The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin on Sunday night with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, a Crown Jewel event on the NASCAR schedule that poses a major challenge for championship hopefuls. The 16 drivers remaining in the chase have expressed their excitement about the opening weekend, as well as the other upcoming races. However, they are wary about the Lady in Black.
Before Sunday's playoff-opening race at Darlington, the 16 remaining Cup Series drivers sat down with the media to discuss their upcoming challenge with PopCulture.com and other media on Wednesday and Thursday. During the Zoom session, the remaining eight drivers explained why Darlington is one of the more grueling tracks in the Cup Series and how they can find success during a crucial race. The defending 2019 champion also explained how he can turn around his season and fight for a repeat. Here are some of the best insights shared about the upcoming race from the second media call.
Kevin Harvick enters Sunday's race as the favorite in the Cup Series playoffs. He is the reigning regular-season champion and has piled up bonus playoff points after winning seven races. He also won a previous race at Darlington. Harvick has the momentum while other drivers are trying to create their own during the first three races.
"You're not gonna start that now," Harvick said about momentum. "We've tried to about 4-5 years ago. We sat down as a team and tried to figure out how we could [win] a playoff race every week. There's no switching gears from that mindset into a different mindset. ... When we get to the playoffs, it's not 'how do we switch gears to playoff mode?' It's 'keep doing what you've been doing' at that level in order to continue that going forward."prevnext
Entering the playoffs, Aric Almirola is drawing attention from his peers. The driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Ford Mustang didn't win a race during the 2020 regular season, but he consistently fought for a top spot. Now he has to build on his momentum and find success during the opening three playoff races. Almirola recognizes that he has to be perfect, but how is this possible at tracks known for utter chaos?
"You still have to be perfect," Almirola said. "You can't go to Darlington and wipe the right side [of the car] off of it and finish 29th. You can't scrape the wall and have a fender cut down a tire and go down two laps during a green-flag cycle. You can't afford those types of mistakes. You have to be mindful of that and the same thing at Bristol. Both of those places, you typically run right on the wall, so there's going to be very little margin for error. ... You've gotta get 100% out of everything, but you can't get 102% out of anything because that's usually when mistakes happen."prevnext
Brad Keselowski has quietly enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2020. He secured three victories, including one at Bristol where he will race once again in the playoffs. Despite his success, the attention is squarely on Harvick and Denny Hamlin. However, this didn't change the Team Penske driver's mindset. He still sees how other drivers could struggle during the playoffs.
"They got a lot of bonus points, ain't no doubt about that," Keselowski said. "That's going to serve them really well. But I'll tell you, I don't think there are enough bonus points in the world to get you through that second round. That second round is hairy. Talladega is going to be hairy. Roval is going to be hairy. You're going to want to go to Vegas and win. The way the format is set up, it's intentionally designed to not allow somebody to just coast through."prevnext
Alex Bowman has not shied away from the fact that the No. 88 team has struggled in 2020. He secured a trip to the playoffs with a win in the Auto Club 400 but the summer months were not kind to him. The situation changed in the previous two races, however, as Bowman secured two top-10 finishes. Now he is preparing to fight for crucial playoff points at a track where he has previously performed well.
"Darlington, for us, we were really fast there the first two races this year," Bowman said. "The first race, we finished second. The second race, we had a way better racecar, and I started racing my competitors instead of the racetrack and hit the fence. That's on me to not do this time, but I think we can be really strong, have a really good day. I think each and every week during the playoffs we are going to be really good, but Darlington is one that we've had circled that we can be really strong at for sure."prevnext
Chase Elliott has experienced mixed results during the 2020 season. He won two races and nearly secured another at Darlington, but Kyle Busch knocked him out of the race with a late collision. At Bristol, the site of the third playoff race, Elliott finished one race in 22nd but won the All-Star event on the same track. Winning the championship trophy will require more consistency in crucial moments while avoiding incidents with other drivers, and Elliott is excited to do so one an iconic track.
"I'm excited about all of them," Elliott said. "This is an exciting part of the year. It's pressure-packed, I feel like, in a lot of ways, and it's an exciting product to watch with how these rounds eliminate people. ... Richmond, to me, has been a big-time struggle since I've been in Cup, so I would really like to get better there. That one has been a bit of a problem, so hopefully we are better there than we have been in the past."prevnext
Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. has been the most consistent driver in NASCAR for the majority of the season. He has not finished outside the top-four in eight races, which includes five consecutive third-place finishes. Truex explained that continuing to perform at such a high level is important due to the role that momentum can play during the elimination rounds.
"I definitely think that it's a positive thing and it's something that we've looked at," Truex said about momentum. "In racing, consistency is always a big key. Getting lucky, winning a race here or there to get into the playoffs doesn't give you a great feeling that you can go and win a championship. Running in the top-three, top-four every week, gives you a great feeling about winning a championship. It's easier to go from second or third to first than from 15th or 20th to first. ... I've been saying for weeks that I feel really, really good about our team and where we're at right now. I feel as confident as I ever have coming into the playoffs."prevnext
Along with Harvick, Hamlin is a favorite to win the championship trophy at the end of the season. He has won six events this season and faced off with Harvick more than once. Now he will prepare for a grueling 10 weeks, but his mindset won't necessarily change heading into the playoffs. He will still approach Harvick with the same level of respect.
"The championship is won in the final race," Hamlin said. "I think if this was a 10-week playoff where the champion was crowned after his 10-race performance, then maybe there is an opportunity for head games or whatever it may be. Even though I think we're pretty old and too old for that. We have a lot of respect between each other. Our teams do as well. We're going to battle each other at some point in these playoffs. I think the right scenario is that we're at Phoenix, together, battling it out for the championship."prevnext
Kyle Busch has struggled throughout the 2020 season and failed to win a single race. He still made the playoffs after accruing enough points, but he currently sits on the bubble entering the first round. While the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry would like to win his second straight championship, that is less of a concern than another priority. He wants to win a race and keep his streak alive.
"[The streak] is really important. Think about it," Busch said. "A 16-year investment that we've placed on being able to win in 16 consecutive seasons, so hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 and however many that I'm here. It would be nice that I'm capable of winning races every year of my career that I'm out there. This year is just not lending itself to our favor so far, but you know what? The playoffs start now and we're still in this thing."prev