The 2021 season marks the second year the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has opened at Darlington Raceway (2020-2021) for the Cook Out Southern 500 on September 5 at 6 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
|2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Schedule|
|Darlington||Sunday, September 5, 2021|
|Richmond||Saturday, September 11, 2021|
|Bristol||Saturday, September 18, 2021|
|Las Vegas||Sunday, September 26, 2021|
|Talladega||Sunday, October 3, 2021|
|Charlotte RC||Sunday, October 10, 2021|
|Texas||Sunday, October 17, 2021|
|Kansas||Sunday, October 24, 2021|
|Martinsville||Sunday, October 31, 2021|
|Phoenix||Sunday, November 7, 2021|
Darlington Raceway is the fourth different track to host the first race of the NASCAR Cup Series postseason. New Hampshire Motor Speedway hosted the first race of the Playoffs from 2004–2010, then Chicagoland Speedway held the first race of the Playoffs from 2011–2017 and Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosted the first race of the Playoffs from 2018-2019.
Prior to the 2020 season, Darlington Raceway had hosted just one other Playoff race, the penultimate event in the inaugural Playoffs in 2004. The race was won by seven-time series champion and former Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson.
The winner of the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has gone on to win the title four times. In 2004 (inaugural Cup Playoffs), Kurt Busch won the opening race of the Playoffs at New Hampshire and went on to win the title. In 2011 (race was delayed until Monday due to rain) Tony Stewart won his first race of the season at Chicago to open the Playoffs. Stewart went on to set the record for the most wins in a Playoff run with five victories and the title. In 2012, Brad Keselowski won the Playoff race at Chicago and went on to win the title. And in 2017, Martin Truex Jr. won the Playoff race at Chicago and went on to win the championship.
|First Race Of The Playoffs – Race Winners|
|Track||Playoff Race Winners||Date|
|New Hampshire||Kurt Busch||Sunday, September 19, 2004|
|New Hampshire||Ryan Newman||Sunday, September 18, 2005|
|New Hampshire||Kevin Harvick||Sunday, September 17, 2006|
|New Hampshire||Clint Bowyer||Sunday, September 16, 2007|
|New Hampshire||Greg Biffle||Sunday, September 14, 2008|
|New Hampshire||Mark Martin||Sunday, September 20, 2009|
|New Hampshire||Clint Bowyer||Sunday, September 19, 2010|
|Chicago||Tony Stewart||Monday, September 19, 2011|
|Chicago||Brad Keselowski||Sunday, September 16, 2012|
|Chicago||Matt Kenseth||Sunday, September 15, 2013|
|Chicago||Brad Keselowski||Sunday, September 14, 2014|
|Chicago||Denny Hamlin||Sunday, September 20, 2015|
|Chicago||Martin Truex Jr||Sunday, September 18, 2016|
|Chicago||Martin Truex Jr||Sunday, September 17, 2017|
|Las Vegas||Brad Keselowski||Sunday, September 16, 2018|
|Las Vegas||Martin Truex Jr||Sunday, September 15, 2019|
|Darlington||Kevin Harvick||Sunday, September 6, 2020|
The worst finish in the opening race of the Playoffs by a driver that went on to win the title was Jimmie Johnson’s 39th-place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the 2006 postseason. The worst finish in the opening Playoff race at Chicago for a driver that went on to win the title was Jimmie Johnson’s 12th-place finish in 2016. The worst finish in the opening race of the Playoffs at Las Vegas by a driver that went on to win the title was Kyle Busch’s 19th-place finish in 2019. Last season, Chase Elliott finished 20th at Darlington Raceway to open the Playoffs and went on to win the title.
No non-Playoff driver has ever won the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Since the inception of the elimination-style format of the Playoffs in 2014, entering the Playoffs as the No. 1 seed has been the most successful seeding, producing three championships among two drivers – Kyle Busch (2015, 2019) and Martin Truex Jr. (2017). The deepest seed an eventual champion has started the Playoffs was seventh by Kevin Harvick (2014) and Joey Logano (2018). Elliott was seeded fifth last season entering the Playoffs.
Historical Darlington Raceway is a challenge itself for the competitors
Darlington Raceway is the perfect stage for NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener, the Cook Out Southern 500 (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The historic 1.366-mile egg-shaped paved oval has hosted 120 NASCAR Cup Series races dating back to 1950.
Originally, the raceway was built as a 1.25-mile paved superspeedway in 1949-1950 and hosted the first 500-mile race in NASCAR history and the first on asphalt on Sept. 4, 1950. A total of 75 cars competed in the inaugural event and Curtis Turner won the pole at 82.034 mph, and the race was won by Johnny Mantz (Plymouth, 75.250 mph). The race took 6 hours, 38 minutes, and 40 seconds to complete.
Since then, Darlington Raceway has undergone some changes through the years. In 1953, the track was re-measured to 1.375 miles. Then in 1970, the track was re-configured to 1.366 miles following the spring race of that season. The track was repaved in 1995 and then again prior to the 2008 season. Over the years the historic facility has become known amongst its competitors as ‘the track too tough to tame’.
In total, the 120 NASCAR Cup Series races has produced 51 different pole winners and 51 different race winners. Six of the 51 NASCAR Cup Series pole winners at Darlington Raceway are active this weekend – Kevin Harvick (two poles), Kurt Busch (two), Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and William Byron (each have one pole). NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson leads the series in poles at Darlington with 12 (1967, ’70, ’72, ’73 sweep, ’75 sweep, ’76 sweep, ’77, ’78 and ’82). Kurt Busch (2001, 2013) and Kevin Harvick (2014, 2017) lead all active drivers in poles at Darlington with two each.
Of the 51 NASCAR Cup Series Darlington Raceway race winners, six are active this weekend.
|Rank||Active Race Winners||Wins||Seasons|
|1||Kevin Harvick||3||2020-3, 2020-1, 2014|
|2||Denny Hamlin||3||2020-2, 2017, 2010|
|3||Martin Truex Jr||2||2021, 2016|
NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson leads the NASCAR Cup Series in victories at Darlington with 10 wins (1968, ’70, ’72, ’73, ’74, ’76 sweep, ’77, ’79, 80); followed by Dale Earnhardt with nine and Jeff Gordon with seven. Kevin Harvick (2020, 2020, 2014) and Denny Hamlin (2020, 2017, 2010) lead all active drivers in victories at Darlington with three wins each.
This weekend’s Cook Out Southern 500 will be 367 laps (501.3 miles) and will be broken up into three stages. The first stage will be 115 laps, the second stage will be 115 laps and the final stage will be 137 laps.
The starting lineup for this weekend’s Cook Out Southern 500 was determined by Metric Qualifying and as a result Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney will start from the pole and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will join Blaney on the front row.
The first starting position is the most proficient starting position in the field, producing more winners (20) than any other starting position at Darlington. The outside front row (second-place) has produced the second-most wins (17). In total, 20 of the 120 (16.667%) NASCAR Cup Series races at Darlington Raceway have been won from the pole or first starting position; the most recent driver to accomplish the feat was Kevin Harvick in 2014.
Quick Rundown: NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoff format is competed over the final 10 races and includes 16 drivers and four rounds – the Round of 16, the Round of 12, the Round of 8 and the Championship 4.
- A victory in the first 26 races all but guarantees a berth in the 10-race Playoffs.
- The number of Playoff drivers in contention for the championship will decrease after every three Playoff races, from 16 to start; 12 after race No. 3; eight after race No. 6; and four after race No. 9.
- The first three races (27-29) will be known as the Round of 16; races 30-32 will be known as the Round of 12; races 33-35 will be Round of 8; and race No. 36 will be the Championship 4.
- A win by a championship-eligible driver in any Playoff race automatically clinches the winning driver a spot in the next Playoff round.
- Four drivers will enter the Championship Race with a chance at the title, with the highest finisher among those four capturing the prestigious NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Eligibility For The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs
- The top 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races will earn a spot in the Playoffs – provided they have finished in the top 30 in points and attempted to qualify for every race (except in rare instances).
- The 16th Playoff position will go to the points leader after race No. 26 if he/she does not have a victory. In the event that there are 16 or more different winners over 26 races, the only winless driver who can earn a Playoff spot would be the points leader after 26 races.
- If there are fewer than 16 different winners in the first 26 races, the remaining Playoff positions will go to those winless drivers highest in points. If there are 16 or more winners in the first 26 races, the ties will first be broken by number of wins, followed by points.
- Prior to the start of the Playoffs, all Playoff drivers will have their points adjusted to 2,000, with all Playoff points added to their total. Those Playoff points will stay with the driver as long as he/she remains in the Playoffs (except for the Championship 4 Round race).
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs are an elimination-style format that is broken up into four rounds. After the third Playoff race, there will be 12 drivers. After the sixth Playoff race, the field will drop to eight drivers, and following the ninth Playoff race, only four drivers will remain in championship contention.
- Round of 16: The first round (races 27-29) is the Round of 16. If a Playoff driver wins a race in this round, the driver automatically advances to the next round (Round of 12). The remaining available positions 1-12 that have not been filled based upon wins will be based on points. Each driver will then have their points reset to 3,000, with any awarded Playoff points added.
|NASCAR Cup Series Driver Playoff Outlook Following Race No. 26|
|Rank||Driver||Points||Race Wins||Stage Wins||Playoff Pts||Pts From Cutoff|
|3||Martin Truex Jr.||2,024||3||5||24||19|
- Round of 12: The second round (races 30-32) is the Round of 12. Likewise, if a driver in the top 12 in points wins a race in this round, the driver automatically advances to the next round (Round of 8). The remaining available positions 1-8 that have not been filled based upon wins will be based on points. Each driver will then have their points reset to 4,000, with any awarded Playoff points added.
- Round of 8: The third round (races 33-35) is the Round of 8. If a driver in the top eight in points wins a race in this round, the driver automatically advances to the next round (Championship 4). The remaining available positions 1-4 that have not been filled based upon wins will be based on points. Each will then have their points reset to 5,000.
- Additionally, drivers who are eliminated in the Round of 16, Round of 12 and Round of 8 will have their points readjusted. Each eliminated driver will return to the Playoff-start base of 2,000 with any awarded Playoff points and any accumulated points starting with race No. 27 added. This will allow all drivers not in contention for the title to continue to race for the best possible season-long standing, with final positions fifth-through-16th still up for grabs.
- The 36th and final race of the season will be the Championship Race, which will feature the Championship 4 Round. Simply stated, the highest finisher in that race among the remaining four eligible drivers will win the NASCAR Cup Series title.
- Playoff points for stage wins will not apply in the season finale, so the official finishing position alone will decide the champion.
- Note: All rules outlined above also apply to the owner championship structure.
Scouting the Playoff field at Darlington
Darlington Raceway is set to kick off the 18th running of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs (2004-2021) in this Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at 6 p.m. ET on NBC. MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Since the inception of the postseason in 2004, 42 different drivers have qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs; including this season’s 16-driver field. Three drivers this season are making the Playoff career debuts in the NASCAR Cup Series – Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Tyler Reddick. Veterans Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are making their NASCAR Cup Series record tying 15th Playoff appearance – tied with Jimmie Johnson for most all-time.
Nine former NASCAR Cup Series champions make up this season’s 16-driver Playoff field; Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch is the only active competitor with multiple championships (2015, 2019).
|Champions – Playoff Era|
|1||7||Jimmie Johnson||2016, ‘13, ’10, ‘09, ‘08, ‘07, ‘06|
|2||2||Kyle Busch||2019, ’15|
|Tony Stewart||2011, ‘05|
|Martin Truex Jr.||2017|
Seven different organizations are represented in this season’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs; with two organizations – Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing – getting all four of their teams into the postseason.
All three NASCAR Cup Series official engine manufacturers have qualified for the Playoffs as well, led by Ford with seven entries into the postseason, followed by Chevrolet with five and Toyota with four.
Looking ahead to Darlington Raceway, six former winners are entered in the race this weekend; led by Kevin Harvick (2020, 2020, 2014) and Denny Hamlin (2020, 2017, 2010) with three wins each.
Driver listed below are by seeding heading into Darlington:
Kyle Larson (No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 1 seed with 2,052 points. Larson has made seven series starts at Darlington posting four top fives and six top 10s.
Ryan Blaney (No. 12 Team Penske Ford) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 2 seed with 2,024 points. Blaney is coming back-to-back wins (Michigan & Daytona) to close out the regular season. Blaney has made nine series starts at Darlington posting one top-10 finish (eighth earlier this season).
Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 3 seed with 2,024 points and the most recent winner at 1.366-mile track. Truex has made 19 series starts at Darlington posting two wins (2016, 2021), three top fives and nine top 10s.
Kyle Busch (No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 4 seed with 2,022 points. Busch has made 19 series starts at Darlington posting one win (2008) six top fives and 13 top 10s.
Chase Elliott (No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 5 seed with 2,021 points – the same seeding he started with last season and went on to win the 2020 title. Elliott has made nine series starts at Darlington posting two top fives and four top 10s.
Alex Bowman (No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 6 seed with 2,015 points. Bowman has made eight series starts at Darlington posting one top five and two top 10s.
Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 7 seed with 2,015 points. Hamlin has made 18 series starts at Darlington putting up three wins (2010, 2017, 2020), 10 top fives and 14 top 10s.
William Byron (No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 8 seed with 2,014 points. Byron has made six series starts at Darlington amassing two top fives and two top 10s.
Joey Logano (No. 22 Team Penske Ford) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 9 seed with 2,013 points. Logano has made 15 series starts at Darlington grabbing four top fives and seven top 10s.
Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Team Penske Ford) rolls into Darlington Raceway as the No. 10 seed with 2,008 points. Keselowski has made 15 series starts at Darlington accumulating one win (2018), five top fives and seven top 10s.
Kurt Busch (No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 11 seed with 2,008 points. Busch has made 27 series starts at Darlington posting four top fives and 11 top 10s.
Christopher Bell (No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 12 seed with 2,005 points. Bell has made four series starts at Darlington posting a best finish of 11th last season.
Michael McDowell (No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 13 seed with 2,005 points. McDowell has made 12 series starts at Darlington putting up best finish of 16th in this event last season.
Aric Almirola (No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) rolls into Darlington Raceway as the No. 14 seed with 2,005 points. Almirola has made 12 series starts at Darlington amassing two top-10 finishes.
Tyler Reddick (No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Ford) heads to Darlington Raceway as the No. 15 seed with 2,003 points. Reddick has made four series starts at Darlington posting one top-10 finish (seventh).
Kevin Harvick (No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) starts the Playoffs as the No. 16 seed with 2,002 points. Harvick has made 27 series starts at Darlington grabbing three wins (2014, 2020-1, 2020-3), 11 top fives (series-most among active drivers) and 16 top 10s. He is the defending winner of this event last season and is still looking for his first victory of the 2021 season.
For additional Playoff driver bio information, please visit the following link on NASCARMedia.com – NCS Playoff Media Content Hub.
NASCAR Cup Series has produced some great competition this season
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season has been deemed one of the best and the numbers certainly match the eye test. The first 26 races were phenomenal from a statistical standpoint – record-breaking, even.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season saw 14 different winners, which is tied for the second-highest number in the Playoff Era with 2017, 2012 and 2007. Just one win shy of the Playoff Era record of 15 different winners set in 2014.
This season has seen an increase in green flag passes of +13.2% compared to last year, and the highest total of green flag passes for the lead through 26 races (79,767) since 2007.
In addition, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is averaging 26.7 green flag passes for the lead per race – up 20.8% from the 15-year average of 22.1 per race through the first 26 races of the season. During the regular season, three race tracks have seen records set for green flag passes for the lead – Homestead-Miami Speedway (34), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (56) and Michigan (42).
NASCAR Cup Series, Etc.
Advance Auto Parts Awards $1,200 to NASCAR Short Tracks Following Ryan Blaney Win – Advance Auto Parts, a leading automotive aftermarket parts retailer and entitlement sponsor of the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series (NAAPWS), will award $1,200 to Limaland Motorsports Park in Elida, Ohio, and Bethel Motor Speedway in White Lake, N.Y., after Ryan Blaney captured his third NASCAR Cup Series win of the 2021 season at Daytona International Speedway.
Advance Auto Parts is using its associate sponsorship of Blaney and Team Penske’s No. 12 Ford Mustang to highlight NASCAR-sanctioned local tracks across the U.S. and Canada that are part of the NAAPWS. Limaland and Bethel were featured on Blaney’s car at Daytona. For every Blaney victory in 2021, local NASCAR tracks featured on his car each receive $1,200 to be used for track operations, local driver winnings or supporting a charity of the track’s choosing. In addition to Limaland and Bethel, other tracks receiving winnings following Blaney victories this year include Berlin Raceway (Marne, Mich.), Elko Speedway (Elko New Market, Minn.), Greenville-Pickens Speedway (Easley, S.C.) and Florence Motor Speedway (Timmonsville, S.C.).
This weekend Blaney will have Florence Motor Speedway and Claremont Motorsports Park on the car at Darlington Raceway.
Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney looking for three straight Cup wins – Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney is coming off consecutive wins at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway to close out the regular season and is now looking for his third straight NASCAR Cup Series victory to start the Playoffs at Darlington. If Blaney accomplishes the feat, he will be the 23rd different driver to accomplish the feat all-time and the sixth different active driver; joining Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
|NASCAR Cup Series Consecutive Wins – Three or More (Active Drivers)|
|Driver||No. of Wins||From||To|
|Kyle Larson||3||Sunday, May 30, 2021||Sunday, June 20, 2021|
|Kyle Busch||3||Sunday, April 8, 2018||Saturday, April 21, 2018|
|Kevin Harvick||3||Sunday, February 25, 2018||Sunday, March 11, 2018|
|Brad Keselowski||3||Sunday, September 2, 2018||Tuesday, September 18, 2018|
|Joey Logano||3||Sunday, October 11, 2015||Sunday, October 25, 2015|
|Kyle Busch||3||Saturday, July 11, 2015||Sunday, July 26, 2015|