Southern 500 thoughts

The opening race of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is now behind us.

Kevin Harvick won again at the Darlington Raceway, taking advantage after leaders Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. brushed against the wall while fighting for first.

Truex touched Elliott as he tried to complete a pass with 14 laps to go and both ran up against he wall. Harvick easily moved past both of them to take the lead.

Harvick held of Austin Dillon for the win. Joey Logano was third while Erik Jones, the only non-playoff driver among the top 13 finishers, was fourth.

Truex led the most laps at 196 and won both the first and second stages. He said post race that he thought Elliott would have given him more room but took responsibility. He’d finish 22nd.

Elliott, led 114 laps but came home 20th. He got a break with a caution for debris while leading and led the field to green with 41 laps-to-go. He was better in Turns 1 and 2 while Truex was better in 3-4. Elliott, thought he had enough of a gap at the time and tried a new line through Turns 3-4. That allowed Truex to close and to get alongside of Elliott down the front stretch, leading to the crash between the duo a few seconds later.

Here are some takeaways.

  • Harvick’s win isn’t surprising. He won there on May 17, the first race back, and now has 8 trips to victory lane on the season. He breaks a tie with Kyle Busch on the all time wins list with his next sights set on Dale Earnhardt (76).
  • Harvick has a top five finish in 12 of the last 14 races. The only two he didn’t nab a top five in was in the two races at Daytona.
  • Truex’s top four streak ends at eight. This was his worst finish since Texas. But he did score two much needed playoff points to help him if he can make it to the Round of 12. He’s +16 but could have been at the very least +37 though if this ends differently.
  • Elliott had a top two in the bag. For the second straight Darlington race, he was wrecked by a JGR driver. Kyle Busch hooked Elliott while running second in the closing laps on May 20. He finished 38th as a result. Then, the contact with Truex with 14 to go on Sunday. He should have had three top four finishes in as many starts on the Lady in Black this year. He’s only +12 heading to Richmond.
  • Denny Hamlin had a top three car but slowed to pit for the final time. He tried to get to the inside, but Aric Almirola was below him. Jimmie Johnson missed his signal and ran into the back of him. Hamlin, missed pit road and lost 10 spots on the final sequence. He finished 13th. He still has seven top sixes in his last nine starts, five of which in the top 2.
  • Austin Dillon capitalized on everyone’s mistakes to finish second. That’s his third top five on the year and third top 10 in his last five starts on the season. He’s +10 in points and heading to two tracks where he scored top 10s at in his last starts on them.
  • Logano is still quietly there. He finished third for his fifth top six in his last eight Darlington starts and seventh top 10 in his last eight starts on the season.
  • William Byron is also quietly strumming along too. He followed up his Daytona win with a top five in the Southern 500 for his third straight top five and fourth top 10 in his last five tries. This was also his first Darlington top 10 result too. That puts him +9 in the standings. That’s good because he’s not scored a top 10 at either of the next two tracks in the opening round.
  • Alex Bowman was lost for much of the pandemic. He was no where to be found near the top 10. He finished sixth on Sunday for his third straight top seven finish. He’s +19 now which could be enough to get him by to the second round.
  • Busch brothers get into top 12 – I knew it wouldn’t take long for both to get into the top 12. It took one race. Kyle finished 7th and Kurt 8th. They’re +7 and +4 respectively in the standings.
  • With the Busch’s moving in, two had to move out. Ryan Blaney had another disaster of a day with a 24th place effort, worst among playoff drivers. Add to the fact he lost 10 points at the start of the race for an inspection process penalty and he’s now -17 in the standings heading to a track with his best finish being 17th. He’s had five finishes of 12th or worse in his last seven tries on the season and seven of the last nine. He’s in trouble.
  • SHR trio on the bubble – Aric Almirola was ninth for his third top 12 of the year at Darlington. These are his best finishes there. But, he’s in a tie with Clint Bowyer for the final transfer spot to the Round of 12. Bowyer, finished 10th. Almirola has two top 10 finishes in his last five, Bowyer has three. Their rookie teammate of Cole Custer is right behind them at -3. He finished 12th on Sunday.
  • Matt DiBenedetto has another rough night and finished 21st. He’s tied with Blaney for last in the playoff standings and has no top 10 finishes in his last five starts on the season.
  • Brad Keselowski rebounded from some early race shuffles to finish 11th. It’s saves him a mulligan as he’s still +22.
  • Erik Jones earned his first top 10 finish in over a month but sixth top eight in as many tries at Darlington as the top non playoff finisher in fourth. He’s the only driver not in the playoffs to finish in the top 13 too.
  • On Saturday, Brandon Jones was third in the closing laps but won. Same on a Sunday. Harvick was third with 14 to go and won.
  • Darlington with this package is tough to pass. So, pit strategy was crucial. It was like the INDYCAR race last weekend at Gateway. Pit entry and exit were critical. Same for Darlington on the NASCAR side. Harvick and Elliott were on a two stop strategy for the final stage. The JGR cars were trying to do it on one stop. It was going to be interesting to see which strategy won on. But that debris caution in the end put everyone back on the same strategy.

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