Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington

What happened?

Denny Hamlin won the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington on Sunday night (Sept. 5) after narrowly holding off Kyle Larson in the final corner.

Larson, Ross Chastain, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Ryan Blaney grabbed the early lead for 14 laps until Kurt Busch got around him. Just after Busch took the lead, Alex Bowman cut a tire and got into the wall. William Byron was collected on his way by, just clipping Bowman’s left rear.

The race restarted at lap 20 and ran until the competition caution just after lap 25, with Busch holding the lead up to the caution. Harvick took the top spot on pit road after a quick stop. On the first lap after the restart, Michael McDowell got loose in turn two, hitting the outside wall and then turning back down and slamming the inside wall to end his night.

Harvick held the lead on the restart at lap 36 until lap 48, when another caution hit. This time it was the Rick Ware Racing crew, bringing out a team caution for the second straight race. James Davison and Cody Ware were involved.

Hamlin took over first on pit road during that caution and controlled the rest of the first stage. There was a green flag pit cycle midway through the run, with everything going smoothly and Hamlin getting back to the front for his sixth stage win of the year.

Larson prevailed on the stage two restart, getting his first lead on the night at lap 122. Just a few laps later, Kyle Busch’s race ended after contact with Austin Dillon exiting turn two. Busch didn’t blame Dillon for the incident.

Larson continued to pace the field during the next portion of the race until green flag pit stops. Christopher Bell was the only driver trying to stretch it and he caught a debris caution at the perfect time, trapping all but five cars one lap down. Joey Logano in sixth was the free pass and a handful of other playoff drivers were forced to take the wave around. The only downside for Bell was that he hit the debris and was forced to make an extended stop for repairs.

Out front, Larson stayed in the lead as green flag stops again hit with around 35 laps to go in stage two. Just after pit stops, Byron hit the outside wall hard due to a flat tire. He finished 34th after the wreck.

On the restart with 25 to go in the stage, Larson held off Hamlin and Bell for a comfortable stage win, his 13th of the year.

The final stage was a battle of differing strategies. Larson led the early part of the run before green flag stops began with just under 100 to go. Hamlin, Truex, Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski stayed out, opting for a two-stop strategy versus everyone else’s three-stop strategy.

Hamlin led until he pitted with just under 90 to go, giving the lead back to Larson. Larson and Chastain’s group pitted for a second time with just under 70 to go, with Chastain cycling out ahead of Larson after pitting one lap earlier.

The strategies ultimately proved effective for Hamlin and Co., as a caution came before they made their second pit stop. Blaney spun on his own after having brake issues, bringing out 10th caution of the night.

The next restart with 42 to go took out another playoff contender. This time it was Chase Elliott, as he was caught on the outside of Bell and Bubba Wallace and pinched into the wall. He cut a tire and slammed into the wall in the next corner with 41 to go.

The final restart of the night with 36 to go saw Hamlin pull out ahead of Larson and Chastain. The three drivers stayed within one second of each other for most of the run. Larson got close a few times, but was unable to make a move. He rode the wall for what felt like all of the final 15 laps, giving it all he had before a last-ditch “video game” effort in the final corner.

Hamlin scored his first victory of the season, his fourth win at Darlington and the 45th of his career.

Who stood out?

Hamlin got the monkey off his back with his first win of the season at the perfect moment. All year it seemed like Hamlin was destined to go winless. He had win after win slip through his fingertips early in the season, then was up-and-down all summer long. At Darlington, the No. 11 was right back to early season form. Larson was a tick better for most of the race, but Hamlin turned it on when he needed to. The strategy call by Chris Gabehart and the timely caution didn’t hurt, either.

The early playoff races are all about padding points for Hamlin. He’s now headed to two of his better tracks — Richmond and Bristol — with nothing to lose and everything to gain. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins one or even both of those races to enter the Round of 12 on fire. If you remember, Hamlin led 207 of 400 laps at Richmond in April before surrendering the lead on the final restart. All signs are pointing up for this driver and team.

Larson came up short, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He left it all out there in the final corner — just listen and watch this attempt:

The No. 5 paced the field for a race-high 156 laps tonight, and Larson is clearly in playoff form. He’s got a comfortable margin, so even though he isn’t technically locked into the Round of 12 just yet, Larson can afford to take chances like that over the next two weeks. He struggled at Richmond in April, finishing 18th. We’ll see what Yung Money has for an encore next weekend.

Harvick showed more speed than he has all season at Darlington. The No. 4 grabbed the lead in the first stage, something we haven’t really seen much of in 2021. Harvick had a few hiccups throughout the night, including a loose wheel in the final stage, but recovered for a much-needed top five. He was the 16th seed in the postseason with just two playoff points, and now he’s got a nice 20-point cushion on the bubble. The round is far from finished, but Harvick has to be feeling good entering Richmond.

Who fell flat?

Kyle Busch’s playoff run got off to an uninspiring start at Darlington — on and off the track. The race started off slow, as the No. 18 was hovering outside the top-10 for much of the first stage. Then, early in stage two, Busch’s day ended after contact with Dillon sent him into the wall. Even if he didn’t get into the wreck, Busch had no confidence in his car to compete. He also dangerously sped into the garage after the wreck.

The reckless driving into the garage was uncalled for, and he’s lucky everyone got out of the way. The post-race interview — while extremely entertaining for the viewer — has to be concerning for the team. Sure, it could be a wake-up call that they need to go win a title. But this seemed more like dejection rather than trying to rally the troops. He’s narrowly outside the playoff picture with two of his best tracks coming up, so it’s not time to panic just yet. Talk to me next week, though.

Byron found trouble early and often, and now enters the two most important races of his young career. This has been a career year for the 23-year-old, and now it’s time to make sure it doesn’t end in total disappointment. Byron is outside the playoff bubble after being involved in two separate wrecks at Darlington. Suddenly, races at Richmond and Bristol are the most important in his life (so far). Being eliminated in the first round after such a great year — where Hendrick has dominated — would be a colossal failure. I’m still confident that the No. 24 makes the Round of 12, but this is make or break time.

Once again, execution killed Elliott and his team on Sunday. This has been an issue for the No. 9 all season — sloppy mental errors and mistakes leading to bigger problems. First it was driving into a tire on pit road, sending him to the back. After fighting his way back to the front, Elliott missed pit road under green and cost himself more spots. Then, he missed pit road under caution and was forced to start in the middle of the pack before cutting a tire and crashing out. It wasn’t exactly the best start to a title defending run, and it’ll now be a battle just to reach the Round of 12.

What did this race prove?

No one is safe once the playoffs start. For the final 10 races, everyone expects the 16 playoff participants to elevate to another level. Instead, Darlington exposed many of them after ugly incidents. Kyle Busch, Bowman, Byron, Elliott, Blaney, Harvick, Bell, Truex, McDowell all had key errors, and it cost most of them good finishes (Harvick and Truex being the exceptions). That’s half the field, for those counting at home. Two short tracks are on the schedule to close the Round of 16, meaning there will be plenty more beating and banging as the stakes rise. All 16 drivers still have a realistic shot at making the next round on points — let’s see who can avoid trouble to stay alive.

Drivers outside the playoff picture will play a role in these final 10 races. All the wrecks involving playoff drivers gave non-playoff contenders a chance to shine. Chastain was the leader among that group — he had a real chance to win and was a top-five car throughout the entire race. Seeing the No. 42 look that good on a tough track like Darlington makes me believe Chastain could be good almost anywhere over these next nine weeks.

Beyond Chastain, seven other non-playoff drivers finished in the top 15 —  Buescher, Dillon, Cole Custer, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman and Corey LaJoie. LaJoie was perhaps the most impressive, running around the top 10 all night with an underfunded Spire Motorsports car. I wouldn’t expect these names to be challenging for wins outside of Talladega, but they took advantage of their opportunities at Darlington.

Paint scheme of the race

Fresh off his first career top-10 finish at Daytona, Josh Bilicki brought some heat with his Darlington scheme. It wasn’t the traditional throwback weekend, though we did have a few teams still rocking with the past. Bilicki’s No. 52 honored Rusty Wallace’s iconic Miller Genuine Draft scheme, and it was as beautiful as you’d expect:

Better than last time?

Last year, the playoff opener was full of drama after it was largely dominated by Truex and Elliott. It came down to those two on the final run, and they collided when Truex unsuccessfully tried to clear Elliott for the lead. Both suffered too much damage to hold on, and third-place Harvick cruised by for the win. It was a solid race with a memorable finish, and it also showed Elliott’s potential for his impending championship run.

This year, the playoff opener was full of carnage as many championship contenders wrecked throughout the night. Hamlin and Larson led the majority of the race. Behind them, there were all sorts of issues for nearly every playoff driver. The finish was even more memorable than 2020’s, with Larson’s video game move to go for the win. Give me the 2021 race over last year’s event.

Playoff picture

Hamlin is the first driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 12 after his win. Larson (+80) is nearly clinched — he’ll almost certainly be clinched entering the cutoff race at Bristol regardless of if he wins at Richmond. Truex (+36), Kurt Busch (+26), Blaney (+22), Logano (+21) and Harvick (+20) all built decent cushions. Around the bubble, Keselowski (+12), Bell (+5), Elliott (+4) and Almirola (+3) are all sweating. Reddick and Bowman are tied for the 12th and final spot, with Kyle Busch (-2), Byron (-9) and McDowell (-20) still in the picture.

Here’s a look at the full standings and the playoff standings:


What’s next?

The Round of 16 continues next week at Richmond Raceway. Richmond is the first of three short tracks in the playoffs, with Bristol and Martinsville still to come. The Federated Auto Parts 400 will go green on Saturday (Sept. 11) at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

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Nobody in the press even asked about the biggest story of the week? That Denny was fooling around on Jordan Fish with that adult entertainer? Are they now broken up? Was she at the race? What about that Fox woman?


Story of the week? As long as it’s not “criminal activity” what’s the big deal? Besides, this is a racing forum not a gossip column.

Carl D.

Drama that should have stayed private. None of our business.

Bill B

It always amazes me how the top seeded playoff guys find ways to screw up by being overly aggressive in the early rounds when all they really need to do is get consistent finishes. Well it makes things interesting for we fans to watch. Darlington is great place to start off the playoffs, it allows drivers to screw up if they get greedy and forget where they are.

Carl D.

Agreed. I don’t remember an opening playoff race being so calamitous to so many playoff teams.

Fed Up

Nice try at covering for Kryle, but the 3 did NOT get into the 18. Listen to his comments to NBC that the 3 did nothing wrong. Also did you even look at the replay??

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