The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin on Sunday with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. There are 16 drivers alive in the championship hunt, and this number will dwindle after three races. All of those remaining are excited about the opportunity to chase down the season-ending trophy, but they will start on one of the most challenging tracks in NASCAR. None on the upcoming schedule poses quite the same challenge as 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 media on Wednesday and Thursday. During their session via Zoom, the first 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. Here are some of the best insights shared about the upcoming race from the first media call.
Ryan Blaney is one of three Team Penske drivers in the playoffs. He booked his trip with a win at the iconic Talladega Superspeedway. Now he is on a mission to find more success during the playoffs. The No. 12 team has struggled with consistency, but Blaney believes he can change that trend over the next few weeks. The first step is using his notes from the two previous Darlington races in 2020 to find success.
"You go back and look at those two races, you go back and look at the Darlington race from last year and see how that played out," Blaney said. "You know, the pit strategy side is a little bit different this weekend than the previous two weekends — they were a lot shorter. This 500-mile race is super long. ... That pit strategy isn't something that you can go back and look at, but you can look at your notes. How was the track, how was your setup?"prevnext
Joey Logano booked his trip to the playoffs early with two wins before the 10-week postponement. He took home trophies at Las Vegas and Phoenix and appeared to be on track toward a championship season. However, Logano has failed to win another race in 2020, but he is ready to change this trend at a track that fits his racing style.
"[Darlington] has been a good race track for us," Logano said. "I don't have a win, but it's been a racetrack that we've consistently been able to run in the top-five and lead laps and be close. I just need a couple of things to go our way to be able to win there. One of my favorite tracks to go to. I like that the tires wear out, you can't go hard every lap and you've gotta be smart on how you're using your tires."prevnext
One of two drivers to test positive for COVID-19 — along with Jimmie Johnson — Austin Dillon is now fully healthy and ready to fight for the championship trophy. This is his fourth trip to the playoffs in his career, which he achieved after winning at Texas. Now he will strive to win another race while proving any potential doubters wrong.
"I love being dismissed. It's great," Dillon said. "It's always kind of been that way. I feel like that's what propels us, and then we sneak up on people. I was very close to making it to the third round of the playoffs a couple of years back, and I missed it by one point to Denny Hamlin. ... I know from that experience that every point matters. We just need to go out there and do our job these first three races."prevnext
Cole Custer is making his first trip to the playoffs after securing a win at Kentucky. With this win, he essentially secured the Rookie of the Year award and edged out other drivers in the race. He will face steep odds to succeed considering the number of veterans on the track, but Custer is prepared for the challenge after no one expected him to reach the playoffs.
"It's huge. We can go in there and prove some people wrong," Custer said on Wednesday. "At the end of the day, it's about being consistent and being competitive. We've had a lot of peaks and valleys at a lot of times this year, but at the same time, you just need to try to level it out more going into these playoffs. I think if we can be consistent and put it all together — put all the pieces together for these last 10 races — I think we've shown that we can compete with anybody."prevnext
William Byron is fresh off his first career win, as well as a contract extension. He will be a member of Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season. Now Byron wants to deliver a championship to the team in his second consecutive trip to the playoffs. He will start this quest in the third position overall, a position for which he is excited.
"For us [Byron, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott] all starting up at the front, the three of us, I think that's gonna be great," Byron said. "It's going to be an advantage to have three cars up there competing for stage wins and things of that nature. I think it's going to elevate our game and [it] gives us an advantage to ... starting upfront is just huge at any racetrack."prevnext
Of the remaining playoff drivers, Kurt Busch is possibly the most consistent at Darlington. He secured a third-place finish during the Real Heroes 400 and has a total of nine separate top-10s at the Lady in Black. While he has yet to win a race at Darlington, Busch knows how to finish strong on a very difficult track.
"I really enjoy running at Darlington, the way you have to race the racetrack and somewhat ignore the other cars that are out there," Busch said. "It's an old-school mentality. Just race the racetrack, stay patient and find the right setup changes to adapt to the track's changing conditions. It's one of those Crown Jewel races too. It's the Southern 500, kicks off the playoffs. I love the atmosphere right now, so we are going after it. Going after it strong."prevnext
Matt DiBenedetto fought the entire season and finally secured a playoff spot during the final race of the regular season. Now he will look to keep his championship hopes alive, starting at Darlington. While some believe that he is "playing with house money" due to booking his trip to the playoffs last, DiBenedetto is ready to make some noise.
"I wanted [the playoff appearance] bad, and I'm pumped for the whole team because we know that we can be a playoff contender," DiBenedetto said. "Not just make it and be there. The most stressful part was making it in the playoffs, but now we are the most put together as a team and the most prepared to go and execute and really make some hay and pick some guys off and make it through."prevnext
Clint Bowyer, a 16-year veteran of NASCAR, is currently taking part in what could be his last season with Stewart-Haas Racing. He is behind the wheel of the iconic No. 14 Ford Mustang and has hopes of securing a championship despite only having two top-five finishes in 2020. That being said, Bowyer knows that a previous driver of the No. 14 — Tony Stewart — previously won the championship after struggling in the regular season. It's all about capturing momentum and carrying it through the playoffs.
"Look at Tony Stewart's last championship," Bowyer said. "They sucked all year. All of a sudden, boom! Here they are. Here they come a-running. Get on that wave. [They] found the right wave and rode that d— thing off into the sunset down there at Homestead, at the championship. It can happen. It can happen with any race team." He then further explained that minimizing mistakes will play a major role.prev