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Winners and losers: NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began Sunday night with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Hendrick Motorsports showed the way, as Kyle Larson won and William Byron finished fourth.

Now, Larson is through to the next round and Byron is +45 points to the cutline.

They weren’t the only winners from Sunday night’s race.

Winner: RFK Racing

A year ago, Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher averaged running positions of 16th and 28th, respectively in the Southern 500. Eliminated from the playoffs, it was all about building toward the future and the success Keselowski envisioned.

Success, like what they’re having now.

Buescher and Keselowski averaged running positions of 7th and 9th, ultimately finishing third and sixth.

Buescher nearly claimed his fourth win in the last six races, as he dueled with Kyle Larson on several late-race restarts and Tyler Reddick on the final restart.

Thing have changed, as both Buescher and Keselowski had some disappointments.

“It feels good and it hurts a little bit at the same time. To be this close and watch the 45 go up there and slap the fence over and over. The 5 car didn’t make any mistakes. We definitely had big aero issues. We worked hard on that. The pit crew really stepped up in the final half of this race and got us a bunch of spots that put us up front. They put us in a great spot to fight for it at least,” Buescher said.

“It was one of those days where it was just up and down. We got up to I think fourth there with 30 to go when that yellow came out. We pitted and we thought a whole bunch of cars would pit and they didn’t. That dropped us back to 17th or 18th. We were able to get back up to sixth but not all the way back up to where we were running,” Keselowski said. “We were just very solid.”

RFK Racing knows what they have. And that is dangerous for the competition.

Winner: 23XI Racing

Reddick has had some of the best raw speed of anyone in the field this season but hasn’t had the results due to his crew’s mistakes.

Sunday night showed, they learned.

Reddick led 90 of 367 laps and never left the top-15, except for two laps. His pit crew kept him in contention through green-flag pit stops and in the mix with the best car, besides Denny Hamlin.

And Kyle Larson toward the end.

Credit: DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota, and Tyler Reddick, driver of the #45 Jordan Brand Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“Kyle (Larson) and I were pretty close the majority of the day, honestly. He just got ahead of us there unfortunately on pit road, but all in all this is the day that we needed to have. I’m really just thankful for the hard work from the pit crew, the team, everyone at the shop. Days like this with a car like this we haven’t been able to get a second place finish out of it so I’m really glad we’re able to do that,” Reddick explained.

While Reddick didn’t get the win, due to a weird chain of events late in the race, he and his team showed they can be a real threat.

Teammate Bubba Wallace could be too – as a dark horse.

Credit: DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 03: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, exits pit road during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Wallace started 19th and drove almost inside the top-10 in stage one. Then, he spun and collected Joey Logano.

Wallace also had a run-in with A.J. Allmendinger.

“Apologies to Joey (Logano), apologies to AJ (Allmendinger). I think the important thing to learn here is to not make enemies race one when you’re in the Playoffs because they make it hell, so I deserve everything I got throughout the night,” Wallace commented.

However, he clawed back inside the top-15 with the help of a strategy call and his crew’s efforts.

The two-time Cup Series winner ended the night in seventh, albeit disappointed.

“I’m not happy with myself. Just did not execute. I’ve got to be better. I appreciate the team for sticking behind me through all of the mistakes that I caused them. They didn’t let us down and got us back to a top-10 finish. I was trying to hang on for a top-five, but you’re a double-edged sword. You go really hard at the beginning to try to get a gap or save and you’ve got Ross (Chastain) behind you, and you know he’s not going to let you have any breathing room,” Wallace expressed.

At one point below the cutline, Wallace heads to Kansas Speedway where he is the defending winner of the fall race.

“The driver’s got to go back to the drawing board and just take a step back, take a breath and regroup and go to Kansas and have a little one-year anniversary tour,” Wallace said.

Wallace has no playoff points so two stage wins and a race win could be a huge boost for his chances of advancing further in the playoffs.

Winner: Ross Chastain

These words sum up Chastain’s top-5 finish Sunday night:

“We needed 1,000 miles to get all the way to the lead. We just weren’t fast. All weekend, I haven’t felt like our balance was super far off, but it just didn’t translate to speed. I’ll take a top-five finish, for sure, and ride home happy.”

Credit: DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 03: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Take 5 Ford, and Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Unishippers Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chastain started 27th and went a lap down in stage one. Then, in stage two, he faced going a lap down again.

The 2022 Championship Four contender averaged an 18th-place running position Sunday night.

However, as a string of late-race cautions threw strategy into the mix and jumbled up the running order, Chastain gradually worked his way up to fifth by the end of the night.

Trackhouse Racing is behind on speed. Daniel Suarez also ran outside of the top-15 for much of the night until he caught the same type of break Chastain did.

However, capitalizing on strategy showed the team’s ability to make major strides on a rough day.

At times, Chastain was 8-10 points below the cutline. By night’s end, he was 13 point above.

Going into Kansas, a type of track Chastain has been good at, with momentum, the Trackhouse team could hit another stride – hopefully without the strife they faced Sunday night.

Winner: Team Penske

It’s clear Penske is off this season, which is why Sunday night at Darlington said a lot for them.

Drivers Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano finished ninth and 12th Sunday night at Darlington. Each of them gained on the cutline and Logano was in classic form.

Photo by Dominic Aragon/TRE

Logano wrecked at the end of stage one and battled suspension issues.

Then, just before halfway, the race changed after he earned the free pass.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe made some adjustments and eventually got Logano’s car driving well enough to crack the top-10.

While Logano finished 12th, it was a good reminder that the team may be down this season – but they’re never, ever out.

“I got ran in the wall a third time and bent the toe link. The guys did a great job changing that and staying pretty much on the lead lap and then started to grind our way back through the field. I probably could have done a little better. I probably gave up overall 15 points on the day. I think we’re one point to the good right now, so those 15 would be nice,” Logano said.

Credit: DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 03: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Richmond Water Heaters Ford, waves to fans as he walks onstage during driver intros prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Blaney earned six points in stage one and four points in stage two, netting him the fifth-most points Sunday.

Blaney needed it, starting the playoffs in the No. 12 seed, just +1 to the cutline. Now, he’s ninth, +15, heading to Kansas where he has been successful before.

Neutral: Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Busch finished 11th after starting 11th and earning five stage points in stage two. Busch gained eight points on the cutline but lost two spots in points, now 7th, +20.

It’s not an encouraging sign for Busch’s title hopes but there is time.

For Stenhouse, a speeding penalty put him a lap down in stage one. Then, he got the free pass and placed 10th in a strategy-laden end to stage two.

After the stage, he pitted – then pitted before the leaders did in stage three. However, a caution for Ryan Newman spinning on lap 311 caught him a lap down, albeit in the free pass spot.

Stenhouse survived some late-race chaos from 8th on back and finished 16th. He is now 15th, -4 to the cutline, which means he has work to do but is still in it.

Losers: Michael McDowell, Kevin Harvick

In McDowell’s words, he and his team just didn’t execute right Sunday night.

While he started ninth, McDowell only spent 31 laps inside the top-15. His average running position was 26th and he was 29th mid-race.

“The car just went really loose and lost a lap there. It kind of spiraled from there.  We hit pit road when the caution came out [with 56 laps to go]. I sped on pit road. That’s never good,” McDowell said. 

McDowell wrecked on lap 332 with Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell. In the end, the Front Row Motorsports driver finished 32nd, -19 to the cutline.

That may not seem like a bad hill to climb – but with one of the most competitive playoff fields of all-time, it may as well be Mount Everest.

Harvick looked to be in peak “Closer” form until an ill-timed caution pushed him back to a finish outside the top-15 and a spot below the cutline.

READ MORE: Kevin Harvick dealt a crushing loss at Darlington

Loser: Joe Gibbs Racing

The JGR driver with the best finish Sunday night was Martin Truex Jr., who came home 18th after starting 31st.

Truex showed little-to-no speed all night, getting behind with a mistake in qualifying and a loose wheel early in the race that put him off of the lead lap until 47 laps to go.

Credit: DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 03: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Yahoo! Toyota, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Christopher Bell also ran into trouble after leading the opening 33 laps in stage one. While he had one of the fastest cars, he only placed eighth in stage one and never did much else after hitting the wall and knocking the toe out.

Bell showed glimpses of speed but, like McDowell, faced the kiss of death on his night on lap 332.

While Truex’s 36 playoff points kept him a solid +25 to the cutline, Bell’s 14 points now have him at +1 after finishing 23rd, a lap down.

“We have speed. We’ve had speed a lot and I know that in Kansas we’re going to be fast again. That’s been a really good track for Toyota. I know that we have the speed to do it, we’ve just got to put it all together,” Bell said.

The one bright spot for JGR was Denny Hamlin who, far and away, had the best car Sunday night.

Credit: DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota, and Tyler Reddick, driver of the #45 Jordan Brand Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 03, 2023 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Then, late in the race, Hamlin pitted with a reported loose wheel. However, the crew couldn’t confirm that.

“It’s really tough to tell. It looked like the left rear was still tightening as we were gone. It’s close enough to where it didn’t matter. What I felt, I was in a crash. I had to bring it in and just turned the day upside down,” Hamlin said.

After leading 177 laps and sweeping the stages, all Hamlin could show for was a 25th-place finish with a fast racecar damaged in that lap 332 wreck.

Hamlin still left Darlington, +27 to the cutline in fourth. Still, it wasn’t the instant lock-in, statement win they had in their grasp.

“I am happy about the speed the car had and the restarts that I had. The things I had to work on I felt like I really did well today. It’s part of the process. We move on and if we advance, all we really lost out on is points for the next round so we’ll see,” Hamlin said.

JGR looks fast. However, poor execution in the playoff opener, especially two apparent loose wheels, will carry their drivers to an early end.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs continue with the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Sunday, September 10 (3 p.m. ET; Broadcast: USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Ch. 90)

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