The 2021 Southern 500? More like the Survivor 500. Championship contenders were torn to pieces in seconds. Blown tires led to missed opportunities, pit strategy changing up front with every stop. The finish was like a video game that could have been confused for iRacing on Twitch.
Clearly, the Track Too Tough To Tame was every bit of that in the 72nd edition of Darlington Raceway's crown jewel NASCAR Cup Series event.
Denny Hamlin emerged from the fray with his first win of 2021, fending off a wild move by Kyle Larson in which he tried to rim-ride past Hamlin by sliding around the outside wall.
"Got to his bumper too quick," Larson said. "I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside… gave everything I had. He did a great job not really making any mistakes during the last run."
Hamlin was the only playoff driver, really who could say that.
The Lady In Black chewed up title contenders and spit them out all night, from Michael McDowell's wreck on lap 31 to Chase Elliott on lap 328.
In the end, a whopping nine playoff drivers finished outside the top 15, the highest number for any Round of 16 race since the current format began in 2014 (keep in mind every playoff driver started inside the top 16 in this one due to NASCAR COVID-19 protocols on setting the field).
"It's the Southern 500 at Darlington," said Hamlin's crew chief Chris Gabehart on the carnage. "There's not a lot of 500-mile races that are a thriller anymore. But Darlington is the true quintessential NASCAR race in that, you know, the endurance really is the test. There were only a few guys left standing at the end with a shot to win, and that's just a tribute to this racetrack and this race."
It left many NASCAR heavyweights licking their wounds, far too many of them self-inflicted. Truex, the 2017 champion, had a loose wheel put him behind, then pit strategy and setups backfired only to fight back to the front on lap 322. What happened next? Speeding, a trip to the back of the line and one punch too many from this tough egg-shaped oval.
"One of those days," he said. "Sometimes, you can't do the little things right."
"On my end, just made too many mistakes," Elliott said after his race included hitting a tire on pit road before wrecking. "That's what you deserve when you make that many mistakes."
The unexpected benefactor was Hamlin, a driver who entered the playoffs without a top-3 finish since mid-April at Richmond Raceway. He watched his point lead get devoured by Larson, then endured a weird week when longtime girlfriend Jordan Fish posted cryptic messages on Twitter appearing to, at minimum, publicly end their relationship.
"I'm a professional and do my job the best I can," Hamlin said. "Today, I thought we did as good as we could. We executed… my team is always giving the best effort, and I know my job every Sunday."
Now, the job becomes pressure free the next two weeks as Hamlin is guaranteed a spot in the next round. He and Larson (+80) are the only two that can feel safe after a Darlington race wreaked havoc on the postseason lineup.
"There was no room for error," Hamlin said about his 2021 playoff bid. "Now, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous."
Green: Ross Chastain -- A first Cup win in a crown jewel event? Chastain was oh-so-close to becoming the first non-playoff driver to win in the Round of 16 under the current format. The No. 42 was in position to do it, outrunning Larson until a late caution in the middle of pit stops cost him control of the race. He could never regain it.
What was needed to squeeze out a little extra speed? "A better driver," Chastain said. "I can go fast, I just can't quite race with them, and it starts with my restarts."
Yellow: Team Penske -- It was mixed reviews for a three-car operation that mostly avoided Darlington's wrath. Brad Keselowski ran seventh with a car handling so bad that at one point, he simply exclaimed, "So tight!" Joey Logano snagged eighth for his first top-10 finish in over a month? Even a late spin by Ryan Blaney, ending his two-race win streak, was OK for the No. 12 team banking nine stage points earlier in the race.
All of that keeps them above the cutline. But they never showcased speed in the playoff opener that has anyone thinking Championship 4. At least, not yet.
Red: Hendrick Motorsports -- It's hard to imagine a more nightmarish scenario to start the playoffs. Alex Bowman had electrical gremlins, then was the first wreck of the night when a blown tire sent him sailing into the outside wall. William Byron caught a piece of that one, fought back, then wrecked worse when the team didn't get the left front wheel tight on a midrace pit stop.
Elliott finished off the trifecta, wrecking his car after a left front went down on the No. 9. He's the only one of this trio above the cutline, joining Larson, as a team capable of sweeping all Championship 4 positions could now be faced with multiple first round TKOs.
"It's just terrible," Byron said. "I don't know man. That sucks."
Speeding Ticket -- Kyle Busch. No one appeared more frustrated at Darlington than Busch, forced low by Aric Almirola before contact with Austin Dillon wrecked his car coming off turn 2. Busch then made a mockery of the orange cones on pit road, forcing innocent bystanders to flee as he drove right up to the hauler, ended his night and spent a few minutes figuring out how and when he'd fire off expletives.
"We'll take our lumps," Busch said. "Running like s---, we got wrecked, that's what you get when you run like s---."
A two-time winner this season now finds himself two points below the cutline and faced with a potential fine by NASCAR. Will he refocus with Richmond, one of his best tracks, next up?
Carnage wasn't limited to the Cup race at Darlington. Derek Kraus made driver Lawless Alan angry when the duo made contact, spinning out the No. 45 and collecting popular Hailie Deegan in the wreck.
Alan, besides having one of NASCAR's best names, let loose on Kraus along with the Niece Racing Twitter account.
They went so far as to point the finger at primary sponsor NAPA Auto Parts for sponsoring Kraus. But check out their amazing Twitter reaction.