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NASCAR viewer’s guide for Darlington Raceway

Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton, and Parker Kligerman show how Austin Dillon pulled off the surprise win, detail how it impacted bubble drivers Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., and predict how it affects the Round of 16.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin this weekend at one of stock car racing’s oldest and toughest tracks -- Darlington Raceway.

Originally a 1.25-mile track but later reconfigured to 1.366 miles, Darlington has been a part of the Cup schedule since the 1950 season and typically is ranked by drivers as one of the hardest places to win.

Chase Elliott leads 15 other drivers into the first race of the playoffs -- Sunday’s Southern 500.

Austin Dillon won last Sunday’s race at Daytona International Speedway to join the playoff field, and Ryan Blaney took the final playoff spot on points.

Sunday’s race (6 p.m. ET) will be televised by the USA Network.

15 Drivers Chasing Chase

Chase Elliott is one of only five drivers in the playoff field with a championship pedigree. Others are Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.

Elliott won the title two years ago and, based on seasonal performance, will be the championship favorite rolling into Darlington. He leads the playoff standings with 2,040 points, followed by Logano with 2,025 and Ross Chastain with 2,020.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. set to race at North Wilkesboro

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The playoff driver with the best victory shot at Darlington, however, is a veteran with zero championships -- Denny Hamlin. Sixth-seeded in the playoffs, Hamlin has won four times at Darlington, has finished in the top five in 55% of his Darlington starts and has an impressive average finish of 7.8 at the track, one where a slight misstep can lead to an early exit.

Harvick also has an excellent record at Darlington, having won there three times. He has finished in the top 10 in the past 13 races at the track.

Chevrolet drivers fill eight -- half -- of the positions on the playoff grid. Ford drivers have five spots and Toyota three.

Larson Has Playoff Punch

Some oddsmakers rate Kyle Larson second only to Chase Elliott in this year’s playoff race, and there’s strong history behind that.

On the way to last year’s championship, Larson won five of the 10 playoff races. Of the past five playoff events, Larson has won four, Alex Bowman being the only driver to break Larson’s run by winning last October at Martinsville.

In last year’s playoffs, Larson won at Bristol, the Charlotte Roval, Texas, Kansas and Phoenix.

Larson is tied Tony Stewart (2011) for the most playoff wins in a season with five.

Hendrick Has Darlington Drought

Although Hendrick Motorsports enters the playoff with four drivers (Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron), the Chevrolet team has a rough recent history at Darlington Raceway.

Hendrick has a record 14 Cup victories at the 1.366-mile track, but the team hasn’t won there since seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson scored in May 2012.

Hendrick has won 89 Cup races on 26 different tracks since Johnson’s victory.

Chevrolet shares Hendrick’s Darlington frustration. Chevy drivers have not won in the past 11 Darlington races.

Entry lists

The Cup entry list for Darlington contains 36 drivers, including Daniel Hemric, Landon Cassill and JJ Yeley.

Darlington Cup entry list

Thirty-eight drivers are entered for Saturday’s Xfinity race. Cup regulars on the list are Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Ty Dillon and Ross Chastain.

Darlington Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Sept. 3

Forecast: A few showers early with mostly cloudy conditions later in the day. High of 88. Chance of rain 40%.

  • 10:05 - 10:35 a.m. -- Xfinity Series practice (NBC Sports app)
  • 10:35 - 11:30 a.m. -- Xfinity Series qualifying (NBC Sports app)
  • 12:05 - 12:50 p.m. -- Cup Series practice (NBC Sports app)
  • 12:50 - 2 p.m. -- Cup Series qualifying (USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports app)
  • 3 p.m. -- Xfinity Series race (147 laps, 200 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports app)

Sunday, Sept. 4

Forecast: Partly to mostly cloudy. A stray shower or thunderstorm is possible. High of 89.

  • 6 p.m. -- Cup Series race (367 laps, 501 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports app)