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What matters at Darlington: Southern 500 win goes through Martin Truex Jr.

Marty Snider and Kyle Petty look ahead to the first race of the NASCAR Cup playoffs at Darlington, analyzing what has led Kyle Larson to the top of the standings, why Denny Hamlin could be in for a big race and more.

What matters in today’s race from Darlington Raceway and can anyone topple Martin Truex Jr.? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Does anyone have anything for Truex?

The degree to which Martin Truex Jr. dominated the spring race in Darlington can be quantified far past him leading 85% of the race:

  • His median lap time (31.826 seconds) was the fastest across 400 miles.
  • He ventured to a 14.5-second lead before the end of the second stage.
  • He turned in the best singular restarts from three different positions: first (+0, three times), third (+2, taking the lead on lap 115) and fourth (+1, twice, in a spot that saw a 0.17-position average loss). For the day, he had 100% position retention on restarts.

It’s easy to forget about Truex’s early-season strength. Since his Darlington win (on May 9), he’s earned just three top-five finishes in 17 races. In fairness, none of the tracks that followed have playoff representation. This team, it seems, was built to win at 750-horsepower tracks in the playoffs. They were victorious in two other races — at Martinsville and Phoenix — that hold prominent positions as the cutoff event of the semifinal round and the winner-take-all finale.

But those other two wins weren’t the result of woodshed-whippings like the one Truex put on the field at Darlington. There, he ran wilder than any previous winner at the 1.366-mile track since Dale Earnhardt’s rout of the 1986 TranSouth 500, in which he led 335 of 367 laps.

Anticipate Truex remaining a favorite for the win today, but the notion that he regresses from his historic performance is likely a smart one, with a couple of drivers poised to benefit based on a variety of measures.

Denny Hamlin bested Joe Gibbs Racing stable mate Truex in both average median lap rank on playoff tracks during the regular season and points accumulated on those tracks (with Talladega omitted). While the focus of Hamlin’s team hasn’t resulted in wins, it’s certainly on par with what Truex’s team turned its energy towards, a make-good on last year’s season finale.

“It’s kind of a learning period for us, but we put our best effort forward,” Hamlin said after finishing fourth last fall in Phoenix with the fourth-fastest car. “We made no mistakes today. I did everything I possibly could. I had nothing there … Our car didn’t have enough speed to go up there and compete.”

Kyle Larson finished second to Truex in the spring, in spite of having the fourth-fastest car. The top-seeded driver entering the playoffs, Larson doesn’t necessarily need a win in order to advance to the next round, but a showing closer to equal footing to that of Truex — Larson failed to lead a single lap in the spring — would help us understand how well Hendrick Motorsports prepared for a slate of races where the majority of them favor Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske’s Joey Logano, driver of the second-fastest car this season on 750-horsepower tracks.

Might early strategy be dictated by the point standings?

At first blush, there isn’t much wiggle room in regards to strategy in the early goings of tonight’s race. Darlington sees a two-second lap time degradation on old tires, and the respect teams have for fresh rubber was universal in last year’s Southern 500.

No team pitted in advance of the competition caution in an effort to inherit better track position. It was a proposition deemed too risky with an ensuing restart making vulnerable anyone with even a lap or two on their set of tires. But tonight, for some, it may be a risk worth taking.

Kevin Harvick enters the playoff opener in an unfamiliar position, seeded last among the 16 championship-eligible teams. So, he’s in need of as many points as he can possibly score to stave off a first-round elimination. Additionally, he recorded the fastest single lap in Darlington’s spring race, a potential sign that the car was optimized for clean air that he didn’t regularly have.

Pitting before the competition caution not only falls into the strategic wheelhouse of crew chief Rodney Childers, but it may represent Harvick’s best shot at taking advantage of a car that was more competitive than meets the eye, ranked sixth in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks. A stage win tonight would be his first of the entire 2021 season.

Harvick isn’t the only driver walking this particular line. Fellow Stewart-Haas Racing driver Aric Almirola and JGR’s Christopher Bell both have quantifiably good 750-horsepower speed (ranked 12th and ninth, respectively) and a dearth of playoff points. The choice for strategic aggression is one that’s viable, though not without risk.

The 137-lap final stage could see a splitting of tactics, as 2v1 pit stop battle is on the table. Last year, JGR attempted a one-stop final stage while the Chevrolet contingent, famously Harvick, Chase Elliott and eventual runner-up Austin Dillon, attempted two, utilizing fast lap times on fresh rubber to make up for time lost on pit road.

There will be but one winner, who’ll automatically advance to the next round, but a multitude of paths toward “maximizing the day” in terms of points.

This is just one-third of a round, but some teams may already be in trouble

Aside from the winner — assuming it comes from the title-eligible 16 teams — 15 others will leave Darlington with unfinished business. Two other events, occurring at 750-horsepower tracks Richmond and Bristol, comprise this initial round. That the entire round consists of one track type is beneficial to some and a hindrance to others. For the latter, the problem compounds with a lack of points.

Michael McDowell, ranked 28th in 750-horsepower speed, enters the playoffs with 2,005 points, the third-least of any driver. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer confirmed to NBC Sports that the Front Row Motorsports team would require “luck,” in addition to doing “everything at the highest level Front Row could ever do” in order to advance to a second round that suits them far more favorably, with Talladega and the Charlotte Roval as two of the featured races.

Kurt Busch, ranked 17th by the same speed metric, holds just three more points than McDowell. In the spring Darlington race, Busch had the 27th-fastest car, earning two points from his 35th-place finish. And while that may have been an aberration, his 13th-place finish (and 24 points earned) at Richmond didn’t necessarily inspire. The Atlanta race winner was well suited for 550-horsepower tracks — ranked sixth in average median lap this season — but faces a steep challenge across these next three weekends.

If it wasn’t for his New Hampshire performance — his median lap ranked second while his best lap ranked first — all signs suggest Brad Keselowski is in for a world of hurt through the next three races. It’s a remarkable dip in speed, going from the fastest team of the 2020 season finale in Phoenix to ranking as the 15th fastest on 750-horsepower tracks. And considering his points tally is on par with that of Busch, he’ll need results (and points) beyond what he’s shown. Races heavy on cautions could provide an escape route: He ranks in the 99th percentiles for restart offense and defense compared to other playoff drivers this season on playoff tracks.