Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Darlington Will Be Pivotal in Race to Playoffs

The NASCAR Cup Series regular season reached its halfway point this past weekend with a hard-fought battle at Darlington Raceway.

Brad Keselowski scored his first win in a full-field race in three years, likely securing a spot in the 2024 playoffs.

Yet Darlington will prove to be a pivotal race for several other drivers. Once the postseason field is set, this past weekend may play a key role in who reaches the playoffs and who contends for the championship.

See also
After Rebuilding RFK Racing, Brad Keselowski Makes Triumphant Return To Victory Lane

In the first place, Keselowski’s victory shakes up the battle to reach the postseason. Going into Darlington, the No. 6 team was on the playoff bubble, holding the last transfer spot by only four points over Bubba Wallace. Now, Keselowski becomes the eighth driver to win a race in 2024, meaning that half of the playoff field is likely set. For those drivers who have not won a race yet, the pressure to get to victory lane is already building.

One of the playoff contenders who still needs a win is Keselowski’s teammate, Chris Buescher. Buescher and the No. 17 team nearly pulled off back-to-back victories in the last two races and it’s hard to say which loss was more brutal. At Kansas Speedway, Buescher led on the white flag lap but lost a drag race against Kyle Larson back to the finish line by 0.001 seconds.

A week later at Darlington, Buescher made a daring three-wide pass on Keselowski and Tyler Reddick to take the lead with 30 laps to go. It looked like Buescher was going to make up for the missed opportunity at Kansas, only for Reddick to chase him down with 10 laps left.

With the race on the line, Reddick tried to sweep low past Buescher in turns 3 and 4 but could not hold his car on the bottom of the track, sliding into the No. 17 and sandwiching him against the wall. The contact led to flat tires for both drivers, opening the door for Keselowski to steal the win. An angry Buescher confronted Reddick on pit road after the race, though Reddick apologized for the incident and nothing more than hard words were exchanged.  

Although Buescher had a reason to be upset with Reddick, there is little doubt that the circumstances of the last two races fueled his displeasure. If the No. 17 team had won either of those events, Buescher’s playoff future would be in little doubt. Victories in both races would have given him 11 playoff points, as opposed to just having one from a stage win at Kansas. Instead, he is 14th in the playoff grid, 15 points above the cut line.

The silver lining here is that Buescher’s team is gaining speed and following the same path that got them to the postseason last year. However, Buescher’s “Speed’s good, wins are better” post-race comment from Kansas rings a little louder after another tough loss in Darlington.

Not far behind Buescher in points is Chase Briscoe, who scored his first top five of the season at Darlington. It was a needed good run for Briscoe and the No. 14 team, who are now on the bubble in the playoff grid, six points ahead of Wallace for the last spot.

While Briscoe has done a good job this year at avoiding mistakes and bad results, his team has been lacking on speed and stage points most weeks in 2024. Keselowski’s victory makes Briscoe’s path to the playoffs even tougher, especially since his current competition for the postseason includes not only Buescher but past champions like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

However, if Briscoe does get into the playoffs on points, Darlington could be a big reason why. The No. 14 team finished much better than it ran on Sunday, sneaking away with a top five when other playoff hopefuls had things go wrong. The incident with Reddick knocked Buescher back to 30th when the checkered flag dropped, allowing Briscoe to gain 17 points on Buscher.

Logano was on his way to a top-five finish until he sped on pit road while making his last pit stop (a development that the FOX crew inexplicably neglected to mention during the broadcast.) He only managed to climb back to 21st place.

Busch was a non-factor all afternoon and stumbled to a 27th-place finish. He now finds himself 15th on the playoff grid, two points ahead of Briscoe, while Logano is below the cutoff in 18th, 30 points behind the No. 14.

Credit Briscoe and his team for maximizing points in a race where their competitors had a bad day.

Darlington could wind up having implications for several other drivers, even those who are on more sturdy ground for the postseason. Reddick is an obvious example. His win at Talladega Superspeedway puts him in great shape for the playoffs, but there is no doubt that he missed out on more playoff points that a win would have provided. Ty Gibbs had a great run at the Lady in Black, leading 34 laps and running second to Keselowski. Yet Gibbs, who is still searching for his first win in the Cup Series, was catching Keselowski until his progress stalled out with three laps to go. You have to wonder if Reddick or Gibbs might miss having a few extra points when the postseason rolls around.

See also
Up to Speed: Chris Buescher Is on a Familiar Path

Even Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. might come to wish that they had a better day at Darlington. Both drivers got collected in a chain reaction crash on the backstretch on lap 129. The incident sent Blaney to the garage, and Truex’s car was never quite the same after showing speed in the first stage. There’s no doubt that the two of them remember the 2022 regular season, where Blaney edged out Truex for the last playoff spot by only three points. Neither driver has a win yet this season, and the pressure to reach victory lane is only going to build as the summer heats up.

This year, the Cup Series regular season will end when NASCAR returns to Darlington for the Southern 500.

While that race will finalize the playoff field, do not be surprised if Darlington’s spring race ends up as a key event in determining the postseason drivers. Many of the playoff hopefuls experienced big swings in points gained and lost while dancing with the Lady in Black this past weekend. She may have a bigger influence on the postseason than anyone would have predicted.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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Carl D.

All the drivers that finish the season in points positions 17-20 are the “Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda” drivers. Usually the reason they missed the playoffs comes down to one or two bad finishes or missed opportunities.

Bill B

That and having an average finish higher than 16 LOL

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