The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began at Darlington Raceway. Several drivers made positive moves while fighting to move on to the Round of 12, but past champions headlined the list of winners and losers on a wild South Carolina night.
Kevin Harvick tops the list after a frightening sequence of events. He had rebounded from a slow pit stop that dropped him outside of the top 30, and he had moved up into the top 10. However, he pulled off to the side of the track during the final stage as flames billowed out from both sides of the No. 4 Ford Mustang.
Harvick was able to climb from the stock car as the safety crews rushed to provide assistance. His day ultimately came to an end in the 33rd position, which created concerns about his ability to move on to the Round of 12. Though these concerns paled in comparison to those surrounding his health and safety.
The list also included Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. The two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had dominant cars all night long, and it appeared that one of them would take the Crown Jewel race. Instead, they both headed to the garage after stunning mechanical issues.
Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson dealt with their own separate issues early at Darlington Raceway, which led to them missing out on crucial playoff points. Larson had mechanical issues that dropped him multiple laps behind the pack before he hit the wall. Though he mounted a stunning comeback.
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Elliott, for comparison, hit the wall and ended his night after falling victim to the DVP clock. The driver of the No. 9 entered the playoff weekend with 40 bonus points, but he used up more than half of them after hitting the wall and breaking multiple crucial components. He is now much closer to the cutline with only two races remaining in the Round of 16.
Larson Fell Multiple Laps Down During Stage 1
The defending Cup Series champion, Larson entered the playoffs with the fourth-most points. He was a name to watch at Darlington Raceway considering that he finished second during the 2021 playoff opener. Though there were also concerns considering that engine issues disrupted Throwback Weekend back in May.
Larson’s mechanical problems popped up again early in Stage 1. He had to make an unscheduled pit stop, which featured the crew members going under the hood. This extended time on pit road knocked him two laps behind the leaders, and then he fell down another after getting lapped.
Larson didn’t exactly know what the engine problem was, and he spent time making some sound effects over the radio to provide more information. Interestingly enough, the car began running normally again as the race progressed.
Other issues arose for Larson during Stage 2. He brought out the caution after spinning off Turn 4 and making contact with the wall. Larson had to pit from the 28th position and get four fresh Goodyear tires before continuing in the race and moving up to 22nd. He then put himself in a position to get back on the lead lap by the end of Stage 2, which was a major comeback in itself.
Larson went on to end the night 12th overall after falling multiple laps down. It wasn’t a top-10, but he still closed out the playoff opener ahead of several playoff drivers while locking up some crucial points.
Mechanical Issues Disrupted a Methodical Night
The playoffs began with Kyle Busch sitting only three points above the cutline. He only had one win and two stage wins, which put him in danger of elimination during the Round of 16. However, Busch set out and focused on making moves early before an unexpected issue disrupted his night.
The driver of the No. 18 had a strong car, and he used it to methodically secure stage points. He finished the opening segment third overall, which added eight points to his total. Rowdy then went out and won Stage 2 after an intense battle with teammate Martin Truex Jr., which secured 10 more points and a playoff point for the next round.
Busch was en route to his second win of the season and one that would have punched his ticket to the Round of 12. He had the advantage considering that Truex had to go to the garage after losing power steering and watching his car start to overheat. However, Rowdy dealt with issues of his own.
Busch and Erik Jones were at the front of the pack under caution when the situation drastically changed. Smoke began billowing out from under the No. 18 Toyota Camry. Busch did not have a fire like Harvick; instead, his engine expired and sent him to the garage as well. He saw his chance at a win come to a surprising end in 30th place while Jones and Denny Hamlin battled for the win.