Southern 500: Takeaways from the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Opener

Southern 500: Takeaways from the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Opener

09/08/2020

The next nine weeks will be full of moments like what transpired near the end of the Southern 500.

They may determine who advances in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, who doesn’t, and perhaps who ultimately wins the championship in November at Phoenix Raceway.

Ultimately, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. should advance into the Round of 12 regardless of what happened on Sunday night, but they were racing for the Johnny Mantz Trophy — a BFD independent of the overall championship.

It was peak 2020 that Kevin Harvick emerged with the lead, picking up his personal-best eighth win in 27 starts, making it seemingly inevitable that he is going to reach the rarefied air of 10 wins.

Takeaways from the Southern 500 can be found below.

RESPECT GREATNESS

It’s been discussed before, but Kevin Harvick is putting together one of the all-time greatest Modern Era seasons.

His Southern 500 triumph advances him to the Round of 12, but he’s already a virtual lock to compete in the Championship Race on November 8 at Phoenix. His 6.4 average finish is on pace to be the best since Jeff Gordon (5.7) in 1998. If he can win at least twice more over the next nine weeks, he will be the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win 10 races.

In recent memory, that’s a pretty elite group:

2007: Jimmie Johnson (10)
1998: Jeff Gordon (13)
1997: Jeff Gordon (10)
1996: Jeff Gordon (10)
1993: Rusty Wallace (10)
1987: Dale Earnhardt (11)

It’s also something Harvick doesn’t want to acknowledge yet.

“I try not to look and think about things like that just because I don’t want the karma train to hit me in the back and splat me,” Harvick said. “But I think right now we just have to keep doing what we’re doing. This was not a night that we felt like we had a winning car, but we were in position to capitalize on the situation and win the race.

“However we have to do it, if it winds up being eight or if it winds up being more than eight, it’s been a great year and we’re going to battle week in and week out over these next nine weeks and hopefully put ourselves in position to have a chance when we get to Phoenix.”

There is a natural aversion to excellence.

You see it in other sports with the New York Yankees, New England Patriots or even from Jimmie Johnson’s decade of dominance in the NASCAR Cup Series. Fans want parity. More so, fans want their teams to have a shot and that’s impeded by a stretch of dominance.

NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton says this is ultimately a good thing for NASCAR, however.

“I hear people say all the time it’s not good for the sport that Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are winning all the races and I think that’s a bunch of crap,” Burton said. “They’re our sport’s most popular leaders. We had Jeff Gordon winning tons of races. We had Rusty Wallace winning tons of races. We had a lot of people win a lot of races in a year during the sport’s most popular time.

“Part of sports is pulling for your guy and pulling against other people. The New England Patriots have been the pinnacle, right? They’ve been the best team in the NFL for a long time. That doesn’t hurt the NFL. The rivalries that get created by that, the passion to beat them, the fan bases that absolutely despise them is good for the NFL because it creates rivalries. It creates passion.”

So, cheer for Harvick to reach 10. Cheer against him reaching 10. Just recognize that this stretch of success is very much a reason to be more invested in the sport, not less.

WHOSE FAULT IS IT ANYWAY?

Above all else, the high downforce, low horsepower package doesn’t allow very many opportunities to complete passes for the lead at a track like Darlington, and Martin Truex Jr. ultimately took what could have been his only shot.

Chase Elliott made an interesting choice to take the bottom in Turns 3 and 4 and Truex stayed high. The run of momentum on the high side allowed Truex to close right to the rear bumper of Elliott’s car throughout the frontstretch.

That momentum gave Truex a choice in 1 and 2 once he darted under Elliott:

1.) Try to complete the pass and get far enough ahead to get clean air
2.) Try to complete the pass and clear yourself in the hopes Elliott lifts

Truex chose the latter but Elliott didn’t lift.

“I felt like I had enough of a run and enough space there that the last foot or so, he was going to understand that if I was committed, we both weren’t going to make it,” Truex said. “Typically here, that’s kind of how you race. If a guy gets a run on you and he’s just about got you cleared, you have to give that last little bit.

“Now obviously, the end of the race, probably the pass for the win, he wanted to drive it on in there and I was committed to being clear and there was no way we were both going to make the corners. Basically, when I made up my mind and I was driving it in there and then he drove in on my right-rear quarter, there was no possible way that we both weren’t crashing. That’s what happened.”

Yeah, but why would Elliott lift there?

It’s the Southern 500 and an opportunity to win a crown jewel and automatically advance into the Round of 12. At the same time, Truex faced a similar decision too. If he was able to clear himself, he wins a crown jewel and advances into the next round too.

It’s easy to understand why Truex went for it and it’s easier to understand why Elliott didn’t lift.

With that said, Truex was probably a little too eager there.

If he can’t complete the pass with 15 to go, keep trying in the hopes that you force Elliott into making a mistake. That’s a move you can justify with two to go but seems a little aggressive with 15 to go.

At the same time, both Elliott and Truex were in the top-10 all afternoon and enjoyed a pretty sizeable points cushion and had very little to lose.

But this was a snapshot of a story that is going to play out multiple times over the next nine weeks — one of risk versus reward in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

For all the talk of winning means everything in the Cup Series, once you get to the final 10 races, it once again reverts to a series of a good points days to advance from round-to-round.

And if Truex again finds himself racing for the win over the next two weeks at Richmond and Bristol, he will surely approach it a little more conservatively as his margin for error decreased after both drivers finished outside of the top-20 on Sunday.

In a vacuum, this was just two superstar drivers racing for the win in one of the biggest races of the year, but expect a lot more of this as the terms get more desperate deeper into the playoffs.

THIS PACKAGE HAS TO GO

The NA18D (high downforce, low horsepower) package was, above all else, designed to improve the racing product on the D-shaped 1.5-mile (intermediate) tracks.

It’s a fiercely debated topic if it has even done that.

What it certainly has done is damage the on-track product literally everywhere else it has been taken — including Darlington.

Once again, passing was stymied, especially near the front of the field due to the 8′ spoiler attached to the rear of the current generation Cup Series race cars. And due to teams trimming out so much in the efforts to offset drag, it didn’t even keep the cars as close together as designed.

The 2020 Southern 500 was just a slower, stabilized version of what Darlington is supposed to look like. And we know what Darlington is supposed to look like because we saw it on Saturday in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

How anyone in the Charlotte or Daytona offices can watch Xfinity Series and Cup Series races back-to-back and want to continue down the high downforce, low power path is dumbfounding.

The package was designed to produce something akin to pack racing for Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its clones — Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky, Atlanta and Chicagoland.

As a compromise, use it there, and just there.

It doesn’t at all work for Darlington, or next year’s debut event at Nashville Superspeedway, or even Homestead-Miami Speedway.

It took all of 2019 to realize that it didn’t work for short tracks and road courses either, but NASCAR and the teams finally agreed to revert back to low downforce for those events. Darlington is now the shortest track to use the NA18D at 1.366 mi.

Eventually, NASCAR will realize it just doesn’t work anywhere, but let’s eliminate it one track at a time.

We’re halfway there.

PLAYOFF UPDATE

The Round of 16 is off to an interesting start thanks to a series of developments before and after the Southern 500.

Ryan Blaney was penalized 10 points for unapproved ballast left in his car during pre-race inspection. The infraction also forced him start at the rear of the field where everything went wrong over the course of 500 miles.

They had raced their way into the top-16 near halfway but had to pit for a flat tire. Next, the No. 12 was involved in a fender bending restart in the final stage that hampered the performance of his Ford Mustang.

Blaney finished 24th and fell from nine points above the cutline to 17 below it — a 26 point swing on one race.

At the same time, Austin Dillon finished second but only after his team had to start at the back upon realizing they back their left and right side tires on opposite sides.

Kyle Busch and William Byron had good days to set themselves up well for the next two races in the Round of 16.

Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Cole Custer had just okay days, and that won’t be enough to advance when they have so few playoff points to fall back on.

Here are the standings after Darlington with races at Richmond and Bristol remaining in the first round. The bottom four winless drivers in the standings will be eliminated after the Bristol Night Race.

1. Kevin Harvick (1 win)
2. Denny Hamlin +54
3. Joey Logano +27
4. Brad Keselowski +22
5. Alex Bowman +19
6. Martin Truex Jr. +16
7. Chase Elliott +12
8. Austin Dillon +10
9. William Byron +9
10. Kyle Busch +7
11. Kurt Busch +4
12. Aric Almirola +0

13. Clint Bowyer -0
14. Cole Custer -3
15. Matt DiBenedetto -17
16. Ryan Blaney -17

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