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Analyzing the NASCAR Cup playoff field: 16 drivers, 16 questions

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In a year unlike any other for Cup teams, which saw their season paused for 10 weeks and then resume with multiple doubleheaders, mid-week races and even a race on the Daytona road course, the race for the championship begins.

The 16-driver NASCAR Cup playoff field is set. They open the playoffs with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

Before the Chase Elliott leads the field to the green flag, here is a look at each of the 16 playoff drivers and a key question for each.

 

1. Kevin Harvick (2057 points)

Is this title his to lose?

Moving the championship race to Phoenix couldn’t have come at a better time for Harvick, who seeks a second title.

Harvick’s average finish in his last 13 races at Phoenix is 3.4. That includes six wins, two runner-ups and no finish worse than ninth.

His 57 playoff points entering the postseason are a record. No driver who entered the postseason with at least 35 playoff points failed to reach the championship race.

Harvick’s average finish of 6.6 in the regular season is his best since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

“We’ve been fortunate to have great momentum throughout the year and have been able to capitalize on the weeks when we’ve had great race cars and the weeks that we haven’t we’ve made decent finishes out of what we’ve had,” Harvick said.

2. Denny Hamlin (2047 points)

Will last year’s title disappointment haunt him?

Had crew chief Chris Gabehart called for a smaller piece of tape on the front grille during a pit stop in last year’s title race, Hamlin might have celebrated his first Cup crown.

Instead, Hamlin’s car began to overheat and he had to pit to remove the tape, ending his championship hopes.

Hamlin said he didn’t talk to Gabehart about that pit call until the beginning of this season.

He’s like, ‘Are you not going to ask me why I put that big piece of tape on your car?’ ” Hamlin said. “I was like, ‘No, I assumed you had a reason for it so I figured it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is go out there and drive as fast as I can every single lap and tell you the information that you need to make the car go faster.’

“I did what I felt like all I could do to win the championship and it didn’t work out.”

Now he has another chance. Expected to reach the championship race with 47 playoff points earned in the regular season, Hamlin could celebrate his first Cup crown in November.

3. Brad Keselowski (2029 points)

Can he and his team find another gear?

Keselowski has finished eighth, ninth or 10th in five of the last 10 races. Finishes like that, along with scoring stage points, will get him through the first round and possibly the second round but to advance beyond that may take a win.

He has three wins this season — the fourth consecutive year he’s scored as many victories — so this team can do it. It just needs to be run closer to the front more consistently.

He has his eyes on the second round, which features Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval. Pairing the Roval and Talladega has many noting how unpredictable the round could be.

“That second round is hairy,” he said. “Talladega is gonna be hairy. The Roval is gonna be hairy. You’re going to want to go to Vegas and win.”

4. Joey Logano (2022 points)

Will he return to Victory Lane this season?

Logano opened the year winning two of the first four races — including a victory at Phoenix in March. Then the season paused for the coronavirus pandemic. Since the sport’s return, Logano has finished no better than third in a race.

It took longer than we wanted it to, longer than we expected it to, but I feel like we’re getting really close back to where we were at the beginning of the year,” Logano said. “We can get ourselves in position to win again. I feel like we’re right at it, so I do feel pretty good about where we’re at again.”

Logano seeks to continue a streak of reaching the championship race in even-numbered years. He made it in 2014, ’16 and ’18.

He won the title two years ago when he was overshadowed by the Big Three — Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.

Could Logano again emerge with another title?

5. Chase Elliott (2020 points)

Is this the year he reaches the title race?

He’s made it to the third round (Round of 8) each of the past three years  but failed to make it to the title race each time.

Last year, a mechanical failure and two crashes doomed his third round. In 2018, a speeding penalty at Phoenix in the season’s penultimate race  put him at the back. He returned to the top 10 but was collected in a crash off a restart. In 2017, he was in position to win at Martinsville but was spun by Denny Hamlin and finished 27th. Elliott was unable to win the next two races and didn’t have enough points to advance.

“I would love to get to be a part of that last race and that last event, and really make a run at it and do that,” Elliott said. “That’s the thing we haven’t been able to accomplish is making that last race. That’s the goal.”

6. Martin Truex Jr. (2014 points)

Can this team go to the next level?

Asked this week what he was more curious to see about the playoffs, Truex had an interesting response.

“I’m curious to see if we can step it up to that next level,” he said. “I feel like we can. I feel like we are right there on the cusp of it. You look at what we’ve done the last 10 races, I feel like we have been a top-three car every single race.

“We’ve had opportunities to win slip away. I look forward to seeing if we can take those seconds, thirds, and fourths and turn them into wins. That’s ultimately what it takes to win the championship. If we can do that, I’ll be happy. That’s what I’m ready to see, and hopefully we will see it soon.”

Truex enters the playoffs with eight consecutive finishes of fourth or better. None of those results, though, are wins. Truex and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett (in 1961) are the only drivers in series history to have eight consecutive finishes of fourth or better and not have a win in that time.

7. Alex Bowman (2009 points)

Can he recapture the magic from earlier this year?

Remember when Alex Bowman seemed to be threat most weekends? He was early in the season. Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, finished second in the first Darlington race in May and  led a race-high 164 laps in the Coca-Cola 600.

He ranked second in laps led with 369 going into the Bristol race in late May. He’s led 19 laps in 18 races since. While Bowman has back-to-back top 10s entering the playoffs, he’s scored only three top-10 finishes in his last 11 races.

“The summer was pretty rough on us,” Bowman said. “We started the season really strong. Coming back from the COVID-19 (break), we were still really strong and it fell off really hard for the summer. Trying to identify why that happened, what we did wrong and getting better over the last couple of weeks, especially. I think we’re in a good place going into the playoffs.”

8. William Byron (2007 points)

Does momentum matter?

He enters the playoffs after winning last weekend’s regular-season finale at Daytona for his first career Cup points victory.

Clint Bowyer says momentum matters and that’s why he makes Byron his dark horse for the playoffs.

But …

Momentum only gets a driver so far. Since the playoff format debuted in 2014, only once has the driver who won the regular-season finale advanced to the championship race. Kevin Harvick did that last year, winning at Indianapolis to end the regular season.

On Byron’s side is that the winner of the regular-season finale has always gotten past the first round since 2014. Also on his side is crew chief Chad Knaus, the only driver or crew chief to be in the playoffs every year.

9. Austin Dillon (2005 points)

Can this team make it to the second round?

He’s failed the advance from the first round the last two times in the playoffs. His seven top-10 finishes are already better than his total last season.

The former Xfinity and Truck Series champion looks to add to his title collection.

“There’s another opportunity to become the first to win all three championships that we’ve got,” he said.

“(Sixteen) guys that have this opportunity (to win the title) and we’re one of them, so you want to take advantage of those opportunities and go out there and perform. … Live in the moment and have fun doing it.”

10. Cole Custer (2005 points)

Is this rookie playing with house money?

As the only rookie to make the playoffs, Custer has clinched Rookie of the Year honors.

It’s quite an achievement for a rookie to make the playoffs any year, let alone in a season where practice has been eliminated since May. The lack of practice will make it more difficult on Custer in the playoffs.

I would definitely like some practice,” he said. “It’s one of those things that even though we’ve been to tracks like Darlington before, some of these guys have been there for 10-15 years. 

“There’s stuff as a rookie that we’d just like to try in our car to see if it was better or worse, but we don’t really have that opportunity. So we make our best educated guess on what we brought there last time and what our teammates did and what we’ve compiled through this whole year of what works and what doesn’t work. But it’s just a matter of adapting as fast as you can and try and use your notebook as best you can.”

11.  Aric Almirola (2005 points)

Can he go on another hot streak?

More playoffs drivers selected Almirola as their dark horse based on what he’s done this season.

He scored five consecutive top-five finishes in June and early July. That was part of a stretch where Almirola scored nine consecutive top 10s. But he didn’t have a win in that run.

In the last six races, though, he’s finished outside the top 10 four times. So, which Almirola and No. 10 team will show up in the playoffs?

“I am excited about the playoffs,” he said. “I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender, but I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

12. Clint Bowyer  (2004 points)

Is this his last chance?

Clint Bowyer’s contract expires after this season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Asked how confident he is of returning to the team, Bowyer said: “They’re working on that on the future and what that looks like. If it’s a part of this sport in any way shape or form I’m excited about it. … For right now it’s still about the playoffs.  It’s new life.”

With nothing to lose, this team could be one to try some unique strategies at times.

13. Ryan Blaney (2003 points)

Can he escape the first round?

With the success Blaney has had this year, this seems like a silly question. Yet, he doesn’t have a big gap on the last transfer spot and the first-round tracks are not some of his best. 

This issue became a bigger concern after NASCAR penalized the team for an inspection issue before the Southern 500. He was docked 10 points, dropping his total to 2003. He falls to the 13th seed.

He’s never finished better than 13th in seven starts at Darlington. He’s never finished better than 17th in eight starts at Richmond, the middle race in the opening round. He finished last at Bristol in May, ending a streak of three consecutive top 10s.

“You look at Richmond, the second race there, is a place we’ve struggled at over the years,” Blaney said. “It’s nice that it’s in the round of 16, but you still have to put a good race together. You can’t just run in the back all race and have a poor race like we’ve had there the last handful of years.”

14. Kyle Busch (2003 points)

Is he going to go a full year without a win?

Busch enters the playoffs winless this season, the first time he’s gone so deep into a year without a victory. He’s had at least one win in 15 consecutive Cup seasons.

Some of his competitors expect him to make a splash in the playoffs. And so does he.

I look at Darlington as a place we can go to and we can run top-five pretty good there,” Busch said. “Richmond, Bristol – those are great opportunities for us to score a victory. You get two stage wins and a win at Richmond and Bristol both and boom, you’re right back in the playoff picture.”

15. Kurt Busch (2001 points)

Might he be the dark horse?

Only co-favorites Kevin Harvick (7.4) and Denny Hamlin (8.6) have a better average finish in races run this season on playoff tracks than Busch. His average finish at the eight playoff tracks the series has raced this year is 11.4.

“I’m looking at it one race at a time,” Busch said of the playoffs. “We put ourselves in this position to be playoff-eligible and to have a shot at the championship. And so we know this is an opportunity to do something great. So, just one week at a time.

“I love Darlington. It’s one of my favorite race tracks, with Richmond and Bristol, two short tracks in this first round, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves but if we execute as a team, we’ve got a great shot at all this.”

16. Matt DiBenedetto (2000 points)

Can a driver who has never won a Cup race win the title?

DiBenedetto is winless in 202 career Cup starts. Many of those, though, were with teams that didn’t have a chance to win. It’s only this year that he’s been with a team that had a more consistent chance to do so.

He finished second at Las Vegas and third at Kentucky this year but he says it’s the shorter tracks and road courses he feels are where his team is best.

I know we can win, for sure and we will,” DiBenedetto said. “That has been my goal my entire career.

“As far as execution … I feel like you can get too caught up in focusing your race on how to win. It isn’t always the best car that wins. My focus is on how to make the most of our race car and the most of that day and not get too caught up in guys pulling away or how to get to them but focusing on yourself, your car and your team.

“Make the most of it. Maximize your day. Hopefully that puts you in position to have a shot at winning at the end of the race.”

Myrtle Beach Speedway moves one step closer to shutting down

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One of the oldest and longest operating tracks in NASCAR and other racing series is one step closer to shutting its doors forever.

The Horry County Council in South Carolina passed the first reading of a rezoning request Tuesday night that will likely lead to Myrtle Beach Speedway being redeveloped into a commercial and residential development, per a story by the Myrtle Beach Sun News/MyrtleBeachOnline.com.

The rezoning request needs two more readings in front of the Council before approval would be given to complete the sale of the speedway property. Including the track, the overall size of the property is about 45.5 acres and worth about $2.17 million, per the Sun News.

The .538-mile paved oval was built in 1958 and has operated for the past 62 years. Because its rezoning and sale are expected to be approved, the track has set August 15 as its “farewell race,” according to the Sun News. However, the track’s web site still lists events into early December.

This past February, track owner Bob Lutz, who purchased the property in 2012, said operating the facility continues to be a money losing proposition, according to the Sun News.

“(Closing the track) isn’t an easy decision to do that but the problem is it’s getting harder and harder for short tracks to survive, and the reason why is because we’re just not getting the attendance that they used to years ago,” Lutz told the Sun News in February. “It makes it hard, because you struggle and do everything you can. I think me and my team have shown that we have put 100 percent effort into building the speedway and making it successful and making it a great place for people to race at, and even though we’ve put in all the effort it still continues to lose money.”

NASCAR has a long history with the track, including holding events in Cup (1958-65) and the Xfinity Series (1988-2000). Since then, the facility has hosted a number of races across a variety of racing series.

Drivers who have raced at Myrtle Beach over the years include NASCAR On NBC and 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Dale Earnhardt Jr. (see video above of his race there in 1999); NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ned Jarrett and Dale Jarrett; Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and NASCAR On NBC analyst Jeff Burton.

Speedway general manager Steve Zacharias, who has been at the track for nearly a decade, had previously told the Sun News that he and two partners have agreed to purchase Florence (S.C.) Motor Speedway and essentially move racing operations to there from Myrtle Beach Speedway.

Plans are for the new ownership group to hold its first race at Florence Motor Speedway on September 4, according to the Sun News.

As for Myrtle Beach Speedway, it’s a bittersweet ending for Lutz.

“It is so expensive to operate a facility like that, we continue losing money year after year and just at some point you have to say we tried with everything we possibly could and realize that without people in the stands you’re never going to be able to survive,” Lutz told the Sun News in February. “So the people that say, ‘Why is it going away?’ and ‘We wish it would stay,’ I wish those people would support us week after week and we wouldn’t have to do this.”

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Dale Jr. highlights NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2021

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join his father in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2021, becoming the sixth father-son set to be enshrined.

Voters also selected modified ace Mike Stefanik and Red Farmer to join Earnhardt in the Class of 2021. Ralph Seagraves was selected as the recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR.

Earnhardt, Stefanik and Farmer make up the 12th class to be selected to the Hall of Fame.

Earnhardt Jr. received 76% of the Modern Era ballot votes, Stefanik received 49%. Ricky Rudd finished third, followed by Neil Bonnett. Red Farmer received 71% of the Pioneer ballot votes. Hershel McGriff finished second. There has never been a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame.

Voting Day was held virtually on June 9 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The panel consisted of 65 former drivers, inductees, NASCAR executives, industry leaders and media members, plus one vote reserved for fan balloting. Results for the NASCAR.com Fan Vote were Neil Bonnett, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Red Farmer.

The induction ceremony date will be announced at a later date.

This also marked the first time the Hall class was reduced from five inductees to three: Earnhardt and Stefanik being chosen from 10 Modern Era candidates and Farmer chosen from five candidates considered from the Pioneer Era.

Here are the newest Hall inductees:

Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr., nicknamed Dale Jr., is a two-time Daytona 500 winner (2004, 2014). Voted as the sport’s Most Popular Driver for 15 consecutive years from 2003-17, he retired as a full-time NASCAR Cup driver following the 2017 season.

“It was great to see my face pop up on that screen,” Earnhardt said with a smile to NBCSN’s NASCAR America. “I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t really nervous. I had a root canal earlier today, so maybe I was more nervous about that. That was kind of distracting my thoughts.

“I also was understanding the fact I’m young, considering most people that are inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I had a lot of years that I could be patiently to hopefully see my name called. So I was going to be okay.”

But Earnhardt’s voice began to crack with emotion when he added:

“Once you started the show, man nerves set in and I got shook up and I was extremely emotional to be nominated. Not a lot of people are like this, but I really work off affirmation — I succeed off affirmation — and there’s no better compliment or affirmation than from your peers and the people that you work with and work around.

“This is such a great pat on the back for a lot of hard work and a lot of years in the sport, trying to do the right thing for the yourself, your sponsors but most importantly for the health of the sport. I’m feeling great about this experience and looking forward to what lies ahead, the evening itself and the ceremony. It’ll be a great experience and I’ll be excited.”

Earnhardt made 631 Cup starts between 1999-2017, earning 26 wins (tied with Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen for 30th in NASCAR history), 149 top-five and 260 top-10 finishes. His highest single-season finish was third in 2003.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and father Dale Earnhardt talk during the 1998 Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

He also made 142 career Xfinity Series starts from 1996 through this past Saturday at Miami, earning championships in 1998-99 when the series was known as the Busch Series. He earned 24 wins, 70 top-five and 94 top-10 Busch/Xfinity finishes.

Since his retirement from the Cup Series, the now 45-year-old Earnhardt has become a NASCAR analyst for NBC Sports, but kept his hand still in racing, making one start per season in the Xfinity Series, with finishes of fourth in 2018 and fifth in 2019 and 2020. He said after Saturday’s race at Miami that it potentially may be his last race ever as a NASCAR driver.

Earnhardt’s father, seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, was in the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010, along with Bill France Sr., Bill France Jr., Richard Petty and Junior Johnson.

The other father-son pairings in the Hall are: Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr., Lee and Richard Petty, Ned and Dale Jarrett, and Buck and Buddy Baker and Bobby and Davey Allison.

“I don’t know the entire voting panel, but I know some of the folks that are in that. To think they have that respect and feeling for you, it really hits you in the heart, it really does.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. I don’t know how I’m going to feel as we move forward, but it’s going to be a lot of fun reflecting on our past, our driving career, going to get to share a lot of great stories and it should be a good time.”

Michael Paul Stefanik was one of the most prolific NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour drivers, earning seven championships. In 453 Modified starts, the Massachusetts native earned 74 wins, 223 top-five and 301 top-10 finishes.

Mike Stefanik was named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Tuesday. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Stefanik is the third driver who primarily raced modified to be enshrined in NASCAR’s Hall. He joins Richie Evans (inducted in 2012) and Jerry Cook (2016).

Stefanik was named the second greatest driver in NASCAR Modified history in 2003.

He won successive K&N Pro Series East championships in 1997-98, and finished second in 1995, 2003 and 2005. He also competed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

Stefanik was killed in a plane crash on September 15, 2019, when the plane he was piloting experienced mechanical failure and crashed in Sterling, Connecticut. He was 61.

Charles “Red” Farmer is well into his 80s but is still competing, having gained notoriety primarily for short track racing, as well as being one of the charter members of the “Alabama Gang,” a group of drivers who settled in the area of Hueytown, Ala., and became legendary in all forms of stock car racing, from dirt tracks to NASCAR Cup.

Farmer’s career stretched for more than seven decades, although the numbers vary widely. He is estimated to have won between 700-900 races from the 1950s through the 2000s. He also won numerous championships at tracks in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

Still racing, still winning — that’s Red Farmer at 87 years old. Photo: Red Farmer.

While Farmer made only 36 career starts in the NASCAR Cup Series, he excelled in the NASCAR National Late Model Sportsman division (now known as the Xfinity Series), earning three straight championships from 1969-1971.

Despite the few starts on the Cup Series, he was still named NASCAR’s most popular driver four different times, and was named one of the 50 Greatest Drivers In NASCAR History in 1998. Including Tuesday’s announcement, Farmer will now be a member of six different auto racing halls of fame.

Farmer is also known for coyly claiming he was born anywhere from 1928 through 1932.

And he’s still racing, having competed as recently as last weekend, finishing 10th. At the age of 87. He said he will race this weekend at Talladega Short Track.

Farmer was Davey Allison’s crew chief in the then-Busch Series and was with Allison when the helicopter they were in crashed while landing at Talladega Superspeedway on July 12 1993. The younger Allison died. Farmer suffered a broken collarbone and several fractured ribs. Farmer continues to race, primarily at the Talladega Short Track, a 1/3-mile dirt oval across the street from NASCAR’s Talladega Superspeedway.

William Ralph Seagraves has long been acknowledged as the architect who brought tobacco manufacturer RJ Reynolds into NASCAR as its title series sponsor.

Ralph Seagraves of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Initially brought on as a sponsor for car owner Junior Johnson’s team, Winston was the first non-automotive sponsor to enter NASCAR on a full-time basis. Winston found a welcome home after the U.S. government banned TV cigarette advertising in 1970.

Realizing the impact and return on investment it could obtain would be greater in the overall sport, as opposed to sponsoring just one team, Seagraves and RJR made NASCAR an offer it couldn’t refuse and became the exclusive title rights sponsor in 1971.

From 1971-2003, NASCAR’s premier series – which was previously known as the Grand National Series – was renamed the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, becoming a marketing juggernaut that led to the sport becoming one of the most popular in the United States.

In addition to NASCAR, Winston – with Seagraves’ guidance and leadership as the company’s top sports marketing executive – would also go on to sponsor NHRA drag racing, golf, soccer, tennis and hydroplane racing before tobacco sponsorship was outlawed by the federal government.

Seagraves retired in 1985 and passed away on Sept. 27, 1998 at the age of 69.

***************

Falling short of being voted in from the Modern Era were Neil Bonnett, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Harry Gant, Harry Hyde, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd and Kirk Shelmerdine.

Falling short of being voted in from the Pioneer Era were Jake Elder, Banjo Matthews, Hershel McGriff and Ralph Moody.

Not being chosen for the Landmark Award were Janet Guthrie, Alvin Hawkins, Mike Helton and Dr. Joseph Mattioli.

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Cup Series Wednesday night racing factoids

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we live in strange times.

It’s forced NASCAR to make seemingly unprecedented scheduling decisions that see the sport attempting to hold four Cup Series races in 11 days, with the second scheduled to take place tonight at Darlington. A third is set for Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway followed by another Charlotte race on May 27.

While this all seems new, such a compact schedule is simply a throwback to NASCAR’s past, which is appropriate for Darlington.

The last time the Cup Series had four races in 11 days was in 1971, the year before NASCAR’s Modern Era began. That season the Cup Series held 48 races.

From July 14-28, the series competed at Albany-Saratoga (N.Y) Speedway, Islip (N.Y) Speedway, Trenton (N.J.) Speedway and Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. Richard Petty won all four races. Only Albany-Saratoga, a dirt track, and Fairgrounds Speedway still exist.

Should tonight’s Darlington race not be rained out, it would be the 34th Cup race held on a Wednesday, but the first since 1984.

That race was the July 4 event held at Daytona that Richard Petty won for his 200th career victory. The last Wednesday race held somewhere other than Daytona was the 1971 race at Albany-Saratoga.

Other Wednesday/Darlington racing factoids:

– Nineteen drivers have earned victories in races held on Wednesdays. Ten of them are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

– The drivers with the most Wednesday victories are Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett with five each.

– This would be the first time that Darlington, Charlotte (May 27) and Martinsville (June 10) would host a Cup Series race on a Wednesday.

– The starting lineup of tonight’s race features an inversion of the top-20 finishers from Sunday’s race. Since 2000, the only driver to start a Darlington race from 15th-20th and win was Erik Jones in last year’s Southern 500 (he started 15th).

– Jones has yet to finish outside the top 10 in four Cup starts at Darlington

– Only three drivers in the Modern Era (since 1972) have earned their first Cup win at Darlington: Terry Labonte (1980), Lake Speed (1988) and Regan Smith (2011). Speed’s and Smith’s wins were their only Cup victories.

– In the Modern Era, Darlington has seen only three last-lap passes for the win. The last came in 2003 (Ricky Craven).

Kevin Harvick aware of ‘responsibility’ that comes with 50+ Cup wins

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Kevin Harvick entered another tier of excellence Sunday with his dominating NASCAR Cup Series victory at Darlington Raceway.

With his second career victory at the track “Too Tough To Tame,” the 44-year-old driver notched the 50th Cup Series win of his two-decade career.

That’s an achievement only 13 other Cup drivers – including two who are active – have reached. All 11 retired drivers who have reached the mark are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

With the victory, Harvick joins competitors Jimmie Johnson (83 wins) and Kyle Busch (56) in the 50+ win club.

More than half of Harvick’s wins – 27 of them – have come since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. He’s now tied with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett.

“I’m always very cautious in trying to analyze things that I do personally, just because I feel awkward doing that,” Harvick said Monday on NBCSN’s “Lunch Talk Live” with Mike Tirico. “But I think in this particular instance, when you talk about Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson and those types of names, you have to kind of sit back. For me I almost have to pinch myself, because those are people that have had a major impact on our sport. So you hear those names, sometimes I sit back and try to ask myself, ‘Have you done what you needed to do in order to live up to the expectation of what those guys have done besides just winning 50 races?’

“There is a responsibility that comes with all that when you put yourself up next to names like that and for me that’s a good reminder of making sure that you take seriously the responsibility of trying to make the sport better and move it forward, because that’s what those names have done and they’re icons in our sport and I’m personally holding myself responsible to try to come close to living up to those expectations.”

The last time the Cup Series boasted three active drivers with 50+ wins was the 2001 Daytona 500, the weekend before Harvick’s debut.

In the field that day were Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt had 76 wins and Gordon and Wallace had joined the 50-win club within three weeks of each other the previous season.

Earnhardt’s death in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 resulted in Harvick being promoted by Richard Childress Racing to take his place the following weekend at Rockingham. He’d earn his first Cup win in his third start, beating Gordon in a photo finish at Atlanta.

With Johnson set to retire from full-time Cup racing after this season, the active 50-win club will be back to two drivers relatively quickly.

Harvick might be the last driver to enter the 50-win tier in the Cup Series for at least a few years.

The next active driver on the all-time wins list is Denny Hamlin. Hamlin, 39, sits at 38 victories following his win in the Daytona 500 in February. He’s won seven times over the last two seasons after going winless in 2018.

Behind Hamlin is Kurt Busch (31 wins) and Brad Keselowski (30 wins). Busch, 41, is in his 20th full-time Cup season and hasn’t had a season with more than one victory since 2015.

Keselowski, 36, has been winning at a consistent rate the last four seasons, winning at least three times each year since 2016. If he kept that pace up, he’d need another six to seven seasons to reach 50.