Darlington Raceway isn’t called the “Track Too Tough To Tame” for nothing.

It’s unique 1.366-mile egg-shaped layout and arguably the hardest walls in the sport leaves most drivers wanting to get there, race and get the heck out of Dodge as quick as possible.

One driver who didn’t mind lingering after Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 was Denny Hamlin, who earned his first win of the season and 45th of his career.

“We were top-3 all night,” Hamlin told Motor Racing Network. “I just drove as hard as I could there at the end. This car was very fast, Chris (crew chief Chris Gabehart) adjusted it all night and gave me a race winner. (Runner-up Kyle) Larson rattled me a little, we got into the wall a little, but a fun finish in the Southern 500.”

Hamlin gets an immediate berth in the second round of the playoffs by virtue of the win.

“Now we get to have fun for these next two weeks,” he said. “This team deserved a win. We’ve been so strong all year, and we finally got them there.”

Larson, meanwhile, in almost a superhuman effort of holding on to the steering wheel while also maintaining forward movement, bounced off the wall on the last lap but was able to keep things in control, barely missed catching Hamlin and settled for a still very respectable second-place finish.

“I decided to throw a last effort to go wall riding but it wasn’t enough,” Larson laughed to MRN. “Just a fun track, fun race. Enjoyed the day and wished we could have been one spot higher, but Denny did a good job and just beat us.”

Because he had so many bonus points earned in the first 26 races, Larson remains first in the standings with a 34-point edge over Hamlin.

But the bigger story was which of the 16 playoff qualifiers DIDN’T have a good night and Darlington’s implications on the remaining two races of the first round.

Racing on “The Lady In Black” is anything but a day at the beach, unlike the surf and sand at nearby Myrtle Beach. Other than Talladega Superspeedway, there is no other track drivers want to kick off the 10-race NASCAR Cup playoffs than Darlington.

Yet that’s what happened Sunday and the end result was both predictable and also rather discouraging to many of the 16 drivers entered in the opening round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

With the three-race first round now one race down, several drivers find themselves behind the 8-ball, if not in must-win situations, to advance to the second round three weeks from now.

Look at the carnage from Darlington:

• Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell finished last (37th).

• Two-time Cup champ Kyle Busch finished 35th after making contact with Austin Dillon. While non-playoff driver Dillon was able to continue on and finished a respectable 10th, Busch suffered his first DNF in 20 career appearances at Darlington.

• Defending Cup champion Chase Elliott became the third member of the four-driver Hendrick Motorsports stable to wreck in the race, 40 laps from the checkered flag, ending what had been up to that point a very good run. For a guy who looked like he had the car to win, the wreck left Elliott with a disappointing 31st place finish.

“I just got into whoever there, cut down the left front, hit the wall and that was it,” a disgruntled Elliott told MRN.

• As for two of Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates, William Byron, with hopes of many that this could be HIS year to really go deep into the playoffs, finished 34th, while Alex Bowman struggled to a 26th-place finish, four laps off the pace.

• Ryan Blaney, who was pushing toward the lead early into the third and final stage, hit the wall and so did his playoff hopes in turn, finishing a disappointing 22nd.

• Christopher Bell, making his first Cup playoffs, did not get off to the start he hoped for, finishing 20th.

• One of only two championship hopefuls from Stewart-Haas Racing, Aric Almirola finished 16th.

• Richard Childress Racing’s lone playoff hope, Tyler Reddick, had a mediocre race and finished an equally mediocre 18th-place showing.

Needless to say, the playoff points look ugly for many drivers after Darlington.

Four players are already under the cutoff line to make the second round: Bowman (-1), Kyle Busch (-2), Byron (-9) and McDowell (-20).

With little breathing room and not much further ahead of Bowman, Busch, Byron and McDowell are Bell (+5 above the cutoff line), Elliott (+4), Almirola (+3) and Reddick (even).

On the flip side, there were several strong performances from guys that missed qualifying for the playoffs, but that didn’t prevent them from showing they had no fear at Darlington.

• The Florida watermelon farmer, Ross Chastain, had one of the best overall performances of his Cup career, running as high as second before ultimately finishing third, his second-highest finish of the season (was second at Nashville).

“It’s just good to be competitive,” Chastain told MRN. “It’s the hardest track. We all want to run good here the most because it’s so challenging.”

• Chris Buescher finished ninth, while his former teammate at JTG-Daugherty Racing, Ryan Preece, finished 12th.

• Cole Custer, who has been virtually invisible this season after such a stout campaign in 2020, finished 11th.

• Daniel Suarez, who has also been rather quiet this season, made some decent noise, finishing 12th.

Also of note, even though he remains winless (after leading the series with nine wins last season), Kevin Harvick earned only his seventh top-five finish of 2021 (and his best finish in his last eight starts, dating back to his fourth-place outing at Pocono), ending up fifth.

Doing so gave Harvick somewhat of a toehold to potentially advance to the second round – provided he has similar results in the next two races in the first round.

“We finished on a flat tire … just a lot going on,” Harvick told MRN. “That’s pretty typical of this race. We led a bunch of laps early, had a good race car and were able to capitalize on it for a good day.”

Also, Martin Truex Jr., who had struggled in his last three starts, bounced back for a strong fourth-place showing.

“It’s typical of the way things have been for us the last three, four months,” Truex told MRN. “Once it started cooling off, the car started coming to me. I feel we had a shot to win. We came from a long way back, passed a lot of cars to get fourth. We just had a never-give-up attitude as a team. Hopefully we can build off this.”

A lot of other drivers wish they could have said the same, but before building on things, they first they have to dig themselves out of the hole they left Darlington in Sunday night.

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

NASCAR Cup Series Race – 72nd Annual Cook Out Southern 500

Darlington Raceway

Darlington, South Carolina

Sunday, September 5, 2021

1. (2) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 367.

2. (6) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 367.

3. (23) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 367.

4. (10) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 367.

5. (9) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 367.

6. (3) Kurt Busch (P), Chevrolet, 367.

7. (16) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 367.

8. (11) Joey Logano (P), Ford, 367.

9. (34) Chris Buescher, Ford, 367.

10. (21) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 367.

11. (31) Cole Custer, Ford, 367.

12. (18) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 367.

13. (26) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 367.

14. (19) Ryan Newman, Ford, 367.

15. (25) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 367.

16. (8) Aric Almirola (P), Ford, 366.

17. (29) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 366.

18. (7) Tyler Reddick (P), Chevrolet, 366.

19. (24) Chase Briscoe #, Ford, 366.

20. (13) Christopher Bell (P), Toyota, 366.

21. (17) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 366.

22. (1) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 366.

23. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 365.

24. (32) Anthony Alfredo #, Ford, 364.

25. (20) Justin Haley(i), Chevrolet, 364.

26. (5) Alex Bowman (P), Chevrolet, 363.

27. (27) BJ McLeod(i), Ford, 359.

28. (28) Josh Bilicki, Ford, 359.

29. (35) Joey Gase(i), Chevrolet, 357.

30. (37) Quin Houff, Chevrolet, 355.

31. (4) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 327.

32. (22) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, Engine, 264.

33. (33) Cody Ware(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 209.

34. (14) William Byron (P), Chevrolet, Accident, 199.

35. (12) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, Accident, 125.

36. (36) James Davison, Chevrolet, Accident, 50.

37. (15) Michael McDowell (P), Ford, Accident, 30.

Average Speed of Race Winner: 121.279 mph.

Time of Race: 4 Hrs, 8 Mins, 1 Secs. Margin of Victory: .212 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 11 for 52 laps.

Lead Changes: 18 among 10 drivers.

Lap Leaders: R. Blaney (P) 1-14;K. Busch (P) 15-27;E. Jones 28-29;K. Harvick (P) 30-49;J. Gase(i) 50;D. Hamlin (P) 51-80;R. Blaney (P) 81-83;D. Hamlin (P) 84-121;K. Larson (P) 122-158;C. Bell (P) 159-165;K. Larson (P) 166-196;C. Bell (P) 197-199;K. Larson (P) 200-232;R. Chastain 233;K. Larson (P) 234-269;D. Hamlin (P) 270-278;M. Truex Jr. (P) 279;K. Larson (P) 280-298;D. Hamlin (P) 299-367.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kyle Larson (P) 5 times for 156 laps; Denny Hamlin (P) 4 times for 146 laps; Kevin Harvick (P) 1 time for 20 laps; Ryan Blaney (P) 2 times for 17 laps; Kurt Busch (P) 1 time for 13 laps; Christopher Bell (P) 2 times for 10 laps; Erik Jones 1 time for 2 laps; Ross Chastain 1 time for 1 lap; Joey Gase(i) 1 time for 1 lap; Martin Truex Jr. (P) 1 time for 1 lap.

Stage #1 Top Ten: 11,5,1,12,4,19,8,10,42,22

Stage #2 Top Ten: 5,20,42,11,4,1,22,9,12,7

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