Darlington Raceway will always hold a special place on the NASCAR Cup schedule not because it is one of the oldest tracks that the series visits each year but the kind of racing that takes place.
This year the track got to add another chapter to its rich history book because it was only scheduled to host one event but with the stoppage of racing due to COVID-19, the track ended up hosting three races. The track was the sight of the first race back after the season came to a halt at Atlanta early in the spring when the series hosted not only the first race of the “new” schedule in May but also hosted back-to-back races to restart the season.
The track also hosted another first for the series when Sunday night’s race was the first race of the 10-race playoff portion of the schedule that will end with the champion being crowned in November at Phoenix.
Darlington’s worn out racing surface as it always does played a huge part in the outcome of Sunday’s race when new tires were a premium and when to pit during the final stage of the race became the call of the night. When all of the final pit stops were made, it became a duel between Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott for the win as those two cars had dominated for much of the race.
The final laps were going off the board with Elliott in the lead when Truex made a move to the inside of the Hendrick Motorsports driver but was unable to complete the pass.
It looked as if Truex had made the pass but when he attempted to slide up in front of Elliott’s Chevrolet the two made contact sending both cars up into the outside wall giving both a famous Darlington stripe and in the process took away any chance for a victory for either driver.
The bump that sent the two vying for the lead into the wall opened the door for Kevin Harvick to take over the lead and never look back as he won for the eighth time this season. This trip to victory lane punched his ticket into the Round of 12 as a win during any of the first three rounds of the playoffs automatically advances you into the following round of three races.
Elliott finished in 20th while Truex fell a lap down leaving him with a 22nd place finish but both drivers still find themselves above the cutoff line. Truex sits in sixth place with a 16 point lead ahead of Clint Bowyer who sits in 13th who is the first driver below the cutoff line and Elliott is in seventh, 12 points ahead of Bowyer.
There are now only two races at the short tracks of Richmond and Bristol left before the bottom four drivers in the championship field standings will be eliminated from advancing to the next round. Joining Bowyer below the cutoff line in 14th place is Cole Custer who is three points from being above the bubble and he is followed by Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto who both find themselves 17 points below the cutoff line.
Blaney had to the toughest day of any of the 16 playoff drivers as his troubles actually began before the race when a five pound bag of lead that was used during setup at the shop to simulate fluid weights before the engine is installed was accidentally left in the car. He was issued a 10 point driver/owner penalty before the start of the race and his crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended for the race.
He also lost his seventh starting position and had to start the race from the back of the field.
This weekend’s race at Richmond will be the first at the track this season as both of the races scheduled were cancelled due to the virus. It will be Saturday night short track racing with only 10 points separating Austin Dillon in eighth from Bowyer in 13th, so just like it has been all season long, every point will count.