The track Too Tough to Tame challenges NASCAR’s best as the Playoffs begin at Darlington

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - MAY 14: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #45 Forward Together Toyota, and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Throwback Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 14, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Making the Playoffs is just the first step towards being crowned Champion in NASCAR. Sunday evening’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will show the sixteen postseason drivers that the challenge only gets greater in the final ten races.

Perhaps no track has a better claim as the toughest one of all than the 1.366-mile oval in Darlington, South Carolina, though. Known as The Track Too Tough to Tame, the Southern 500 is an endurance test that challenges cars as night falls to change the handling and drivers as the setting sun blocks their view of the narrow high line.

Darlington is the first race in the Round of 16, followed by Kansas and Bristol, after which four drivers will be eliminated. A first-round win, which automatically locks the winner into the next round, saves a lot of worry and lets a driver and team focus on the next round.

Betting Odds via BetMGM
+500 – Martin Truex
+525 – Kyle Larson
+750 – William Byron
+800 – Denny Hamlin
+1100 – Ross Chastain
+1100 – Kyle Busch
+1100 – Christopher Bell
+1400 – Tyler Reddick
+1500 – Kevin Harvick
+1600 – Chase Elliott

History suggests that Denny Hamlin will do just that. He’s won four times at Darlington, most recently in 2021, the most of any active driver.

Besides Darlington trophies, one thing Hamlin’s not short of is confidence.

“It’s always my year,” Hamlin said during Playoff media day in Charlotte.

Despite that, he’s never actually managed to win a championship. He feels better heading into the Playoffs this year, though, he said.

“It’s just a race and you just never know what can happen in a race,” Hamlin pointed out. “You just hope to have a shot at it. Again, if I keep putting myself in the final four, I’m eventually going to have a really good shot at a championship. I just feel like all the – whether it be pit crew, whether it be speed of the cars is all put together a little bit more than in year’s past.”

Finding a way to get the championship is a problem he should have time to focus on as the Playoffs continue, since he sits 18 points above the cutline. While that’s a strong advantage – enough for third in the points heading into Darlington, it’s still not a guarantee of making the second round.

Still, thinking about the rest of the Playoffs, Hamlin thinks his biggest competition comes from within his own Joe Gibbs Racing team, and especially from former Martin Truex, Jr.

“He’s a talented dude,” Hamlin said of Truex. “He can sometimes put in about a quarter of the work I do and still outrun me. He’s just a gifted race car driver and he’s always tough. That’s why he’s a champion.”

Truex has the best odds to win at Darlington, and it’s a track that he’s run well at in the past, although his two wins are half as many as Hamlin’s.

“I feel really good about our team, where we are at and what we’ve been able to do the past few months,” Truex said. “We are ready to go and see what we can do. Darlington is a great place for us to kick it off.”

“I love Darlington, so I’m always excited to go there,” he added. “I look forward to that track and that race. It is a long race – the Southern 500 – but I’m excited. Last year, I felt like we had that race won and then had some issues late, so I’m looking for a little redemption.”

He might be the favorite, but another driver with a stellar Darlington record desperately wants to upset the order and get one last win at the famous track.

Kevin Harvick still hasn’t won in his retirement season, but few tracks favor his driving so much as Darlington, and he’s been able to walk away with three trophies, second-most in the Cup Series.

It’s a driver’s racetrack, Harvick pointed out, which calls back to the origins of the sport.

“Well, Darlington just screams NASCAR,” Harvick said. “From a competitor’s standpoint, when you drive through the tunnel and you look at that racetrack, it looks the same as it did in 1960. From my standpoint, being able to race at a racetrack like that, whatever generation car I’m in, you can relate back to how it started.”

“Darlington is narrow, it’s unique, and it’s just Darlington. You pull in the tunnel and you see the blue tarps and the tents and the people just hanging out in the infield – it’s just a great place to race and forever a part of NASCAR history that I will always enjoy,” he explained.

Harvick sits in precarious position in the Playoff standings. Without a win and the accompanying points to bolster his position, he comes into Darlington four points below the cutline in 15th position. Finding that first win at Darlington could be critical to any championship hopes.

The driver in the best position is William Byron. The season win leader sits atop the standings by 29 points. He’s won once at Darlington as well.

Byron’s attention is firmly on making it through the first round and not making any unnecessary mistakes that hurt his Championship chances.

“I don’t want to think too far ahead and get too excited about Vegas or even Phoenix, because we’re not there yet,” Byron said in Charlotte. “So, we’ve got to get there first and hopefully this first round goes smooth and we don’t have too many headaches at night and can get through it.”

Other Playoff drivers who’ve won at Darlington in the past are Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch.

Busch is fairly secure, 12 points above the cutline, but both Keselowski and Logano need to maximize their points gained each round.

Keselowski, who wasn’t able to score a win in the regular season, has a three-point advantage to the cutline, while Logano, despite his win, is just one point above.

It’s a huge turnaround for Keselowski and his RFK Racing team, with his other driver fourth in the points with three wins already in the regular season. But Keselowski won’t be happy until he’s winning himself.

“I don’t want to relax,” Keselowski said in Charlotte. “I don’t want to be on vacation. I want to win. I want to be a part of fixing this.”

Other drivers in precarious positions are Joey Logano’s teammate Ryan Blaney, who sits tied with Logano one point ahead of the cutline coming into Darlington. Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse, and Bubba Wallace are one, three, and eight points behind respectively.

One Darlington dark horse from outside the Playoff picture is Erik Jones. His No. 43 Legacy Motor Club car has shown flashes of speed in recent races, especially at Michigan, and Jones is no stranger to wheeling his way to victory at Darlington, having done so twice in 2019 and 2022 respectively.

Xfinity Series makes Playoff push at Darlington

Darlington Raceway rewards veterans in the Xfinity Series. A drivers racetrack, the track that plays host to Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is known for being challenging.

And the stats show it. Only three drivers have earned their first-ever Xfinity Series win at the track, and that hasn’t happened since 2011.

Only four drivers entered have won at the 1.366-mile track in their Xfinity Series careers: Justin Allgaier, Brandon Jones, Cole Custer, and Cup Series regular Kyle Larson.

But the motivation is certainly there. After Darlington, just one race is all that stands between the regular season and the Playoff grid getting set.

The motivation is especially there for Riley Herbst. The Stewart-Haas driver now finds himself on the outside looking in of the Playoff picture after strong runs by Parker Kligerman pushed him out of the twelfth and final transfer spot.

“We’re obviously on the outside looking in now for the playoffs, but you can’t give up,” Herbst said. “There’s always a chance and, at the end of the day, if you win, you’re in the playoffs. We have to be conscious of the points situation, but we have had the speed to run up front to contend for points and possibly wins.”

“Darlington is an easy track to get yourself in trouble because it is so difficult,” he added. “You have to be patient and not drive over your head. Hopefully we can do just that and find ourselves in a better position coming out of the race weekend.”

It’s a twenty-point gap between Kligerman and Herbst, so both drivers need to maximize stage points and their finishing position in both the next two races to stand a chance to get into the Playoffs on points.

Further back, Brandon Jones, who’s 88 points behind the cutline, needs a win, as do all other drivers outside the Playoff positions heading into Darlington.

Austin Hill, John Hunter Nemechek, Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer, Sam Mayer, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith, and Jeb Burton have already punched their ticket into the Playoffs with a win. Josh Berry, the driver in the highest points position, has all-but clinched as well.

Sheldon Creed and Daniel Hemric, while not in position to clinch a spot at Darlington, are in good position heading into the final two rounds before the Playoffs field is set at Kansas, 60 and 56 points above the cutline respectively.

Herbst’s teammate Cole Custer is in much better position, locked in by merit of his two road course wins. He understands what makes Darlington so difficult, though.

“Darlington is definitely a challenge,” he explained. “Turn one, you just really have to weigh risk versus reward. You’re always wondering how far you can drive in without hitting the wall, going up the hill on exit to get the speed. It’s kind of nerve-racking there.”

“Then, you’re up against the fence and, really, it just depends on your racecar if you have to run to the wall or run a lower lane. You’re always kind of edgy with the back of the car there, and then you’re waiting for turn two. You’re able to just drive off and that makes it a little bit easier. In turn three, you’re hard on the brakes, so then you wash up.”

“You’re constantly modulating brakes and holding your breath that you don’t carry too much speed and hit the fence in the center of three and four. Finally, it’s always a really tight exit off of turn four to head back to the start-finish line. As a driver, this is one of the hardest places we go to,” he concluded.

Plenty of drivers will be hoping to conquer that challenge though to win and get that all-important Playoff berth and the bonuses that come with it.

Xfinity Series practice will air at 10:35 a.m. ET on Saturday, followed by qualifying at 11:05 a.m. ET, all on the NBC Sports App.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, drives after the engine expires during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Cook Out Southern 500
The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Sunday, September 3
The Time: 6 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,260,258
TV: USA, 5:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 501.32 miles (367 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 115),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 230), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 367)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200
The Place: Darlington Raceway
The Date: Saturday, September 2
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,703,502
TV: USA, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 200.8 miles (147 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 147)

Owen Johnson