Five drivers to watch in 2023 Cook Out Southern 500

Denny Hamlin battles Tyler Reddick at Darlington Raceway in the Goodyear 400. PHOTO BY HUNTER THOMAS/THEFOURTHTURN.COM

By Hunter Thomas

The 2023 NASCAR Playoff is upon Darlington Raceway, and on Sunday, 16 championship-eligible drivers will take to the high banks of the track, Too Tough To Tame for the first of 10 stops to the road to the Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway in November. 

Through 26 Regular Season races, the NASCAR Cup Series has seen 13 different winners. Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron enters the Playoffs with five wins, the most of any driver this season; however, RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher has won three of the last five races. You can’t count out Martin Truex Jr. either as he was crowned the Regular Season champion with three wins, nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. 

The Round of 16 of the NASCAR Playoffs consists of Darlington Raceway, Kansas Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. Each track has its own challenges, but the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington is by far one of the toughest races on the schedule. Of the 16 drivers competing for this year’s championship, several have phenomenal track records at Darlington. Here are five drivers to watch this weekend: 

1.)    Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota 

You can’t mention Darlington and not reference Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin. In 22 NASCAR Cup Series starts at the Lady in Black, Hamlin has completed 99.8% of the laps, and he has an impressive 7.7 average finish. Hamlin is most certainly a favorite heading into Sunday’s race; however, in recent years, Hamlin’s finishes have been up and down at Darlington. In last year’s Cook Out Southern 500, he finished a disappointing 21st, but earlier this spring, the Virginia native finished runner-up. He has four wins at Darlington with his latest coming in 2021, so look for Hamlin to fight hard for his fifth win. Hamlin enters the NASCAR Playoffs seeded in third. 

2.)    Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford 

Kevin Harvick just barely made it into the NASCAR Playoffs in his final season. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver who is seeded 15th looks to turn his season around this weekend at Darlington, a track that has been one of his best over the past 23 seasons. In the last 15 races at Darlington, Harvick has finished within the top-five in 12 of the events. He’s hoping that his 817th NASCAR Cup Series start will result in his fourth Darlington victory. 

3.)    Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota 

Martin Truex Jr. is another driver to keep an eye on. He was crowned the Regular Season champion this past weekend at Daytona International Speedway, and he enters Darlington hoping to hold on to his crown. Truex has two wins at Darlington, but he has endured quite a good bit of adversity in recent races. In 2022, he crashed out in the spring with just over 30 laps remaining, and he had water pump issues in the Cook Out Southern 500. Hoping it was just bad luck, Truex also crashed out in May on a restart with just 13 laps to go. That being said, Truex has an average finish of 13.2 at Darlington, and this season, in particular, he has earned an overall three wins, nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. The New Jersey native has been very consistent. 

4.)    Kyle Busch, Richard Childress Racing No. 8 Chevrolet 

Another driver who has struggled in recent years at Darlington is fifth seed, Kyle Busch, but his career has been rejuvenated by joining Richard Childress Racing. The Las Vegas native is always a driver to watch at Darlington. In fact, he could have won last year’s Cook Out Southern 500, but he had an engine failure after leading 155 laps. He followed the disappointment up with a solid seventh in the spring. Busch hasn’t won at Darlington since 2008, but he finishes inside of the top-five at Darlington 60.9% of the time. 

5.)    Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet 

Larson has the least amount of Darlington starts on this list, but he has made noise in nearly every one of them. In only 11 starts, Larson has finished inside of the top-five on five occasions and the top-10 63.6% of the time. Between the four races from 2018-2021, his lowest finish at Darlington was third. His first win at the Lady in Black has still eludes him, but the six seed in the NASCAR Playoffs enters this weekend’s race looking to improve on a 10.2 average finish at Darlington. He’s hoping to turn his season around as the last time he finished inside of the top-five was back at Michigan International Speedway in early August. 

Heading into Darlington the NASCAR Playoff standings are 1.) William Byron, 2.) Martin Truex Jr., 3.) Denny Hamlin, 4.) Chris Buescher, 5.) Kyle Busch, 6.) Kyle Larson, 7.) Christopher Bell, 8.) Ross Chastain, 9.) Brad Keselowski, 10.) Tyler Reddick, 11.) Joey Logano, 12.) Ryan Blaney, 13.) Michael McDowell, 14.) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 15.) Kevin Harvick and 16.) Bubba Wallace. 

The NASCAR Playoffs will kick off at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, September 3. Live coverage of the Cook Out Southern 500 will broadcast on USA at 6 p.m. ET. 

Author: Stephan Drew

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