Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: Last 6 Champions Set Tone With Strong Southern 500 Performances

Did You Notice?: The first race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is in the books, and Kyle Larson emerged with his first Southern 500 victory after almost a decade of near-misses in the prestigious event.

Darlington Raceway is one of the most unique and difficult tracks on the Cup circuit, and winning a grueling, 500-mile endurance race at The Lady in Black is no small feat. The best teams and drivers in the garage have shown up to contend for the win, and since 2017, the eventual series champion has always put their name on notice when Labor Day weekend rolls around.

The caveat is that the Cup Series championship and the Southern 500 haven’t been won in the same season since Kevin Harvick accomplished the feat in 2014 (in fact, Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Jimmie Johnson in 2006 are the only other drivers to do the same this century).

But while the eventual champion hasn’t necessarily had the best of luck in winning the Southern 500 in the past 6-7 years, the champion has always showed up with a car that is well capable of winning.

For instance:

  • Four of the last six champions scored a top-five finish in the Southern 500, while five of the six scored a top 10.
  • Five of the six led at least 60 laps in the Southern 500, while three of the six led over 100 laps.
  • All six champions had an average running position (ARP) of seventh or better in the Southern 500, while five of the six had an ARP of fifth or better.
YearChampionS500 StartFinishFastest LapsLaps LedARP
2017Martin Truex Jr.2846762
2018Joey Logano8213185
2019Kyle Busch333431185
2020Chase Elliott120421145
2021Kyle Larson62861563
2022Joey Logano1425647

In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. started second in the Southern 500 and established himself as a key player from the get-go. He swept the first two stages and was battling Denny Hamlin for the win in the final stage. Hamlin was on a two-stop strategy in the final stage, while Truex was trying to hang onto the lead with a one-stop strategy.

The climax of the battle came with three laps to go, as Hamlin sailed past Truex to take the lead and the win. Truex had a flat tire shortly after and pitted, finishing eighth.

In 2018, Joey Logano started eighth and had found himself in the top five for much of the night. Larson was dominant driver of the race and had led 284 of the 367 laps, but the final round of pit stops under caution put Brad Keselowski in the lead and Logano in second with 22 laps to go. Logano tried to chase down Keselowski to no avail in the closing laps.

In 2019, Kyle Busch started 33rd and immediately worked his way toward the front of the field. He won stage two and led 118 consecutive laps in the middle of the race before losing the lead on pit road to Larson and Erik Jones under the final caution with 90 laps to go.

Busch spent the final green-flag run stalking Jones’ car in second, but he was unable to get by. Busch then hit the wall on the final lap and limped his car home to finish third.

In 2020, Chase Elliott started on the pole via metric qualifying and led the first 71 laps. He established himself as one the best cars alongside Truex, and as the laps ticked down, the race was looking to be a mano-a-mano battle between the two.

With Elliott in front, Truex attempted a pass on the No. 9 car with 15 laps remaining. Truex wasn’t clear, and the two made contact in the turn 1 wall. Truex had to pit with a flat tire, while Elliott’s car was crippled with damage and ultimately faded back to 20th. Harvick, the regular-season champion in third, took advantage of the situation to win.

In 2021, Larson showed up to Darlington with arguably the fastest car, just as he had done all season. He made his way to the front by the end of stage one, and the 2021 edition of the Southern 500 proved to be a race-long battle between Larson and Hamlin.

Larson led 156 laps and was the fastest car on the track for 86 circuits, but Hamlin was able to jump ahead during a pit stop cycle with 69 laps to go. Larson spent the rest of the race chasing the No. 11, and a Hail Mary in the final set of turns was unsuccessful.

In 2022, Logano swept the poles at Darlington. He won the pole and the race at Darlington in May, and he picked up right where he left off by leading 64 of the first 65 laps. A win was not in the cards, however, and Logano soldiered home to end the playoff opener in fourth.

In 2023,

Larson, Tyler Reddick and Hamlin had the fastest cars in the field.

Larson led the final 55 laps of the event en route to his 22nd career Cup Series victory. Reddick led the field with an ARP of 3 and finished second after leading 90 laps. Hamlin swept the first two stages and led a race-high 177 laps until a loose wheel on lap 270 took him off the lead lap and out of contention.

In last Sunday’s (Sept. 3) playoff opener, here’s how the 16 championship hopefuls stacked up.

DriverStartFinishFastest LapsLaps LedARP
Kyle Larson18130554
Tyler Reddick3227903
Chris Buescher83607
William Byron2342209
Ross Chastain27511018
Brad Keselowski56909
Bubba Wallace1975012
Ryan Blaney491010
Kyle Busch11115015
Joey Logano6121015
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.25163026
Martin Truex Jr.31188022
Kevin Harvick7191318
Christopher Bell123214016
Denny Hamlin225471778
Michael McDowell93210026

Will the trend continue by having one of the Southern 500 frontrunners win it all at Phoenix Raceway this November? Or will a driver that had a rough night in South Carolina end the streak in nine weeks’ time?

Only one way to find out.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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