In the town of Darlington, there’s a lady that everyone clamors to see every year around this time.
She’s been known to invite 47,000 friends for one big party on Labor Day weekend.
Tonight, 37 cars got to know her up close and personal.
The Cook-Out Southern 500 is the first race of the NASCAR playoffs for the second season in a row. The Crown Jewel event only recently returned to this date, after years of heading to Auto Club Speedway for a race around this weekend. Gone is the throwback moniker that the race has carried for the past six years as that has been given to the spring 400 mile race.
All eyes were on regular season champion Kyle Larson leading up to the race. If Larson felt pressured to perform this week, it wasn’t apparent. It was another week filled with dirt racing and other media obligations. Regular season runner up Denny Hamlin came into this race still looking for win number one this season. He’s a three time winner at the track and even when he hasn’t won, he’s a perennial top-ten contender. This was the first race weekend since a repave happened in turn two just a few months ago. It was the third race of the weekend, and second of a scheduled doubleheader with the Camping World Truck Series.
On the pole tonight was last week’s race winner Ryan Blaney. Blaney has won the last two weekends in a row and was looking for his third consecutive win. He lead early on in the race, and seemed to be headed towards a great run early. But as is customary in NASCAR, nothing is never quite as it seems.
Remember earlier how I said The Lady only invites a select few to come and play with her? Well, she never said she would play nice with our playoff drivers.
Issues for playoff drivers started even before the race went green. Alex Bowman would be the first up to bat. As they were forming for pace laps, Bowman told his crew he was having issues with the car shutting off randomly, causing the car to stall. That was only the beginning of his troubles this evening. During the run to the competition caution, Bowman would make contact with the wall and after cutting a tire and collect his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and fellow playoff driver William Byron. Both drivers would continue on afterwards, albeit with repairs.
Kurt Busch lead at the competition caution at lap 25. He was followed by Kevin Harvick. It’s been a very inconsistent season for Harvick and the 4 team from Stewart-Haas racing. The team is still searching for their first win late in the season, but Harvick has found success at the track over the years. He would run up front for the majority of the first stage. As drivers duck down pit road, the 43 of Erik Jones would stay out and lead the field.
The second of our playoff drivers to have an issue tonight was Chase Elliott. As he was leaving the box on his pit stop, a tire carrier on the 53 of James Davidson would make contact with the left front tire on the 9 car, causing a tire rub. Elliott would pit once more before the restart. Shortly after the restart, Michael McDowell would have a hard crash on the backstretch to bring out the third caution of the day. Three cautions with four playoff drivers involved.
Is there a full moon tonight?
After a google search, I found out it was a waxing crescent.
After the McDowell caution cleanup, the race would settle in for a bit of a long run. Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick were two of the first drivers to start trying to use the top groove. Even with the repave in turn two, drivers were able to still run their lines that they used to. This week also showed another consistent run for Corey Lajoie and the 7 car for Spire Motorsports. After a great run at Daytona was spoiled by an accident, he found himself consistently in the top-ten for a majority of this race.
The fourth caution of the night was caused by contact between all three of the Rick Ware Racing cars. This was the second race in a row that the teams made contact with each other. All three would continue on with wounded race cars. Denny Hamlin would take the lead and not relinquish it, as he held on for the stage one victory.
As the second stage commenced, we found our fifth playoff driver to suffer misfortune early on. Kyle Busch would make contact with the wall causing damage to his car. Busch would be the second playoff driver to be done for the evening, and after the accident did not seem too pleased with his chances for the upcoming races. As stage two continued on, Kyle Larson would take the lead for the first time. Ross Chastain’s 42 Chevy found itself running up front for most of the early stages of the race. Things were looking great for Chip Ganassi Racing, who announced a few weeks back that this will be their last season in NASCAR. As Ross prepares to move to Trackhouse Racing and Kurt Busch leaves for the second team at 23XI, spirits were high going into this race for both teams.
After some early struggles, the 9 of Chase Elliott and 24 of William Byron battled their way back into the top 10. Unfortunately for Byron, he would make hard contact with the SAFER barrier on lap 201 that would end his night. Denny Hamlin would run into a tire issue shortly before stage end, and Kyle Larson would win stage two. It was his 13th stage win of 2021, which is two times as many as his next closest competitor. When pit stops occurred after the stage break, Ryan Blaney’s bad luck began. He was penalized for an uncontrolled tire. This wasn’t the first issue for the 12 pit crew this season, as he’s had some issues that have taken him out of contention for wins. His Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski had consistent runs, and Brad started marching forward in stage three.
With just under 100 laps to go Larson would get his Darlington stripe, but crew chief Cliff Daniels would tell him to soldier on as the right side of the car was fine. With 80 laps to go, Kevin Harvick would report feeling a loose wheel and came down to change tires. The crew would tell him the tire wasn’t loose, but Harvick felt the vibration before the stop and never felt it again after that. Shortly after, Ryan Blaney would blow a brake line to bring out a caution. During pit stops on that caution, Martin Truex Jr would be caught speeding on pit road. In an unfortunate twist, if he hadn’t have sped he would have been the leader.
As the laps wound down, with 40 to go Chase Elliott would be the next playoff driver to see an early end of their night at the Lady in Black. He would make hard contact with the wall, and after a few minutes of repairs would take it behind the wall and credited with a 31st place finish. It was a strange night for all four of the Hendrick Motorsports cars, who were expected to all be competitve. Byron would finish 34th, Bowman in 26th.
Their last hope was Larson, but Larson would have to beat Denny Hamlin if he wanted to add the Southern 500 to his already impressive resume this season. There was also the matter of Ross Chastain. Consistently in the top-five all night, Chastain would flirt with the lead several times late in the race and was the fastest car on the track for the last run. For the last 20 laps, the question would be could Larson catch Hamlin. Had he used up his tires battling Chastain? Was he saving up something? Lap after lap, he would ride inches away from the wall, almost daring himself to hit it. As Chastain faded back some, the race was down to Larson and Hamlin. As Hamlin took the white flag, he seemed to have a comfortable lead on Larson. As they entered turn four, Larson drove it in deep and hit the back of Hamlin’s car. Both cars would sustain damage, but Hamlin would hold on to pick up his first win of the season and lock himself in to the round of 12. Larson would finish second in a heavily damaged 5 car, and Chastain would bring it home in third. After the race, Larson said he tried to “video game” Hamlin in that last corner, but Hamlin was able to hold on.
For the fourth time at Darlington and third time in the Southern 500, Denny Hamlin found his way into victory lane. In what has been a long and consistent season for Hamlin, the wins just never showed up. The next few tracks are places where he’s had success at over the years, including Richmond where he almost won in the spring. Tonight also proved that Larson isn’t just going to go quietly in these playoffs. He had a dominant car, and if not for a slow stop on pit road he could have won. Almost every playoff driver will leave Darlington with some nicks and scratches on their car. For some, it may be getting late early. For Denny Hamlin, he will celebrate this win well on into the night.
Featured photo from @NASCAR on Twitter.