The 2021 playoff opener is here. Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN) is not only a crown jewel on the schedule, but has added importance since it remains in the Labor Day weekend date but for a second straight year is a playoff race.
Race Day Schedule
11 am: Garage Opens
5:25 pm: Driver To Cars
5:30 p.m. Driver Intros
6:01 pm: Invocation
6:02 pm: National Anthem
6:08 pm: Command
6:18 pm: Green Flag
Coverage: 6 p.m. ET
Green Flag: 6:18 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN (Local Affiliates here)
Phone: NASCAR App
Race Distance: 367 Laps/501.322 Miles
Stage Lengths: 115-115-137
Competition Caution: Lap 20
Race: 27 of 36
Playoffs – RD1, Race 1
Track: Darlington Raceway
Who Wins The Southern 500?
Just once in the last nine races has the winner come from a starting spot inside of the top five. That was this past May from Martin Truex Jr. who started fourth. In fact, six of the top seven finishing spots all started in the top seven spots in the Goodyear 400.
That’s great news then for Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick but by judging off that list, maybe the stat of top five starters and their lack of wins lately at Darlington rings true.
Blaney hasn’t had a top five in his entire career on the Lady in Black. Busch has just two since 2011. He was 35th back in May. Elliott, was seventh in May and only has two top fives in his career there. Bowman has one top five in his Darilngton career.
That could leave it up to Hamlin who carry the banner for those coming from a top five spot.
Then you have JGR and HMS having been the top teams lately despite Team Penske winning the last 2 races. They went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 in Watkins Glen, what should have been 1-2-3-4-5-6 in Indy and 2-3-5-7-8 in Michigan. They were also 1-2-3-4-5-7 here back in May.
They’ll produce 4 of the top 6 starters on Sunday night.
So, do they win or someone else?
Blaney enters as the hottest driver on the season with 3 straight top 2 finishes and sits on the pole, but he’s also never had a top five before in Darlington and just one top 10 in his career there. Martin Truex Jr. dominated the May race and led the most laps in last year’s Southern 500. He’s struggling on the season entering though with just 2 top 10’s in his last 10. He rolls off 10th.
Kyle Larson has been the best overall and why I feel like he’s the best choice of the winner. He’s had 3 top 3’s in his last 4 starts on the season as well as 4 top 3’s in his last 5 at Darlington. He was runner-up to Truex in May and comes from sixth.
Kevin Harvick won 2 of the 3 Darlington races last year. Denny Hamlin won the other. Harvick, has led 729 laps in 11 Darlington starts with SHR but had only 63 laps led in his career on the Lady in Black prior. He and Hamlin are both winless this year.
Hamlin, has three top fives in his last four Darlington tries and if not for an issue on his final pit stop in the Southern 500, it would be 4 straight.
Kyle Busch was third in May and has seven top five finishes in the 12 races since the Coca-Cola 600. The only races that he didn’t was Nashville in a race that he was just off, Loudon in a race he was leading and crashed in the rain on an oval, Indy in which he was in the top five but was collected in a crash when the curbing broke and Michigan when he was in the top five until the end.
But, you also can’t overlook Larson’s other Hendrick Motorsports either.
Alex Bowman was sixth in last year’s Southern 500 and has two top sixes in his last four tries. William Byron was fifth last year in the Southern 500 and fourth in May. Chase Elliott should have won the second Darlington race last May as well as the Southern 500 too.
So, who wins?
- 5 Larson
- 9 Elliott
- 18 KyBusch
- 11 Hamlin
- 24 Byron