The NASCAR playoffs begin Sunday evening at Darlington.
It’s the start of a new season for 16 drivers, beginning at Darlington Raceway with the Cook Out Southern 500 at 6 p.m. You can watch on the USA Network or listen on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR.
While there will be more than 30 cars flying around the 74-year-old track famously known as the “Lady in Black,” only 16 of them will be chasing a championship.
Among them, William Byron leads the pack with five wins. Martin Truex Jr. claimed the regular-season championship on points, and Denny Hamlin isn’t far behind. Chris Buescher moved into the No. 4 seed by winning three of the Cup Series’ last five races: Richmond, Michigan and Daytona.
“The points are definitely tighter than what they normally are,” said pole-winner Christopher Bell, who holds the No. 7 position and finished third last year. “We have, I think, three guys that have a pretty good advantage over the field, but the rest of us are right there. So it’s going to be a matter of execution.
“That’s kind of every year, but more so this year, with the points being tighter. You can’t afford mistakes. And if you have a mistake, you’re going to be behind quickly.”
Brad Keselowski is the No. 9 seed in the playoffs. During the final lap of Saturday’s race at Daytona, the veteran driver rode behind Chris Buescher and pushed his RFK Racing teammate to victory – and the team’s first 1-2 finish at Daytona.
He thinks this year’s Cup Series features a variety of strong drivers, and because of that, there will inevitably be good drivers and strong teams who may not be represented in the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of parity in the Cup Series right now,” Keselowski said Thursday in Uptown Charlotte. “That parity makes it hard for any operation to be dominant enough to get all their cars in. We had to take advantage of the opportunities that we had. I think we’ve done that, and I’d still like to get to where we have more than two cars – that’s certainly a big goal of mine – but in the meantime, getting to two is a testament to our strength through the entire company. There’s not a weak link.”
After this weekend, the Cup Series will travel to Kansas and Bristol, and the bottom four of the 16 drivers in the playoffs will be eliminated following the Sept. 16 race at Bristol.
Kurt Busch officially retires, but he’s not going far
At Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2021, Bubba Wallace was having a conversation with Kevin Harvick and asked him about Kurt Busch, who announced his retirement from NASCAR Cup Series competition Saturday. Busch was joining Wallace’s 23XI Racing team, which is owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin.
“He’s really, really good,” Wallace remembers Harvick telling him. “He makes teams better. His setup’s a little wonky, but he’s really good.”
The inaugural Cup Series playoff champion in 2004, Busch, 45, hasn’t raced since suffering a concussion on July 23, 2022, at Pocono. Still, he remains involved with 23XI Racing in a consulting role and mentors current drivers Wallace and Tyler Reddick – both of whom qualified for this year’s playoffs.
That’s a notable accomplishment for 23XI Racing — placing both of its entries in the playoffs for the first time in the team’s third year of competition. At Daytona on Saturday, Busch said he would stay with the team “as long as they’ll allow me,” according to a press release.
“I like Kurt for who he is because he doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” Wallace, 23XI’s first driver when it launched in late 2020, said Thursday in Uptown Charlotte. “He comes up to you and delivers it straight. And that’s what I try to do.”
Busch’s 22-year career was littered with highs and lows. He won 34 wins, including the 2017 Daytona 500, and went on a streak of 10 seasons with at least one victory from 2002-2012. But he was also involved in multiple altercations throughout his career that led to penalties and probation, along with a suspension in 2015 amid domestic abuse allegations.
Joey Logano, the 2018 and 2022 Cup Series champion, feels that Busch is easily a first-ballot Hall of Famer with his accomplishments behind the wheel, but that what he’s doing for the sport is all the more impressive.
“Just seeing from the outside looking in what he’s doing, to me, secures his legacy even more,” Logano said. “He’s willing to give back to the sport, post-career, even when he has every right to be bitter.”
How to watch NASCAR Race at Darlington
- Race: Cook Out Southern 500
- Distance: 501.32 miles (367 Laps); Stage 1 ends on Lap 115, Stage 2 ends on Lap 230, Final Stage ends on Lap 367
- TV: USA
- Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
- Where: Darlington Raceway
- When: 6 p.m., Sunday
- Purse: $8,260,258
Starting lineup for Darlington race
|25||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||47|
|31||Martin Truex Jr.||19|
This story was originally published September 3, 2023, 7:00 AM.