The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are officially underway with Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, yet many drivers quickly found themselves in holes. Multiple playoff contenders were involved in wrecks, including three Hendrick Motorsports drivers, as six such drivers finished outside the top twenty. The fourth HMS racer, Kyle Larson, was the last one standing and fought with Denny Hamlin for the win, but a last-ditch effort in the final corner was not enough as Hamlin finally scored his first win of the season.
Larson started on the pole but quickly lost the lead to last week’s winner Ryan Blaney, who led until misfortune befell Larson’s Hendrick team-mate Alex Bowman as he hit the wall; Bowman’s woes also extended to Hendrick ally William Byron when the former’s tyre went down and caused him to hit the latter. Michael McDowell also wrecked and finished last for the second straight race to drop him to the bottom of the sixteen-driver playoff standings.
Another first-stage incident came on lap 48 involving Rick Ware Racing team-mates Cody Ware and James Davison, both of whom had tangled at Martinsville in April, and Ware would retire later in the race due to carbon monoxide poisoning after the contact resulted in crush panel damage. Hamlin took the lead shortly after the ensuing caution and held it to the stage win ahead of Larson, Kurt Busch, Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, Ross Chastain, and Joey Logano; all but Chastain were playoff eligible.
Kyle Busch was the next victimised playoff driver when he was clipped by Austin Dillon and slid into the wall on lap 125. Busch immediately went to the garage, knocking over cones and forcing those in the infield to dodge him as he did not slow down to appropriate speeds, and ending his night.
“It wasn’t the #3’s fault. Just take our lumps,” Busch told NBCSN. “We were running like shit and we got wrecked, so that’s what you get when you run like shit. […] I don’t know what our problem is. Every time we go to the sim, a new sim, and think we have a good sim session, we go to the race track and we suck. I’m done with that.”
Besides a debris yellow on lap 164, Byron would be responsible for the next race-related caution when he slammed the turn one wall on lap 200. Meanwhile, Larson and Christopher Bell sparred for the lead throughout the stage, with the former ultimately winning out. Bell, Chastain, Hamlin, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Logano, Chase Elliott, and Corey LaJoie closed out the top ten; Chastain and LaJoie were non-playoff drivers.
Larson continued to lead to begin Stage #3 until Hamlin claimed the position shortly before the 300-lap mark. On lap 320, another playoff racer in Blaney went around to result in a caution. Elliott would be the final playoff casualty when he cut a tyre eight laps later after contact with Bell.
Hamlin would lead the rest of the way, while Larson was forced to give chase alongside Chastain. Larson was able to catch Hamlin on the final lap and reach his bumper in the last turns, where he slammed into Hamlin’s rear but could not complete the pass. With Larson not finding any overtaking opportunities, Hamlin pulled off to score his first win of the year and fourth at Darlington.
The desperation move drew comparisons to Carl Edwards‘ own last-corner, full-speed charge on Jimmie Johnson at Kansas in 2008, an attempt that also backfired for the overtaker as he instead slammed into the wall. Both Edwards and Larson’s actions were compared to those made in racing games, and Larson even remarked he had tried to “video game it.”
“[Larson] drove it in past the limit of the cars and the tyres,” Hamlin commented in his post-race interview. “I knew he was coming. I was a little bit conservative on that last lap because I had that four-car-length lead. I didn’t think it was going go that deep, but yeah, still a great race. It’s been back and forth with me and him most of the year. He’s just been a little bit faster on these type of race tracks, and luckily the caution came when it did and the strategy worked out great for the team, but man, I’m really happy.”
|1||2||11||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||367||Running|
|2||6||5||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||367||Running|
|3||23||42||Ross Chastain||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||367||Running|
|4||10||19||Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||367||Running|
|5||9||4||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||367||Running|
|6||3||1||Kurt Busch||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||367||Running|
|7||16||2||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||Ford||367||Running|
|8||11||22||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford||367||Running|
|9||34||17||Chris Buescher||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||367||Running|
|10||21||3||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||367||Running|
|11||31||41||Cole Custer||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||367||Running|
|12||18||37||Ryan Preece||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||367||Running|
|13||26||99||Daniel Suárez||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||367||Running|
|14||19||6||Ryan Newman||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||367||Running|
|15||25||7||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||367||Running|
|16||8||10||Aric Almirola||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||366||Running|
|17||29||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||366||Running|
|18||7||8||Tyler Reddick||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||366||Running|
|19||24||14||Chase Briscoe||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||366||Running|
|20||13||20||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||366||Running|
|21||17||23||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota||366||Running|
|22||1||12||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford||366||Running|
|23||30||21||Matt DiBenedetto||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford||365||Running|
|24||32||38||Anthony Alfredo||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||364||Running|
|25||20||77||Justin Haley*||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||364||Running|
|26||5||48||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||363||Running|
|27||27||78||B.J. McLeod*||Live Fast Motorsports||Ford||359||Running|
|28||28||52||Josh Bilicki||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||359||Running|
|29||35||15||Joey Gase*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||357||Running|
|30||37||00||Quin Houff||StarCom Racing||Chevrolet||355||Running|
|31||4||9||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||327||Accident|
|32||22||43||Erik Jones||Richard Petty Motorsports||Chevrolet||264||Engine|
|33||33||51||Cody Ware*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||209||Accident|
|34||14||24||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||199||Accident|
|35||12||18||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||125||Accident|
|36||36||53||James Davison||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||50||Accident|
|37||15||34||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||30||Accident|
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for Cup points