The Round of 16 of the Cup Series Playoffs gets underway tonight with a Crown Jewel race: the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. With the playoff field now set, the 16 drivers will give it their all in hopes of winning a championship. The top 12 drivers following the cut-off race at Bristol Motor Speedway in two weeks will move onto the next round, while the four drivers below the cut line will see their championship aspirations come to an end.
The 1.37 mile, oval track first opened in 1950 and has hosted at least one NASCAR race every year since then. Jeff Gordon holds the record for most Southern 500 victories, with 6 career wins in this race, while Denny Hamlin leads active drivers with 3 Southern 500 victories. Last year’s edition was won by Erik Jones, who, while driving the iconic 43 car for Petty GMS Motorsports (now Legacy Motor Club), took the lead late after steadily improving all race long and held off Denny Hamlin for his second career Southern 500 victory.
Race coverage for the Cook Out Southern 500 can be seen on the USA Network, with pre-race beginning at 5:30 PM EST and green flag coverage beginning at 6 PM EST!
Driver to Fade:
Corey LaJoie is a driver you can easily root for, but The Lady in Black has been downright cruel to him in his career. LaJoie has just 1 top 20 finish in 11 career starts at Darlington and an average finishing position of 27.5. With a starting position of 22nd tonight, perhaps it is possible for LaJoie to right the ship, especially after a strong, top 10 finish at Daytona last week. We predict that LaJoie will continue to be perplexed by the uniqueness of Darlington and finish outside the top 20 yet again.
I’m here to warn all of the haters and doubters: Do NOT sleep on Michael McDowell at Darlington. At first glance, his stats aren’t all that impressive, with 2 top 10’s and 6 top 20’s in 16 starts. But both of those top 10’s have come in his last 3 starts here, including a 6th place finish in last year’s Southern 500. McDowell had top 5 speed in practice yesterday and will start tonight’s race from the 9th position. A win is unlikely, but a top 12 finish would go a long way towards giving him a chance to advance to the Round of 12.
Kevin Harvick may be getting ready to compete in the final 10 races of his career during these Playoffs, but he still has the drive to compete. Darlington may arguably be his best track in the playoffs besides Phoenix, as Harvick has 3 wins, 14 top 5’s, and 19 top 10’s in 31 career Darlington races. Harvick really hasn’t qualified that well this season, as tonight’s 7th place start position matches his 6th best qualifying result of the season, but Harvick has also had the momentum at Darlington of late, with 14 top 10’s in the last 15 races here. Harvick is a patient and methodical driver and will most certainly ease his way towards the front over the course of 500 miles tonight. A win isn’t out of the realm, but a top 10 finish is a lock in his final Southern 500 start.
Mr. Excitement during last year’s Playoffs thanks to his walk-off victories to advance to both the Round of 8 and the Championship 4, Bell has quietly had a nice season, with 1 win, 6 top 5’s, and 13 top 10’s. Bell hasn’t dazzled the sport with his past Darlington results, but he does have 2 top 6 finishes in his last 3 starts here. Bell was the fastest in practice yesterday and will start from the Pole position in tonight’s race, and with as difficult as it is to pass at Darlington, the closer you start to the front, the better your chances of a victory are. Tonight’s race is shaping up to be a duel between Bell and his teammate Denny Hamlin, who won the Xfinity race at Darlington yesterday. We predict that Bell will be able to breathe easier the rest of this first round of the Playoffs by taming The Lady in Black tonight for his first Southern 500 victory!