Ten weeks, with just ten weeks to go in the NASCAR Cup Series season the playoffs would kick off at the historic Darlington Raceway in the 74th running of the Southern 500. Just like the day before in the Xfinity Series event it was an all Joe Gibbs Racing front row with Bell and Hamlin.
This wouldn’t last long when by the end of the first lap, Tyler Reddick who starts deep in the playoff standings would get around his team owner taking over the second spot. Reddick would try to get close to Bell who took off at the green flag but fell back through the first 30 laps.
As the first stops of the night would get underway, Bell the race leader and pole sitter would come to pit road and lose spots when the team would drop the jack early, forcing the team to go back and get the car back on the jack handing the race lead over the Reddick who had been running him down through the first run of the night.
Reddick would spend the next 30 laps out front with Chastain blocking the road to stay on the lead lap allowing Hamlin to close in and take over the lead just as pit stops were about to begin once again.
However, Hamlin lead prior to the pit stops would be short lived as Reddick would have the better stop off pit road regaining the lead as the pit cycle would end for the second time of the night.
The race lead would once again change hands 20 laps later when Hamlin would run down Reddick once again for the race lead, catching in from a nearly two-second deficit.
Stage one would come to a close with 115 laps of green flag racing, but it would be Denny Hamlin crossing the line at the top of the board over Reddick, Larson, Harvick and Blaney.
With night falling and approaching halfway through the race lights would fail to come on in turns three and four. After a while NASCAR would finally be forced to throw a caution to fix the lighting system in what would be just the second caution of the night.
Following a near seven-minute red flag, NASCAR and the local power company would repair the lighting system and get the turn three lights back on and the race back underway.
As the race would get back underway and closing in on the end of the second stage with 14 laps to go, BJ McLeod who was running in the last spot and five laps down would have an engine let go to stop his car on the backstretch.
Caution would once again come out in stage two with just five laps to go when Cindric and Gibbs would collect each other in turn one and two. Gibbs would shove Cindric all the way through the turn into backstretch before separating. Both cars would be able drive away with Cindric seeming to have the most damage to the front right and side of the car after contact with the wall.
Stage two would come to an end with a one lap shootout that would see Denny Hamlin once again taking the stage win over Larson, Jones, Reddick and Byron.
With under 100 to go pit stops would once again get underway but this time not only would Tyler Reddick beat Hamlin off pit road, the driver of the No. 11 machine left pit road and thought there was a loose tire on his FedEx car. This would bring them back to pit road going from leading to 30th and one lap down.
After bringing the car to pit road for service once again the team would check the tires and review the pit stop then radioing to Hamlin to let him know they were unable to find any evidence of a loose while that brought them back to pit road. This after teammate and pole sitter Bell would have an issue earlier in the race when the jack fell during their stop.
With 300 laps completed and racing Newman to put him a lap down, Reddick would make contact trying to make the pass as Newman would continue to hold him up. Reddick would be forced to bail on the pass for the moment allowing Harvick, who had just gotten around for second place to begin to close in on the lead.
As pit stops were starting to begin, Harvick continued to close in on the leader and would bail to pit road just as Reddick the leader looked to be thinking about coming to pit road also but continued causing Newman to check up and go for a spin bringing out the sixth caution of the night.
Caution would once more be displayed for the seventh time of the night when Bowman would block Suarez down the front, not once, not twice but three times heading into turn one before Suarez would break loose and turn in front of Burton who had nowhere to go ending his night along with Suarez who would drive it straight to the garage.
Bowman who started the incident would take his car to pit road making repairs before the team would determine the damage was much too severe to continue and take the car to the garage ending his night also.
Cautions would breed cautions when Ky. Busch would try and make it three wide, contacting Gilliland who would go for a spin and collected two playoff drivers, Hamlin and Bell who both had led but had issues late in the race putting them well behind and laps down.
McDowell, another playoff driver, would also sustain damage from the spinning Hamlin and Gilliland. After attempting to make repairs on pit road, McDowell would eventually take his car to the garage as the first playoff driver to end their night early.
When the race would go back green for the final time of the night Larson would easily clear away once more from the battle behind him with several near misses as blocking began to pick up in the final laps.
Larson would motor away from the field taking home the checkered flag in the Southern 500 over Tyler Reddick who had spent much of the night at the front of the field. Rounding out the top-five would be playoff drivers Buescher, Byron and Chastain.
“Our race car was really good when the sun was out. Just had to work on it. I messed up once and it got hung in neutral, and I slid and hit the wall, and I think bent the toe link a little bit, so it was kind of a struggle from there. Definitely had to fight it more than I was earlier, but we kept our heads in the game. That was really important. This race is all about keeping your head in it.” Said Larson
With his win Larson also locks himself into the round of 12 following the conclusion of the first round at Bristol in two weeks.
The NASCAR Cup Series now moves onto Kansas Speedway next Sunday, September 10th at 3:00 p.m. on USA network.