The NASCAR Cup Series drivers headed to Darlington Raceway on Sept. 5 for the first race of the playoffs. All three stages featured multiple wrecks and sent multiple playoff drivers to the garage. Denny Hamlin ultimately survived the battle of attrition and punched his ticket to the Round of 12 with his first win of 2021.
Kyle Larson turned in a dominant performance early at Darlington, finishing second in Stage 1 and winning Stage 2. He had a very fast stock car, but Hamlin took the lead using pit strategy during the final segment. Hamlin stayed out on the track after a caution with fewer than 40 laps remaining, and he never relinquished the lead. He held off both Larson and Ross Chastain all the way to the finish line.
Larson had one final opportunity to move past Hamlin on the last lap. He raced up against the wall and tried to “video game it,” but he couldn’t quite move past the No. 11. Hamlin maintained his spot on the final drag race to the checkered flag while Larson left the track with a second-place finish and a destroyed stock car. Chastain finished third, Martin Truex Jr. took fourth, and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.
The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will continue with the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders at Richmond Raceway. The race will take place on Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Network will provide coverage.
Hendrick Motorsports Drivers Had Wildly Different Races
The four-car Hendrick Motorsports stable entered the first playoff race facing favorable odds to lock up the win and automatically move to the Round of 12. However, only Larson and Elliott turned in very strong performances.
The first stage featured an early caution due to teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron colliding. The driver of the No. 48 hit the wall first, causing damage and halting his momentum as he went around a turn. Byron could not slow the No. 24 down in time and collided with the left rear of the No. 48, damaging both of their stock cars.
The two Chevrolet drivers each returned to the track after heading to the pits for repairs, but only Bowman made it to the end of Stage 2. Byron actually damaged his stock car again after the left front tire went down as he attempted to enter Turn 1. Instead of navigating the corner, he slammed violently into the wall. Officials waved the yellow caution flag as the tow truck headed out to drag the No. 24 to the garage.
Elliott dealt with his own problems despite spending the majority of the final stage fighting for a top-five finish. He actually damaged the left rear of the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro after colliding with a tire belonging to the No. 53 team. The tire carrier for the team had the piece of equipment in his arms, and Elliott hit it as he left his pit box.
The driver of the No. 9 experienced the biggest problem with just over 41 laps remaining. He went three-wide with Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace, pinching the No. 9 into the wall. The collision cut the tire and sent Elliott back into the wall moments later, severely damaging his stock car. The pit crew removed his tire, saw that the brake rotor broke, and immediately took the stock car to the garage. Elliott ended the night 31st overall.
Several Playoff Teams Had Terrible Days at Darlington
Byron and Bowman were not the only drivers that dealt with major problems during the first race of the Round of 16. Multiple teams had issues that dropped them off of the lead lap or even sent them to the garage.
Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell was the first to leave the race, losing control while fighting with Richard Petty Motorsports driver Erik Jones for position. He hit the inside wall and destroyed the front of the No. 34 Ford Mustang, finishing 37th overall.
Kyle Busch was the next to deal with issues. He made contact with Austin Dillon and slammed into the outside wall, tearing up the rear of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. He finished 35th overall and made some strong statements about the quality of his car after leaving the infield care center.
Several playoff drivers and their teams also made mistakes during pit stops but were able to remain on the track. Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, and Martin Truex Jr. all had loose tires, forcing them back onto pit road. Truex also received a speeding penalty with fewer than 50 laps to go. The issues continued with Ryan Blaney spinning after losing his brakes, which brought out yet another caution.