It's hard to believe but the NASCAR postseason has arrived, on schedule despite a two-month COVID-19 suspension. One of the sport's crown jewel events, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, will serve as the playoff opener on Sunday night (Sept. 6) as the Cup Series begins its 10-race championship chase.
16 drivers will be whittled down to four by the time we hit the postseason finale at Phoenix Raceway in early November. Among those who won't even get the chance? A retiring Jimmie Johnson, whose push for a record-breaking eighth title has officially ended; fellow veterans Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth, feel-good stories in different ways who struggled much of the year; and Erik Jones, whose postseason miss at Joe Gibbs Racing came paired with a pink slip.
Those drivers will now fade into the background, so to speak, as the focus turns to the field of 16 fighting to advance. This year, it feels the run to the Championship 4 has more parity than ever, although there are two drivers in particular who stand above the rest.
Let's break down the field and set expectations.
The Favorites: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick
This duo has combined to win half of the 26 regular-season races. Harvick has been remarkably consistent at an age (45) peers like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and others have retired. In a non-playoff format, he would lead the standings right now by a whopping 115 points. That's nearly two full races' worth.
In Hamlin's case, he's already earned 15 top-five finishes, more than in all but one season of his 14-year career (2019). The 2010 runner-up is in prime position to celebrate his 40th birthday this year with his first Cup title.
Best-Case Scenario: If I'm a betting man, this year's championship trophy gets hoisted by one of these two.
Worst-Case Scenario: Anything less than the Championship 4 would be a failure – and a very unlikely catastrophe - at this point.
The Young Upstarts: Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott
Two twentysomething drivers, good friends off the track, have had career-defining years on it. Blaney's got a win at Talladega Superspeedway this spring, 586 laps led and starts the postseason seeded seventh. Elliott has two victories of his own, at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Daytona's road course, while earning a cool $1 million bonus in the All-Star Race.
Most importantly, these sons of famous NASCAR families have rising expectations in their fifth full season on tour. How much longer can they fall short of the championship finale? Both drive for top-tier teams (Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports) and need a playoff breakthrough to match their superstar-level popularity.
Best-Case Scenario: Both have what it takes this year to steal the title from two 40-somethings in front of them.
Worst-Case Scenario: I can't see either worse than the Round of 8. An earlier flameout and the critics will grow louder.
Steady As They Go: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr.
This trio is former champions, well-versed in the elimination format and putting together quality seasons. Keselowski has three victories for the fourth straight year while his 19 top-10 finishes trail only Harvick. Logano, the 2018 champion, has won twice while leading 657 laps (third best in Cup). And Truex, despite going winless since Martinsville in June, rode into the playoffs on the back of eight straight top-4 results.
Best-Case Scenario: Another Championship 4 notch on their resume (but no title).
Worst-Case Scenario: Someone unexpected always becomes a first-round flameout. This group sits close enough to the cutline and each could be vulnerable if there's a rough start.
The Wild Card: Kyle Busch
The reigning Cup Series champ has had an un-Kyle Busch like 2020. 11 top-5 finishes rank third but that zero he has in the win column? It's unprecedented for this late in the season. Five DNFs have come packaged with every type of bad luck imaginable to keep Busch from breaking out. Think about if you ran over a nail in your driveway and got a flat tire on route to work, every single day for a week. Even if you had the best tires. That's Busch's year.
Best-Case Scenario: Busch rips through the competition, wins strategically to get to the Championship 4 and makes all of us look foolish with a second straight title. With him, anything is possible.
Worst-Case Scenario: Two wrecks plus a blown engine equal a first-round playoff exit and 2021 shakeup on his crew.
The Head-Scratchers: Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch
Bowman looked like the hottest driver out there, even a dark horse title contender in the first four races (also winning at Auto Club Speedway). But since a return from COVID-19? He's been near invisible. Bowman's back-to-back top-10 finishes entering the playoffs were his first of the year.
Kurt Busch, meanwhile, lost teammate Kyle Larson and never seemed to get going in 2020. In the playoffs on points, he crashed twice in the last three races and led just 91 laps all year. But one key stat? 14 top-10 finishes, the type of consistency that'll quietly get you advancing.
Best-Case Scenario: Unexpected runs to the Round of 8. The talent is there; it's putting together a full race that's the problem.
Worst-Case Scenario: A Round of 16 elimination and we forget they exist by Phoenix.
Fighting For Their Lives: Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto
Both these drivers squeaked into the playoffs despite winless years. Both remain unsigned in 2021 by their current teams (Stewart-Haas Racing, Wood Brothers Racing). Both have young, talented prospects (Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric) breathing down their necks for a promotion.
How do you fix that? Simple: Win. Advance. Force the teams you're with to bring you back. But that's a tall order, considering this duo has a grand total of four top-5 finishes between them.
Best-Case Scenario: An underdog push to the Round of 12, then the cusp of the Round of 8, including an upset win (Bristol Motor Speedway?) that gives each driver a shot to return in 2021.
Worst-Case Scenario: First-round elimination, a pink slip that follows and desperate late-season auditioning to stay in the sport.
Just Happy to Be Here: Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Aric Almirola, William Byron
Each of these drivers cashed their playoff ticket but expectations remain low. Dillon had an unexpected win at Texas Motor Speedway in what's been a build back better year for Richard Childress Racing. Rookie Custer's led just five laps in his Cup career, all of them in the upset of the season at Kentucky Speedway. Byron bested teammate Johnson for the playoffs with a Daytona desperation win last weekend; it was just his second top-5 finish of 2020. And Almirola, despite a consistent summer and a career-high 287 laps led, remains winless and in the shadows at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Best-Case Scenario: If all the cards fall right, a shocking Round of 8 appearance for one of them before fading into the background.
Worst-Case Scenario: These are the four who won't be around when the field chops from 16 to 12.
Cook Out Southern 500
Date: Sunday, Sept. 6
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: 16 Playoff Drivers
NASCAR's new qualifying rules this week make the postseason bias worse than ever. Barring something unexpected (like failing inspection) the best any non-postseason driver can start right now is 17th. Are they just all window dressing at this point?
Who's at the Back: Ryan Preece
Preece ended the regular season wrecked out at Daytona, his eighth DNF which gives him more than any other full-time driver except small-time independent Timmy Hill. Can he find a rhythm these final 10 weeks and save his job?
Another single-car NASCAR team is in trouble come 2021. Germain Racing will lose primary sponsor GEICO after the season and is exploring a potential sale, leaving driver Ty Dillon's future in limbo.
Darlington has already had one of the best finishes of the year this weekend. Young Brandon Jones earned the NASCAR Xfinity Series win after Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain roughed each other up in a phenomenal battle up front in the closing laps. When both drivers hit the wall heading to the white-flag lap, Jones snuck by both to take the win.
Darlington is typically throwback weekend, and 2020 is no exception. See all the great throwback paint schemes for Sunday night's race honoring some of the legends of the sport.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup races at Darlington this year, the first time that's happened in NASCAR's 71-year history.
Playoff points earned by Matt DiBenedetto, the only driver not to win at least a stage in this year's field. He's seeded 16th and starts 57 points behind leader Kevin Harvick.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Darlington has been in Denny Hamlin'swheelhouse for years. Already a winner here in May, he's led 574 career laps at the Lady in Black while posting an average finish of 7.2. It's hard to bet against him starting this postseason strong.
In last year's Southern 500, Kyle Busch led 118 laps and was a contender all night, ending it third. This May's runner-up finisher to Hamlin (after an ill-timed bump of Chase Elliott on the frontstretch) is a high-risk, boom-or-bust option worth taking.
Kurt Busch has still never won a Darlington race despite being part of its rich history, losing here by inches to Ricky Craven in 2003. He's on a streak of five straight top-15 finishes, led 94 laps here last fall and is a dark horse to finally knock the Southern 500 off his bucket list.
Matt Kenseth? I'm picking a non-playoff driver here? Absolutely. The 48-year-old should excel at a driver's track where he finished 10th earlier this year in his first Cup race since November 2018. Those position differential points (he starts 26th) could be crucial in daily fantasy leagues.
Rookie Christopher Bell got the knack of Darlington by the second Cup race in May, sneaking home 11th. There's still time to correct a disappointing year with a No. 95 Leavine Family Racing team that's capable of top-10 results.
Bubba Wallace has been quietly improving every time out at Darlington: from 26th to 24th, to 21st, to 16th in May. The No. 43 has more funding now and is building (they hope with Wallace) toward a better 2021. Can there be a top-15 breakthrough here?
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick has 13/4 odds to win Darlington but he's followed closely by Hamlin at 7/2. No other driver is better than 8/1.
Looking for a longshot? Clint Bowyer sits at 66/1. Do you believe in miracles?
What I Think
Kyle Busch has had such an unconventional year. Wouldn't it be so 2020 for him to finally win in the playoff opener? And at one of NASCAR's crown jewels, to boot?
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)