Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the 2021 Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

After a wild weekend in Daytona to wrap up the regular season and set the 16-driver field for the Playoffs, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to one of the crown jewels on the circuit, Darlington Raceway, for this weekend’s running of the Cook Out Southern 500.

A staple of the Cup Series since 1950, there are many elements to Darlington that make it a special track. From the egg-shape of the track that features one end narrower than the other as a result of building the track around the old minnow pond located next to the facility. As well as the preferred line around the track being next to the wall, resulting in the infamous “Darlington Stripe” being plastered along nearly every car in the field by the time the race is complete.

Since the track “Too Tough to Tame” regained its Labor Day Weekend slot for the Southern 500 in 2015, the Cup Series has paid tribute to years gone by during that race, but with Darlington earning two race dates this season, the Throwback Weekend moved to the track’s spring race, which was the Goodyear 400 back in May.

The move to the spring race weekend was done in part to give each of the two races at Darlington its own identity, with the spring being dedicated to throwbacks, while allowing the Southern 500 to focus on kicking off the Playoffs.

In addition to not having any track time ahead of Sunday’s Playoffs opener, drivers will have another challenge as Darlington repaved Turn 2 in an effort to alleviate issues with the cracks in the surface that has allowed water to seep up to the surface. All in all, more than 600 feet of track surface was replaced between the spring race at the track and this weekend’s slate of races.

“It is really going to improve the lap times with the grip level,” said Kurt Busch. “Turn two is where your lap time is made and if you get through there good, it’s really going to help with that. Now with the extra grip, there is going to be a ton of speed down the back straightaway, into turn three, and there could be a question if we are up against the rev chip. So, you might have to back off the throttle to preserve the engine.  With this being the second longest race of the year, that could be a huge factor at the end of the race as far as durability.

“I think the tire is made for the older asphalt, so to me the fresher asphalt will be free grip. It’s a matter of slip sliding into the asphalt, grabbing it, and then having the car straight launch out of the asphalt and back onto the older stuff. A lot of eyeballs will be watching the preliminary races, because we will have no practice and we will just have to go for it.”

Fresh off his pair of wins in the last two races of the regular season, Ryan Blaney will start from the pole on Sunday, with Denny Hamlin starting alongside on the front row.

Kurt Busch will start third, with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex, Jr. rounding out the top-10.

By the Numbers

What: Cook Out Southern 500, NASCAR Cup Series race No. 27 of 36

Where: Darlington Raceway – Darlington, South Carolina (Opened: 1950)

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 6:00 pm ET Sunday/MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size:  1.366-mile egg-shaped oval

Banking: Turns 1-2: 25 degrees; Turns 3-4: 23 degrees; Straights: 6 degrees

Race Length: 367 laps, 501.3 miles

Stage Lengths: First two stages – 115 laps each, Final stage – 137 laps

2021 Spring Race Winner: Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Toyota (Started fourth, 248 laps led)

2020 Southern 500 Race Winner: Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford (Started eighth, 32 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Aric Almirola – No. 43 Ford (184.145 mph, 26.705 secs – 4/11/2014)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Darlington Raceway:

  1. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 111.5
  2. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 107.3
  3. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 104.4
  4. Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 103.9
  5. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 103.1
  6. Erik Jones – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 100.0
  7. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 96.1
  8. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 91.1
  9. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 90.3
  10. William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 87.1

NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings

  1. Kyle Larson – 2052 points
  2. Ryan Blaney (-28)
  3. Martin Truex, Jr. (-28)
  4. Kyle Busch (-30)
  5. Chase Elliott (-31)
  6. Alex Bowman (-37)
  7. Denny Hamlin (-37)
  8. William Byron (-38)
  9. Joey Logano (-39)
  10. Brad Keselowski (-44)
  11. Kurt Busch (-44)
  12. Christopher Bell (-47)
  13. Michael McDowell (-47)
  14. Aric Almirola (-47)
  15. Tyler Reddick (-49)
  16. Kevin Harvick (-50)

From the Driver’s Seat

“I love Darlington (Raceway),” said Erik Jones. “It reminds me a lot of the tracks that I grew up racing on. Some of the stuff I did growing up in Late Models, like managing and conserving your tires, is what Darlington is all about. I really enjoy that style of racing. It is not just all out from the start. You have to manage your stuff and be good at the end of a run. I feel like I just have a good feel for that place; I can what the car needs to do and how you need your car to drive at the end of the run, not necessarily at the beginning of a run. Darlington is one of my favorite tracks, for sure. The Southern 500 race – is pretty hard to beat.”

Last Time at Darlington

Martin Truex, Jr. was in a league of his own during last May’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington, but in the closing laps of the Goodyear 400, Kyle Larson did his best to give the 2017 series champion a run for his money, but in the end it wasn’t enough to keep Truex out of Victory Lane.

Truex swept the first two stages and led 248 laps on the day, with Larson closing to within 0.170 seconds as Truex found himself in lapped traffic, but once he got clear, Truex was able to pull away to an eventual 2.571 second margin of victory.

“I love low downforce,” Truex said after claiming his third win of the season. “That’s all I’m going to say. I love it. I feel like especially this year, all three races we won have been with this package, so obviously the guys and girls at JGR are doing a great job.

“But I just — for me, you look at ’16, ’17, ’18, low downforce, we very well could have won all three championships. We were right there in all three and won a lot of races.

“Big fan of this kind of racing. Really enjoy it. Today was a heck of a challenge. I did come on the radio one time and say I’m really surprised how slow it feels and how slick it is. I was leading and driving away from the field, and I’m like, this thing is sliding everywhere. It’s pretty amazing just how much this track changes year to year every time we come back. It gets more difficult with the wear of the pavement.”

Despite finishing second, Larson was happy with his day after overcoming a number of obstacles to get there.

“I was surprised that I was able to get to him,” Larson said. “I caught him really; like, I closed on pit road and then I caught him pretty quickly once we were on track. I closed right in, and actually had an opportunity to get by him in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2, but I thought I’d stay patient and maybe get him to use his stuff up. He was just a little bit better than I was in the long runs. So, just wish maybe I could have taken advantage of that opportunity, but thought it was going to play out a little differently.

“But it was a great day for our Chevy. It was fun to come here to Darlington with low downforce. During the day we were sliding around. I felt like we were not very good all day, but I passed a lot of cars and found myself towards the front. I was like well, I feel like I’m struggling but I’m fast. So, it was fun. Hats off to Martin Truex (Jr.) and his team.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.