The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began with the historic Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Regular season champion Kevin Harvick kicked off the postseason in wild fashion, capitalising on late contact between leaders Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. to win his eighth race of the year, automatically locking him into the Round of 12.
Elliott started on the pole ahead of Denny Hamlin. Austin Dillon and Joey Gase went to the rear for unapproved adjustments, while Ross Chastain was sent back as his #77 Spire Motorsports team initially listed Reed Sorenson as its driver on the entry list. Ryan Blaney suffered an early blow in the playoff points when he was penalised for an improperly mounted ballast—a five-pound lead weight to test fluid weights that the team neglected to remove prior to inspection; he was docked ten points while crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended for the race.
As part of Darlington’s Labor Day throwback weekend, many drivers’ cars sported special liveries honouring past champions. For his final Southern 500, Jimmie Johnson ran a paint scheme paying tribute to fellow seven-time champs Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty; many of Johnson’s peers, including his Hendrick Motorsports team-mates, had throwbacks based on cars driven he drove during his career.
Elliott led early as playoff drivers comprised much of the top positions, and the pole sitter remained out front until the competition caution on lap 25 as Hendrick team-mate Alex Bowman moved up to second.
The Johnson-themed Hendrick drivers led the field to the restart on lap 32. Restarting on the outside, Elliott cleared Bowman as Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Truex and Hamlin tailed.
Off-track activity came to life on lap 65 as Dillon hit pit road, while Timmy Hill went to the garage for mechanical issues before returning. Green-flag stops began shortly after, with Hamlin and Kurt Busch spending time in the lead before pitting. By the cycle’s completion, Elliott was back in front.
On lap 82, Brad Keselowski hit the turn two wall after making contact with Aric Almirola and cut his right-front tyre. Busch and Bubba Wallace stayed out during the ensuing caution to inherit the top two spots for the restart. Truex pounced to take the take and would hold the position to the stage win.
Johnson finished second, ahead of Elliott, Hamlin, Busch, Bowman, Joey Logano, William Byron, Kyle Busch, and Harvick. Seven of the sixteen playoff drivers ended the stage outside the top ten: Clint Bowyer (twelfth), Blaney (fourteenth), Dillon (fifteenth), Cole Custer (seventeenth), Almirola (eighteenth), Matt DiBenedetto (twenty-eighth), and Keselowski (thirty-first, one lap down).
Blaney pitted as the race resumed for a flat left rear, while Truex continued to lead Elliott.
Harvick initiated the next pit cycle under gree on lap 157. Truex gave up the lead to pit on lap 173, followed by Kurt Busch a lap later that shuffled Harvick into first.
Wallace spun on lap 180 entering turn four in a fairly unusual incident, presumably occurring after he pressed the clutch rather than the brake pedal. Truex was the first off pit road, while Cole Custer received a speeding penalty.
Truex remained out front as the event resumed on lap 187 with Harvick giving chase. With the race nearing the 200-lap mark, Wallace and James Davison went to the garage for further repairs and an engine failure, respectively.
As Truex scored another stage win, Hamlin finished second. Harvick, Bowman, Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Dillon, Bowyer, and Kurt Busch rounded out the top ten. Playoff racers not in the top ten were Almirola (eleventh), Byron (twelfth), Elliott (thirteenth), Keselowski (eighteenth), Blaney (twentieth), Custer (twenty-fourth), and DiBenedetto (twenty-seventh, one lap down).
Hamlin beat Truex out of pit road. On the restart, Corey LaJoie fell off the pace, forcing him to retire from the race as others weaved around him.
John Hunter Nemechek brought out the caution on lap 245 when he slammed into the turn four wall. DiBenedetto returned to the lead lap via free pass.
The green flag waved on lap 251, with Truex briefly battling with Kyle Busch before clearing him. Meanwhile, Christopher Bell reported to the garage before returning approximately ten minutes later. Wallace would also exit the event before retiring altogether.
As the laps counted down, tyre fall-off and pit stops became the flavours of the stage as teams opted for either one- or two-stop strategies. Truex pitted on lap 308 along with the other leaders as part of the former; Hamlin missed pit road as Johnson collided with his rear, forcing him to do another lap before he could be serviced.
Harvick cycled to the front and battled with Elliott in a duel of two-stop pitters until a caution for debris was called on lap 319. Elliott kept the lead for the lap 327 restart but Truex moved up to second. Hill subsequently retired from the race with overheating issues.
Truex narrowed the margin before making the pass on Elliott with 15 laps to go. As Truex attempted the overtake on the inside, the two made contact and hit the wall in turn one. The damage from the collision resulted in heavy damage that forced Truex to pit two laps later, while Elliott fell off the pace.
With Truex and Elliott out of the picture, Harvick and Elliott moved into the top two. Lapped traffic enabled Dillon to briefly close the gap, but Harvick re-increased the advantage to over a second. At the white flag, a last-ditch effort by Dillon in the final turn failed as Harvick pulled away for his eighth win of the season, second of the year at Darlington, and first Southern 500 victory since 2014.
It was Harvick’s 57th career win, breaking a tie with Kyle Busch for ninth all-time among Cup winners.
“Just wound up fighting all night long,” Harvick said in his post-race interview with NBCSN. “This Busch Beer Ford Mustang wasn’t where we wanted it to be, but the leaders got tangled up there and the next thing you know, we were racing for the win.
“Anytime you can win the Southern 500 is a good day. This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport, and this is one of the most prestigious race tracks in our sport, so anytime you can win at Darlington, it’s a big deal.”