Playoff grid gauntlet: Darlington, Southern 500 remain as tough as ever for postseason opener

Playoff grid gauntlet: Darlington, Southern 500 remain as tough as ever for postseason opener

DARLINGTON, S.C. — There is no easing into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and no risk-free, 30-day trial that makes the initial trip into the season-ending 10-race stretch any more soothing.

The 16 drivers who met the press during Playoffs Media Day just a few days before Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 came in with typical pre-postseason “I think we have a good shot at it” optimism, all the while acknowledging the punishing task that greeted them on the very first weekend. Old, rugged Darlington Raceway — a track that’s been around for all but a couple of NASCAR’s 75 years — lived up to that billing Sunday, remaining undefeated.

Kyle Larson emerged as the track’s only true tamer late Sunday evening, earning safe passage to the playoffs’ next round with his first Darlington victory. Several of his competitors for the Cup Series title found out the meaning behind the egg-shaped track’s “Too Tough to Tame” nickname. Some pushed through the adversity to score respectable finishes and minimize the harm, while others did not.

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Sunday’s 500-mile test did not discriminate based on experience or earlier success. Veteran drivers well accustomed to the challenge that Darlington’s annual marathon brings could not steer clear of the pitfalls.

Denny Hamlin threw an otherwise dominant day into the neighboring minnow pond, stopping an extra time on pit road after a wheel felt like it was coming unfastened on Darlington’s rough surface. He led 177 of the 367 laps — most of anyone — and was left to stew on a 25th-place finish.

Kevin Harvick, another 40-something with a proven Darlington record, had smiled for a team photo to commemorate his final start at the South Carolina facility and the final playoff run of his storied Cup Series career. He seemed poised to pen the final chapter of a storybook finish, lunging into contention late before an ill-timed sequence foiled him.

Harvick drove to second place in the final stage and pointed his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to pit lane on Lap 310. Fellow playoff driver Tyler Reddick tried to counter the strategy move and whoa-ed up through Turns 3 and 4, but the pit-road call from the lead came too late, and the trailing Ryan Newman spun in a desperate act of accident avoidance. The caution flag and illuminated pit-road lights flashed just an instant before Harvick crossed the pits’ entry line, and the commitment violation dropped him to 26th in the order.

“Unbelievable,” cracked the No. 4 radio. Harvick ended up 19th at the checkered flag.

Add Martin Truex Jr. to the trouble list of veteran names. The regular-season champ started a lackluster 31st and made his own unscheduled pit stop on Lap 153. He never fully recovered and finished 18th at a track that had been a sweet spot for strong finishes in recent years.

Joey Logano’s title defense began with a test of resilience in a crash with newly minted playoff driver Bubba Wallace, who lost control of his No. 23 Toyota and squeezed the two-time champion’s No. 22 Ford into the outside wall at the end of Stage 1. Logano’s crew made lengthy adjustments to try to repair the toe, and he labored back to finish 12th. Wallace made his own recovery, accepting the blame for the incident as he surged back to place seventh.

Christopher Bell broke out from the pole position and set the early pace, but the new pit crew installed on his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 team stumbled early with a premature drop of the jack. He clobbered the wall after the opening stage and fought to make his damaged car keep up the rest of the way, finishing 23rd.

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In all, 10 drivers in the 16-driver playoff field had some form of glitch, penalty or misfortune. Chalk some of the peril up to Darlington’s treacherous characteristics but also factor in the exacting nature of the playoffs, which demands near-flawless execution from both driver and team. In the Southern 500, that precision is required for nearly four-plus hours on a narrow ribbon of asphalt.

The pathway gets little easier in the middle event of the opening three-race round, Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) at Kansas Speedway. The 1.5-mile track had one of its most memorable and eventful races in its much briefer history in May, making it a stealthier source of potential playoff trouble as the postseason rolls on.

But there’s at least a smidge of collective exhale after Sunday’s playoff opener at Darlington, with one of the schedule’s biggest hurdles cleared — or at least tripped over and kicked out of the way. The place was once compared to venerable Augusta National and described as “a heavenly bit of hell” in the same sweep of a six-column broadsheet by the great Bob Myers of The Charlotte News back in 1977, and it remains an apt depiction.

For drivers who have scraped Darlington’s walls with varying degrees of severity, that hellish ordeal remains a Labor Day tradition and a blunt introduction to the playoffs. For racing purists and the fans who packed Darlington’s grandstands for a third straight Southern 500 sellout, it’s still every bit the promised land.