The saying “it isn’t over until it’s over” was never more evident than Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington. The driver who dominated the race finished 22nd, while top seed Kevin Harvick emerged to win despite not having the best car all night.
Here are the grades for the 16 NASCAR Cup Playoff drivers after Darlington.
1 Kevin Harvick: 2057 Grade: A-. Harvick actually struggled during part of the 500 miles Sunday night. At one point he short pitted with the team taking massive swings at the Ford. In the closing laps however, he found himself in third 4-5 seconds behind the top two. Thanks to a dust up between Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott with 15 laps to go, Harvick was able to steal the win and a guaranteed spot in the next round. While the next two races are sort of “bye” rounds for the Stewart-Haas Racing team, they will need to find a bit more consistency if they hope to continue.
2 Denny Hamlin: 2047 Grade: D. Hamlin has been a constant thorn in Harvick’s side all season. With three Darlington wins including the double header victory in May, Hamlin came in as one of the favorites Sunday night. Hamlin did finish fourth in the Stage 1 and second in Stage 2 and led a few laps, but a miscue during a round of green flag pit stops saw him miss the pit entrance and forced him to go around again. He never recovered and finished 13th. Pit road mistakes have doomed Hamlin throughout his career, and they could derail his title hopes if that trend continues.
3 Brad Keselowski: 2029. Grade C. Keselowski was never a threat Sunday night. He scraped the wall during the first stage and went a lap down at one point. He missed out on any stage points but did manage to recover and finished just outside the top 10 in 11th. He was down, but showed he certainly isn’t out heading to Richmond.
4 Joey Logano: 2029 Grade: B. Logano led the way for Team Penske. He suffered damage on a late restart and picked up some points with a seventh-place finish in Stage 1 and on and up and down night rallied to finish third.
5 Chase Elliott: 2020 Grade A. Elliott may not have had the finish he earned but was very competitive at a track he has struggled at in the past. He led the second most laps on the night, 114, finished third in Stage 1, and was leading in the closing laps. A mistake by Truex however doomed them both leaving Elliott with a 20th place finish. If he is as competitive at Richmond as he was Sunday at Darlington, the rest of the field should be put on notice.
6 Martin Truex Jr.: 2014. Grade A-. For most of the race Truex was putting on a clinic, much to the surprise of many. He led a race high 196 laps and swept both Stages. His costly mistake with just a few laps to go however, sent him to pit road under green with a tire issue and left him with a 22nd place finish. If he can put together another run like he did Sunday night, Truex could be the driver to beat.
7 Ryan Blaney: 2013. Grade F. Blaney had been put into a deep hole even before the green flag fell Sunday. His car failed pre-race inspection sending Blaney to the rear of the field, and without his crew chief for the race. Along with that there was a 10-point deduction for both driver and owner. The team said the extra ballast that was found was left there unintentionally. Whether that’s true or not could be open for some debate. Regardless, Blaney struggled all race long managing only a 24th place finish. You would think a team like Penske would have all the checkmarks and not make such a mistake as they did Sunday, if indeed that was the case.
8 Alex Bowman: 2009. Grade A-. Bowman could be a surprise contender who makes it deeper in the playoffs than anyone expected. Sunday, he avoided trouble, scored points in both Stages and quietly finished 6th.
9 William Byron: 2007. Grade: B. Byron did earn stage points in Stage 1, but never really contended for the win. Thanks to his veteran crew chief however, he did make a late run to finish fifth. If the driver can match his crew chief’s prowess, Byron could be a driver to watch moving forward.
10 Austin Dillon: 2005. Grade A. Raise your hand if you thought prior to Sunday night that Dillon would nearly win the Southern 500. Yeah, me neither. Dillon had to start at the rear of the field after his crew discovered the tires were put on wrong prior to the start. He rallied and nearly got by Harvick at the checkered flag. He did score stage points in Stage 2 and came away with his best career Darlington finish. The question now will be can he show that same kind of strength moving forward.
11 Cole Custer: 2005. Grade C. Custer started 14th, had a pit road speeding penalty, and missed out on points in both stages. He did manage to finish 12th but will need to step up his game and avoid mistakes moving forward.
12 Aric Almirola: 2005. Grade C. Almirola did what he has done all season long, finishing quietly inside the top 10. However, he missed out on stage points, and was never in contention for the win. Consistency is nice, but in the playoffs he will need more.
13 Clint Bowyer: 2004. Grade C. Bowyer struggled all race long, cursing like a sailor and manhandling his car for 500 miles. He did score stage points in Stage 2 and managed a 10th place run, better than what he had shown almost all race long.
14 Kyle Busch: 2003. Grade B. There is no doubt the defending series champ needs a win. At times Sunday night he looked like he could finally do that. He led 37 laps and won points in both Stages. He finished 7th and if he can put a race together, it will be no surprise to anyone when he wins.
15 Kurt Busch: 2001. Grade B. Kurt finished just behind his brother in 8th. Thanks in large part to pit strategy, the elder Busch was in contention much of the race, led 10 laps, and grabbed points in both stages. Is he the real deal? Only time will tell.
16 Matt DiBenedetto.: 2000. Grade F. Sure, it’s a big deal to make the playoffs, and DiBenedetto is a perfect example of that. However, making it in is only part of it. DiBenedetto was never a factor Sunday night missing out on any stage points and coming home 21st. Another race like that and DiBenedetto will soon be on the outside looking in.