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Race for Cup title is ‘wide open’ going into Southern 500

Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch predict what Ross Chastain faces from his fellow drivers in the playoffs, Chastain responds to the rumblings, and Kyle Petty has some thoughts on whether any payback is even warranted.

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kevin Harvick has been a part of NASCAR’s postseason 16 times in 19 years, competing in seasons where he was a favorite, seasons where there were multiple favorites and seasons where Jimmie Johnson dominated.

Harvick enters this year’s playoffs ninth in the standings, but he sees endless possibilities going into Sunday’s Southern 500 playoff opener (6 p.m. ET on USA Network).

“It’s just as wide open as I’ve ever seen it,” the 2014 Cup champion said.

MORE: Confident Joey Logano tells team that ‘we’re the favorites’

Learning a new car this year has made this a topsy-turvy season. Fifteen of the 16 playoff drivers have won at least one race this season. Since the current format in 2017, the playoff field has never been as close entering the 10-race postseason. Only nine points separate William Byron, who is fifth in the standings, and Austin Dillon, who is 16th.

Last year’s playoff opener at Darlington Raceway shook up the standings. Nine title contenders finished 15th or worse in that race. Four playoff drivers, including Kyle Busch, William Byron and Chase Elliott, failed to finish because of accidents. If such trouble befalls a majority of the playoff contenders, the standings could see significant changes.

Austin Cindric, who is 14th in the standings, goes into Sunday’s race undeterred.

“We come into the playoffs pretty low on playoff points, but at the same time eight points puts me fifth right now, so it’s pretty tight,” Cindric said. “It’s been a tight season, and I think execution and consistency has been at a premium and I think those that are able to perform in that manner is where I think I have to have my mind.

“I think we’re gonna have to put three really great races together to move onto the next round and start all over again.”

Daniel Suarez, Cindric, Alex Bowman and Austin Dillon go into Darlington in the four spots below the cutline. Suarez will start last in the 36-car field after his car failed inspection three times before qualifying. He also will have to do a pass-through penalty after the race starts, meaning he’ll be a lap down quickly.

“We’re in a little bit of a hole starting the race, but I’m not too worried about it,” Suarez said after Saturday’s practice. “The car actually feels pretty good. I feel like we have a couple of adjustments to do. Hopefully, we can make it a little bit better. If we can do that, I think we can have a shot actually to win the race.”

If a playoff driver wins, they advance to the next round. That can make the struggles of the season disappear quickly.

Denny Hamlin, who won last year’s Southern 500, enters the playoffs sixth but has lamented the playoff points lost this season when potential wins at Dover and Nashville went away and when his winning car failed inspection at Pocono and was disqualified.

It’s been a challenging season for Hamlin, who still seeks his first career Cup crown.

“I just try to control what I can control and not get too emotional with the things that I can’t,” he said. “That doesn’t keep me from getting frustrated when things don’t go my way, or we don’t have the speed that I know we should have. You just try to optimize and quietly sneak our way through this deal.

“I think that’s going to be the way that it works this year. We’re just going to have to quietly, under the radar, find a way to make it to the next round.”

The playoffs represent a second chance for Ryan Blaney, the only driver among the 16 title contenders not to win a points race this season (he did win the All-Star Race in May).

Blaney is seventh in the standings.

“You just don’t want to make any mistakes as a driver and as a team in general,” he said of the playoffs. “There’s gonna be adversity you’ve got to overcome. That’s just part of it. You’re not gonna have a completely smooth 10 weeks.

“You’re gonna have things that are gonna go wrong and you have to adapt to them, so I definitely think we can do it, it’s just a matter of improving on some stuff that kind of bit us through the year, but I think this team is ready to do it.”


A look at the playoff standings entering Sunday’s Southern 500. Includes driver’s points total in parenthesis and where they’ll start Sunday’s race.

  1. Chase Elliott (2040) … starts 23rd
  2. Joey Logano (2025) ... starts 1st
  3. Ross Chastain (2020) ... starts 12th
  4. Kyle Larson (2019) ... starts 7th
  5. William Byron (2014) … starts 3rd
  6. Denny Hamlin (2013) … starts 11th
  7. Ryan Blaney (2013) … starts 9th
  8. Tyler Reddick (2012) … starts 4th
  9. Kevin Harvick (2012) … starts 18th
  10. Christopher Bell (2011) … starts 2nd
  11. Kyle Busch (2010) … starts 5th
  12. Chase Briscoe (2009) … starts 19th
  13. Daniel Suarez (2007) … starts 36th
  14. Austin Cindric (2006) … starts 6th
  15. Alex Bowman (2006) … starts 16th
  16. Austin Dillon (2005) … starts 13th