The NASCAR Playoffs kicks off Sunday night in grand fashion. The Labor Day Weekend race is a crown jewel event held annually at Darlington — the old school track affectionately known as The Track Too Tough Too Tame. As always, trust the data but also trust your eyes. Here are the best bets for the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.
Will the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington be won by the chalk or will there be another surprise winner? If this race runs green, then crown the kings. If there are cautions, then half of the field is alive? Can there be chaos? Yes, the NASCAR summer schedule is all over the place. These teams have been setting up for wildly different tracks and have been travelling all over the US. It’s reasonable to believe that there will be failures, mistakes and cautions.
Race Winner — Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington
Chase Elliott +1700
The pressure to make the playoffs is over. Points racing is over. Elliott has just one objective from here on out — win races. If Elliott wins the Southern 500, the “what could have been” chorus will ring out. When he goes on a typical Chase Elliott heater and rolls off several wins in the playoffs, it will especially sting. So what better of a place to start a hot streak than at a hot night on Labor Day weekend at one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events?
Elliott has never won at Darlington, but he’s been close many times. He finished third at Darlington in the spring and every one of the Hendrick Chevys were contenders in that race (William Byron was the winner). While this season has been a major disappointment for Elliott, no one doubts his talent or the speed of the No. 9 Chevy.
The playoff drivers have to stage race. They must chase points. They cannot afford to take risks in the first race of the playoffs. Elliott’s team can gamble and race for wins every week until the end of the season.
Austin Dillon +25,000
This is a first. Austin Dillon is never an outright winner pick. He’s a long shot, but he always is when he wins. The obvious picks are obvious, so why not dig a little deeper into the numbers and look for a hidden gem? Dillon has earned surprise wins in prestigious Cup Series races at Daytona and Charlotte.
Last season, Dillon earned a top-10 finish in the spring race at Darlington. He finished 10th in the 2021 Southern 500 at Darlington, and he was the runner-up in the 2020 Southern 500. Carnage was needed for Dillon to earn that finish, but that’s the bet. Darlington has been hairy lately. Cautions are frequent and surprise finishes have become common. This trend culminated with Erik Jones winning the Southern 500 in the No. 43 Petty-GMS car last season.
Lastly, Dillon should have competitive equipment. Last season, Tyler Reddick (+1300) finished second and third in an RCR Chevy at Darlington. In this year’s spring race, Kyle Busch (+1000) was in fourth place late in the race, but a bad pit stop ruined his chances.
Race Winner — Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington
Kyle Larson +550
It took Dale Earnhardt 20 years to win the Daytona 500. This isn’t the same situation, but there are similarities. History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. Earnhardt was the best at Daytona, but he couldn’t win the big one. Larson is exceptional at the high-groove track in South Carolina, but he’s never won a Cup Series race at The Track Too Tough To Tame in 10 seasons. He’s been close. He’s led a lot of laps (715 laps led in 11 races).
His driver rating at Darlington is beyond impressive. Throw out the recent data. Larson was battling for the win in the spring race when Ross Chastain did Ross Chastain things and wrecked them both. Last Labor Day Weekend, Larson suffered one of his many engine failures of 2022, and it was his second that season at Darlington. Before the engines and Chastain, Larson earned the second-best driver rating in the 2021 Southern 500 and third-best earlier that season at the challenging track dubbed The Lady In Black. Before his suspension, he earned the highest driver rating at Darlington in 2019 and 2018 while driving for Chip Ganassi. Larson has broken through everywhere else. He’s due for the breakthrough at Darlington.
William Byron +750
Two influential narratives collide at Darlington. Both current form statistics and track history statistics align for William Byron. The regular season champ enters the playoffs with the most wins (five). One of those wins was at Darlington in the spring. Byron should have won the 2022 Darlington spring race, but Joey Logano wrecked him on the final lap. Beyond the win and could-have-been win, Byron has a top-5 driver rating in four of the last five races at Darlington. His Hendrick equipment isn’t too bad, either.
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