Famed for her harrowing ways, Darlington Raceway’s legendary Lady in Black lived up to her infamous moniker this weekend as many playoff heavyweights fell victim to misfortune in Sunday’s Southern 500.
Whether by mishap or malfunction, the first game of the Cup playoffs went down the drain for some of the biggest names in the sport and, in turn, completely shook up the standings.
In a single race, everything changed. For drivers like Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, the cushion of points earned in the regular season quickly became a lifeline that kept them afloat.
Other drivers like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin came very close to securing a bye to the next round, but fell short.
With all the ways Darlington cast a shadow of disappointment over these playoff contenders, it’s essential to understand what went wrong, as each instance has implications that could haunt these drivers for the rest of the first round.
* Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson was the first big name to face adversity. Early engine problems forced Larson to make multiple green-flag stops midway through stage one. His team quickly resolved the issue, but with green-flag conditions all around him, Larson returned to the track three laps later. To the credit of Larson and the No. 5 team, they turned a seemingly catastrophic moment into a respectable day as they came home 12th, ahead of nine other playoff drivers.
* Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott wasn’t so lucky. With just two laps to go in the first stage, Elliott lost control going into the corner and spun out. As his car slid back onto the track, he picked up fellow playoff driver Chase Briscoe. As his Chevy limped through the aftermath, driving bent over from suspension damage, it was clear that Elliott was in big trouble. Even with the 10-minute Damaged Vehicle Policy extended clock for the playoffs, Elliott couldn’t save himself.
He dropped out of the race and went home with one last place finish, effectively erasing the lead he had gained through his impressive stash of playoff points amassed during the regular season. Still 14 points above the cutoff line, Elliott remains the favorite for the championship in terms of betting odds. That said, the margin of error is a fraction of what it used to be in the future. One more slip, whether it’s his doing, someone else’s or a mechanical problem, could see the regular-season champion face playoff elimination much sooner than everyone expected.
* As for Briscoe, he managed to finish the race, but his car was never the same. He finished his playoff debut in 27th place and heads to Kansas 10 points behind the all-important 12th in the standings.
* While Elliott may have been the biggest surprise of the entire drama, Kyle Busch was easily the biggest heartbreak. After teammate Martin Truex Jr. dropped out of the lead due to water pump problems, Busch seemed poised to start the playoffs with a spectacular victory. While warming up for the final restart with only about 25 laps to go, he gasped when the car’s camera showed an ugly sight of smoke beginning to rise from Busch’s car.
Within moments, he went from hero to zero as his chances of winning were wiped out with his engine, leaving him to finish a heartbreaking 30th place. What could have been a ticket to the Round of 12 will turn out to be a major setback for Busch, who needs all the momentum he can get as he approaches his long-awaited free agency this offseason.
* Busch wasn’t the only driver to see his playoff hopes hit by mechanical failure. Kevin Harvick had a quality run in the top 10 before his car caught fire on lap 277. After the race, Harvick shared his animosity for the circumstances surrounding his early retirement that night.
“I’m sure it’s just shoddy parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times,” Harvick said. “They haven’t fixed anything. It’s like the safety stuff. The car started on fire and as it burned, flames started coming out of the dashboard.”
With NASCAR’s new spec regulations, Harvick’s misfortune can be described as growing pains, to say the least. However, Harvick has every right to be upset considering he had to deal with this problem in the playoffs. His 33rd-place finish relegated him to last place in the playoff standings, 13 points below the cutoff line.
* Rounding out the day of disappointments was Trackhouse Racing in its playoff debut. Daniel Suarez and the No. 99 team exited the carrier behind the eight ball as they failed pre-race inspection three times. After serving a passing penalty to start the race, Suárez worked his way back to the lead lap and then into the top 10 shortly after. Despite overcoming all of this, Suárez was still unable to catch a break as a speeding penalty on pit road on lap 281 caught him a lap down. Without enough time to recover, Suarez came home in 18th place.
* Ross Chastain and the rest of Trackhouse didn’t fare any better either. After running in the top five, Chastain was forced to make several stops under green. What he initially thought was a loose wheel turned out to be damaged drive pins. To make his night even more frustrating, the damage seemed to come from the rubble, leaving him helpless in the midst of his own death. He came home in 20th place, just 15 points above the cut line.
With 8 of the 16 playoff drivers finishing 15the Or worse, Sunday’s playoff opener was far from typical. This is the time of year when the best talents in the sport are expected to go all out and put on a show.
Unfortunately, the Lady in Black had other plans on Sunday and left many drivers with a bad taste heading into the second race of this weekend’s playoffs at Kansas Speedway.
As much as drivers may not like it, things are just getting started for fans. The tighter the playoff picture, the more exciting it can become, and with so much happening in one race, there’s no telling what’s next.
Love it or hate it, playoff racing is ruthless, stressful, and sometimes heartbreaking. It creates a level of suspense and drama found only in sports, and keeps fans coming back every week to watch the story unfold.
The Darlington Southern 500 was just the first chapter in a 10-part series that will finally crown the champion at the end of the season in Phoenix.
If last Sunday night was any indication, this is shaping up to be one crazy tiebreaker, one where no one is safe and anyone can emerge victorious.