There was a lot to unpack from the Southern 500 on Sunday at Darlington Raceway not only from a crown jewel standpoint but also as the first race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Kyle Larson won what is historically the third biggest race of the season, now having won two of the four Cup Series crown jewels but also advancing to the Round of 12 in the process. It’s an enviable position for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 because their peers in the Round of 16 remain under immense pressure based on what happened in South Carolina
Already facing a razor thin margin of error, underdogs faltered but so too did a pair of early championship favorites saved only by the cushion of the regular season successes.
The playoffs are underway and things only gets more dramatic from here.
Larson wins crown jewel
It’s easy to forget now that it’s a playoff race but the Southern 500 is still one of the biggest NASCAR races of the year and Larson is starting to win nationally recognized crown jewels in bunches.
And it’s not just NASCAR, as Larson won his second Knoxville Nationals last month in addition to victories in the Coca-Cola 600, Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, Kings Royal and Prairie Dirt Classic. He’s set to tackle his first Indianapolis 500 next year too.
So, what was first and foremost in his mind upon crossing the finish line — advancing in the playoffs or winning another major?
“Had we not won, I would have still felt really good about our chances to win another championship,” Larson said. “I’m happy to win at a place where we’ve been close at a couple of times and wanted to win for a long time.”
So this is one that he’s had circled?
“Definitely,” Larson said. “The big ones only happen once a year and I’ve left here over the years bummed out or sad that I had a good shot to win and it didn’t work out and I felt that way at times tonight but things were able to work out.
“This is one of the big three or four races of our season. I don’t have a Daytona 500 or Brickyard 400, which is coming back next year, and I want to win the big ones but winning at this level feels good.”
Hamlin lets one get away
This was a layup, to use vernacular that Denny Hamlin would appreciate, winning both stages from the outside pole and ending up with just moral victories to show for it. He led a race high 177 (of 367) laps but reported a loose wheel shortly after a pit stop on Lap 274.
It forced Hamlin to take the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 down pit road, where crew chief Chris Gabehart never found anything that would have obviously generated the vibration. The entire ordeal resulted in them losing a lap and being in position to get collected in a multicar crash on Lap 331.
He finished 25th.
“It’s really tough to tell,” Hamlin said of what generated his vibration. “It looked like the left rear was still tightening as we were gone. It’s close enough to where it didn’t matter. … I had to bring it in and just it turned the day upside down.”
From a championship standpoint, scoring two stages wins and the 20 points that come with it, virtually offset the damage in the big picture … not that he cared in that moment.
“All the work you put in, the stages, the regular season, it all matters,” Hamlin said. “I don’t know what the points are, I really don’t care. I just hate losing a race that we definitely should have won.”
Harvick will want one back
Still seeking his first win of the season, in his final Cup Series season, Kevin Harvick may have lost his best chance to win and build on a title run over what amounted to incredible misfortune.
Harvick had closed on Tyler Reddick for the lead with just under 60 laps remaining when crew chief Rodney Childers called him down pit road to undercut, or short pit, the leader in a usually successful bid for track position.
The one lap on fresher tires generally allows the undercutting team to leapfrog over the leader who pits on the next lap.
However, just as Harvick crossed the commitment line, Ryan Newman spun in Turn 4 after Reddick suddenly slowed in what looked like a reactive effort to join Harvick on pit road. At this point, Harvick had two options — drive at pit road speed and lose several positions or complete a stop and incur a penalty for pitting after pit road was closed by the caution.
Childers said after the race that spotter Tim Fedewa believed they had successfully beat the caution down pit road and it contributed to the real-time decision to take fuel and tires.
“It all happened because (Reddick) tried to do something he shouldn’t have,” Childers said, referring to crew chief Billy Scott potentially calling Reddick down pit road to offset the undercut. “I’ve been in Billy’s shoes and trying to not lose the race.
“But when you’re in that position, you have to run one more lap and you can’t just stop in the middle of the race track, but I also see the reasoning behind it and it’s all part of racing.”
Reddick also confirmed that argument after the race.
“I was trying to make it to pit road, I missed it and I kind of took back off,” Reddick said. “And unfortunately, I don’t think Ryan [Newman] had anywhere to go, and yeah, he spun out.”
Harvick finished 19th and leaves South Carolina two points beneath the cutline.
There are two races remaining in the Round of 16 at Kansas and Bristol. The bottom four winless drivers in the standings will be eliminated from contention while the remaining 12 will have their points again reset before the next three race round.
Kyle Larson Win, advanced
William Byron +45
Tyler Reddick +30
Chris Buescher +27
Denny Hamlin +27
Martin Truex +25
Kyle Busch +20
Brad Keselowski +18
Ryan Blaney +16
Ross Chastain +13
Joey Logano +3
Christopher Bell +1
Bubba Wallace -1
Kevin Harvick -2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -4
Michael McDowell -19
Points stay tight
With the exception of Michael McDowell, who largely had a forgettable night with a regrettable finish after crashing out on Lap 331, no one really put themselves in a position to fall out of this championship hunt.
First, McDowell said the crash was secondary to their lack of performance on the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team.
“We didn’t have the speed tonight and just missed it,” McDowell said. “We had one set of tires there and just got really far off. It kind of spiraled from there. We hit pit road when the caution came out, that’s never good, and sped on pit road. It all came apart.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. lost a lap early due to a pit road speeding penalty as well but recovered to a 16th place night to kind of maintain right in the middle of the playoff mix.
It was kind of a similar story for Bubba Wallace who recovered from a slow pit stop and a crash he triggered with Joey Logano that cost them both track position at the end of the first stage.
It was an incident he immediately took responsibility for, asking for his team to send an apology over to Logano for, and he still felt that way after the race.
“I’ve got to be better,” Wallace said. “I appreciate the team for sticking behind me through all of the mistakes that I caused them. They didn’t let us down and got us back to a top-10 finish.”
He finished seventh, which was good to advance from eight points above the cutline to just one out.
Ross Chastain spent the early stages of the race a lap down after overshooting the pit box during his first stop but rallied all the way to a fifth-place finish. He went from four above the cutline to 14.
“Six months ago, or a year ago, I would have been freaking out,” Chastain said. “I’ve gotten to a spot where I can just roll with it because it’s already happened.
“Like, I can’t change it or change the past and I can’t change the future. Like if I try to drive in harder to the next corner, it’s not going to fix it so. We just lived through the moment. It’s not pleasant by any means, but we got through it, got the free pass and we were never in jeopardy, even after going a lap down.”
Martin Truex Jr. finished 18th after spending most of the race a lap down due to a loose left rear that had him two points down. Truex entered the playoffs as the top seeded driver and went from 34 above the cutline to 25, a reflection of just how much tighter everything got on Sunday night.
A bad block
Daniel Suarez and Alex Bowman both called each other ‘dumb’ in the aftermath of a blocking sequence gone terribly wrong.
The incident occurred with 49 laps to go in the Southern 500 when Suarez dove under Bowman but got blocked by the Hendrick No. 48. Suarez darted up the track in response but Bowman seemingly blocked high too.
The resulting crash collected Harrison Burton, whom had nowhere to go but right into Suarez.
“I had a run on him,” Suarez said. “I went to the inside and after that, he blocked me pretty low. I had to lift a little bit to not wreck him and put him into the inside wall.
“We’re both Chevy partners, so I didn’t want to do that to him. But then I went high and he blocked me again. You can block once, but you can’t block twice like that. We’ve been racing here three and a half hours and to wreck with 40 laps to go, it’s a little bit dumb. Just have to be smart.”
Bowman thought it was ‘dumb’ that the Trackhouse No. 99 never lifted.
“Obviously, it didn’t work out,” Bowman said. “He chose not to lift and to crash us. Every time I race (Suarez), he does something dumb, whether it’s his crew chief flipping me off on the way to the airport or any time I’m around him, he blocks me really aggressively.”
That crew chief, Travis Mack, took exception to that accusation as well.
Bowman would later concede it was a bad block.
And Suarez was resolute in his frustration.
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.