cars over the closing laps to win in dramatic fashion in his first race at the track. In Cup, however, Elliott is still looking for win No. 1 at Darlington.
- Points position: 9th
- Last three races: 20th at Daytona, 12th at Watkins Glen, won at Richmond
- Past at Darlington: 3 career wins
Harvick has cooled off somewhat since scoring back-to-back wins at Michigan and Richmond, but he is expected to be a serious threat in the playoffs. He last won at Darlington in 2020 and has 13 straight top 10s at the track.
- Points position: 6th
- Last three races: 25th at Daytona, 20th at Watkins Glen, 4th at Richmond
- Past at Darlington: 4 career wins
If past results can be trusted, Hamlin should start the playoffs with a strong result. He owns Darlington wins in 2010, 2017, 2020 and 2021. Although he finished 21st in last May’s Darlington race, he has four top fives in the past seven Darlington events.
QUESTIONS TO ANSWER
- Points position: 16th
- Last three races: Won at Daytona, 17th at Watkins Glen, 16th at Michigan
- Past at Darlington: Best career finish is 2nd
Dillon dropped into the playoffs at the last minute Sunday at Daytona, winning for the first time this season. Now the question is: Can he cash the opportunity? Dillon has a better-than-average record at Darlington with three top 10s in the past four races.
- Points position: 3rd
- Last three races: 33rd at Daytona, 21st at Watkins Glen, 18th at Richmond
- Past at Darlington: Best career finish is 3rd
Can the season’s breakout new star perform in his first shot in the playoffs? He has been cold lately with a best finish of 18th in the past six races. He has five finishes of 15th or worse in six starts at Darlington.
- Points position: 7th
- Last three races: 15th at Daytona, 24th at Watkins Glen, 10th at Richmond
- Past at Darlington: Best career finish is 8th
Blaney will be the only non-winner of the season on the playoff grid. This is his sixth straight playoff appearance. At Darlington, he has 10 finishes of 13th or worse in 11 starts.