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NASCAR Starting Lineup for Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

NASCAR Starting Lineup for Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

Ryan Blaney will lead the field to green Sunday night

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin with one of the sport’s crown jewels, the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Sunday will mark the 72nd edition of this race on the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval which hosted the sport’s first 500-mile event on asphalt back in 1950.

A total of 16 drivers will begin the postseason eligible to race for the championship. After the next three races, the four lowest drivers among them in points will be eliminated as the list gets cut to 12.

Their first challenge won’t be easy. Darlington, whose turn 2 was repaved after the last race here Mother’s Day Weekend, is called the Track Too Tough To Tame for a reason. It’s hard to keep the car clean over a full 500-mile distance as Darlington’s unique shape and distinct sets of turns keep drivers on their toes every lap. A perfect-handling car here is a virtual impossibility while one small slip-up sends your car right up into the outside wall. If you haven’t earned a Darlington stripe while racing here, well, you haven’t been racing the track hard enough.

None of the drivers will get any on-track time before the race due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The field was set using the sport’s qualifying metric outlined below. Starting this weekend, there’s one important addition: playoff drivers are guaranteed to start within the top 16. Even if a non-playoff driver wins the Southern 500, they can start no higher than 17th the following week.

50% of the metric is based on finishing position from the previous race (split between driver and owner).
35% of the metric is the team’s current position in the NASCAR Cup Series owner point standings.
15% of the metric is based on the team’s fastest lap during the previous race.

The team with the lowest total starts on the pole, then the next lowest, etc. until the starting grid is complete. It’s the best compromise the sport could make as they try to keep drivers and team members safe.

Just 37 cars are entered at Darlington, leaving three empty spots on the grid. All 36 teams who have guaranteed spots are entered along with the “open” No. 37 car JTG Daugherty Racing is fielding with driver Ryan Preece. Open cars are not guaranteed a spot and, when more than 40 cars are entered, need to qualify for a race on speed.

1. Ryan Blaney (P)
2. Denny Hamlin (P)
3. Kurt Busch (P)
4. Chase Elliott (P)
5. Alex Bowman (P)
6. Kyle Larson (P)
7. Tyler Reddick (P)
8. Aric Almirola (P)
9. Kevin Harvick (P)
10. Martin Truex Jr. (P)
11. Joey Logano (P)
12. Kyle Busch (P)
13. Christopher Bell (P)
14. William Byron (P)
15. Michael McDowell (P)
16. Brad Keselowski (P)
17. Bubba Wallace
18. Ryan Preece
19. Ryan Newman
20. Justin Haley (i)
21. Austin Dillon
22. Erik Jones
23. Ross Chastain
24. Chase Briscoe (R)
25. Corey LaJoie
26. Daniel Suarez
27. BJ McLeod (i)
28. Josh Bilicki
29. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
30. Matt DiBenedetto
31. Cole Custer
32. Anthony Alfredo (R)
33. Cody Ware (i)
34. Chris Buescher
35. Joey Gase (i)
36. James Davison
37. Quin Houff

(P) – Playoff driver
(R) – Rookie
(i) – Ineligible to collect Cup Series points

Qualifying Notes

- Ryan Blaney (pole) starts up front for the first time since Martinsville Speedway back in June 2020. He’s attempting to win three straight races in the No. 12 Ford for the first time in his NASCAR Cup career.
- Denny Hamlin (second) is the highest-qualifying Toyota. He’s also one of three winless drivers in the playoffs, joining Tyler Reddick (seventh) and defending Southern 500 winner Kevin Harvick (ninth).
- Kurt Busch (third) is the highest-qualifying Chevrolet. He’s never won at Darlington in 27 career starts.
- Chase Elliott (fourth) is the defending Cup champion.
- Kyle Larson (sixth) has never won at Darlington despite top-3 finishes in each of his last three starts here.
- Martin Truex Jr. (10th) led 248 of 293 laps on route to victory at Darlington this spring.
- Chase Briscoe (24th) is the highest-qualifying rookie.
- James Davison (36th) replaces Garrett Smithley behind the wheel of the No. 53 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

NASCAR Race Breakdown

Race: Cook Out Southern 500
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Date: Sunday, Sept. 5
TV: NBCSN, 6 p.m. ET
Distance: 367 laps (500 miles)
Stage 1: 115 Laps
Stage 2: 115 Laps
Final Stage: 137 Laps

Pre-Race Preview

Erik Jones stops by the Frontstretch Podcast to talk about his decision to re-sign with Richard Petty Motorsports next season. The former Southern 500 winner provides the perfect segway for host Davey Segal and company to preview this weekend’s edition.