NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, USA, MRN) at Darlington

Championship 4 Preview?

Last year, 3 of the top 4 finishers in this race (Southern 500) went onto the Championship 4 in Phoenix. Will there be similar fortunes this time around?

For 2020, it was 3-11-13-20 for the Championship 4 drivers that year in the Southern 500, but remember, Chase Elliott crashed while leading with 14 to go. It could have been at least a pair in the top four then. For the two May races, they went 4-5-13-18 in Race 1 and 1-4-6-38 in Race 2. Only reason why it wasn’t all in the top six is because Elliott again was crashed while running second on the final restart.

For 2018 and again in 2019, they put 2 Championship 4 cars in the top 4 while in 2017 it was 2-8-9-15.

With how Darlington is now a drivers track still, that’s why you’re seeing the cream rise to the top.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 09: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Freightliner Ford, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Throwback Ford, lead the field to star the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 09, 2021 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Grown Up Race?

One trend that’s occurring lately are that tracks with aged surfaces are being won by veteran drivers. Just look at Richmond this past spring. 41 year old Denny Hamlin ended a streak of 12 straight winners that were under the age of 30 in his April win. He topped 46 year old Kevin Harvick by .552-seconds in the Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond (VA) Raceway. 41 year old Martin Truex Jr. was 4th.

Then a few weeks ago, 46-year old Harvick won the return trip.

Richmond, was a throwback type of NASCAR race. Darlington has been that way too. While Joey Logano won the spring race, it’s not like he’s not a veteran of the sport. He’s been full time since 14 years now and has made almost 500 starts in the series. So while he’s in his early 30’s, it’s not like he’s too far off in the experience department as these 40 year olds.

Darlington, like Richmond, is an older surface where you have to tip toe around the track rather than go all out every lap. While I get these types of races aren’t for everybody, this is what makes racing fun.

There’s a reason to why 5 of the last 6 races at Darlington have all been won by a driver who’s now in their 40’s. 13 of the last 14 races all saw veterans win.

Cautions are typically limited and teams have to try out different strategies.

This wasn’t the typical new school race where drivers are all bunched up in the end and can just plow over cars to get by. It was spread out and technical. You had to tip toe around the track because the harder you push, the slower you go.

Richmond and now likely Darlington, will see this vintage style of racing which is why qualifying doesn’t matter as much. In quals, you get 2 laps going all out. In the race, you can’t push 100% each lap.

Darlington is always that way. You have varying strategies on when to pit. Fresh tires can gain a ton of ground and speed on those going around the track on old sets of Goodyear’s. However, eventually, the new tires fade and those on old tires will pit for new and gain the advantage. Whomever can work this game the best, usually wins and usually it’s a veteran who manages his tires over the run to limit the fall off.

Will Returning To a Track a 2nd Time Now Help?

With a new car and limited laps allowed in practice this season, there’s not been much you can do to a car once you unload it. All the work done in the shop was purely a guess and if you came into the track with a good car, you’d fare well. If you didn’t, well it was going to be a long weekend.

Now though, most of these races in the playoffs are return trips to race tracks. All 3 races this round we’ve already raced at. The outlier here though is Bristol which was on dirt in April. Still, we raced at Darlington in May. We raced at Kansas a week after that. In the 2nd round, we go to Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL. We also raced at Texas in May and while it was the All-Star race with different rules, last years was the same case and the same driver won both events.

In May you had Darlington-Kansas-Texas in a 3 week span and in the playoffs, these are 3 of the 1st 4 races.

That’s big. Talladega is the 6th superspeedway race and the ROVAL marks the 6th road course. In the Round of 8, we’ve raced at 2 of those 3 tracks in that round too. Which is why the notebooks from the 1st visits will translate well over to these return trips because you have a starting point.

If you were good, you know what direction to go in to be better. If you were bad, well you know what direction not to go in.

With still some practice on these weekends and past notes, I think this is largely going to alter the race day shows because teams aren’t guessing.

How Will The Turn 2 Patch Work?

The repaved patch in Turn 2 could greatly alter the racing on Sunday. It did last year as well as this past May. We saw 6 cautions in May for on track incidents. 5 of the 6 occurred due to this patch in Turn 2 with problems.

What happens this time around?

It caught out some big names in May. Brad Keselowski spun and collected Kyle Busch. Ross Chastain spun after winning the 2nd stage. Alex Bowman wrecked there so did a 9 car incident late in the event too.

This area is going to be one to watch.

Who Can Avoid Problems?

It seems like part of the wildness of an opening playoff race is who can rue some problems. Between crashes and pit penalties, whomever can escape any sort of on track drama usually ends up on the good side of the cutline when the checkered flag drops on Sunday night.

We’ve seen it happen a lot over the years for this opening playoff race with mistakes. I don’t know whether team and drivers are more tight with what’s at stake or not, but we’ve seen a lot of them over the course of the years.

Last year alone saw 9 of the 16 playoff drivers finish 16th or worse including 4 of them with a DNF after a crash. Who can avoid calamity and be perfect on pit road will exit with a top 5.

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