Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson Fires 1st Shot in NASCAR Playoffs

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

He probably couldn’t keep up with Denny Hamlin, but Hamlin had his own problems. He might not have been able to get by Tyler Reddick had Reddick been able to get by on the final restart. But Kyle Larson put and his team out themselves exactly where they needed to be: in front on the final restart.

And from there, Larson made it look almost easy. Larson and Darlington are made for each other. The Lady in Black demands perfection, Larson delivered it when it counted, running a hairbreadth from the wall, gaining a Darlington Stripe but never making the kind of mistake that would allow Reddick to make a move. Larson raced the track, and for the first time in his career, bested her.

And don’t forget Erik Jones. The defending race winner might be the best in the field when it comes to taming Darlington and he does it almost every time out. He never forgets that he has to race the track first and the competition second, and that paid dividends again. Jones didn’t quite have the speed he did a year ago — his Legacy Motor Club organization has struggled this year as a whole — and he smacked the wall late, but finished a respectable 10th, one of just two non-playoff drivers to crack the top 10.

See also
Kevin Harvick Hit With Closed Pit Road Penalty After Reddick, Newman Collision

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

Darlington has proven to be a great track to kick off the playoffs. It’s a real test of drivers and teams. And the Southern 500 belongs on Labor Day weekend.
The first round is a trio of solid tracks. Kansas Speedway has put on some great shows with the Next Gen car, and the short track at Bristol brings tempers into the equation. 

But beyond Darlington, should the playoff lineup change?

With the current car and playoff format, it should. After a couple of very good races on the Charlotte oval, there have been calls to return to that layout for the fall race, and that’s a great idea, but there needs to be a road course. 

At least some of the tracks should change yearly. Darlington’s historic date should always stand, and Charlotte and Martinsville should always have a place, but beyond that? Rotate the title race every year. Swap in a different road course, move some summer dates to the postseason and some postseason races to the summer. 

Keeping the same tracks year after year reduces the challenge, and eventually gives some drivers an advantage. Why do that? Change it up. Except Darlington. 

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Christopher Bell led the first stint. But trouble reared its head early on. A slow pit stop after the jack dropped on the right side led to Bell being mired in traffic. Racing to regain his track position, Bell smacked the wall, and from there his struggles just got harder. Bell dropped back with damage and that put him in the line of fire later on. He got more damage when Michael McDowell spun and collected Hamlin and Bell. Bell limped home in 23rd.

Regular season champ Martin Truex Jr. had speed early, but a mistake on pit road cost him two laps in the first half. Truex and his team stayed the course and got both laps back. And while Truex wasn’t able to find his early speed again, he finished 18th, several spots higher than he would have if he had stayed trapped a lap down, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Last week’s winner Chris Buescher was just OK early. But he and his team did exactly what they needed to, making the car better all night long. By the final restart, Buescher was sitting in third. He had the fastest car among the leaders in those closing laps, and he protected his tires as Larson and Reddick dueled it out up front. He might have waited a little too long to make his move, because he closed the distance between himself and the leaders in a hurry but wasn’t able to get by Reddick and had to settle for finishing third. A year ago, Buescher would have been thrilled with that result. That he’s disappointed now speaks volumes about how far he and RFK Racing have come.

Active Darlington win leader Danny Hamlin probably should have won Sunday night. He certainly had the best car in the first half, though Reddick was able to run with his boss for a while. But a loose wheel, or at least what Hamlin thought was a loose wheel, forced the No. 11 to make an unscheduled stop under green, and Hamlin wound up trapped a lap down in 25th.

When… was the moment of truth?

One thing you can count on is that Darlington isn’t going to be kind to even the best drivers. She came by the nickname Lady in Black honestly, and to be successful here, drivers race one thing and one thing only — the racetrack. 

All night long, drivers slapped the wall trying to get everything they could, and with the fragility of the Next Gen in exactly that situation, a lot of good cars had to settle for less than their best finishes.

Tough tracks also put the pressure on pit crews, and any mistake is magnified. That was true for Bell, and also Truex and Hamlin, who each lost ground after a wheel was left loose. Both drivers fell a lap down and while Truex was able to get a wave-around and a free pass, but Hamlin was unable to recover as the race stayed under green for most of the night, not bringing the cautions they needed to get their laps back.

Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez put an exclamation point on Darlington’s unforgiving nature when Bowman moved to block Suarez with under 50 to go. Suarez put his bumper to Bowman’s and both went spinning, sending Suarez to the garage and Bowman to pit road.

But this is exactly what NASCAR needs — tracks that force teams to race the track and drivers to be perfect for 500 long miles. 

See also
'Just a Bad Day' - Joe Gibbs Racing Starts Playoff Bid with Struggles

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

As the Cup Series rolls west to Kansas Speedway, the first elimination is still two weeks away. So, should the drivers currently below the cut line worry?

Yes and no. It’s a lot easier to lose points than to get them back. Look at the regular season, when one bad race can take weeks to make up for and missing a couple of races puts a playoff bid in jeopardy. Now, drivers don’t have weeks to make up for an off-night; they have maybe a race or two.

The good news is that a win can make the problems go away. For a driver like Wallace, who won the fall race at Kansas last year and sits just one point below the cut, that’s a major opportunity, But for McDowell, whose team hasn’t had winning speed on the big ovals this year, it’s a tougher row to hoe.

And a great night at Darlington isn’t a guarantee either. A bad day at Kansas can drop a driver to the danger zone as well. Nobody’s fate is sealed yet

How… many non-playoff winners will we see this year?

Last year saw the opening round of the playoffs swept by drivers outside of the title hunt. While that’s off the table for this year, there is a handful of drivers who could spoil the show and take the playoff points away from the contenders. 

Headlining the group is Chase Elliott, who missed the cut after missing several races due to injury and a suspension. His teammate, Bowman, is also looking to get to victory lane. 

Don’t count out Suarez, AJ Allmendinger or Ty Gibbs out, either. Both Suarez and Allmendinger are at their best on road courses, and Charlotte’s infield course could play into either’s hands.

The season is hardly over for the drivers who missed the playoffs. It would be no surprise to see at least one of them play the spoiler before the year is out.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Hamlin didn’t have a loose wheel, his team told him so. I hope that stays in his head. If it comes down to Hamlin and Larson in the last race, Rick and Jeff will remind Kyle that Hamlin doesn’t play fair and Larson is the better wheelman.

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