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Playoff Pulse: Analyzing the field after Darlington

After the opening race of the Round of 16 in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs race, here’s a brief look at the playoff picture. There are two races remaining in the Round of 16 before the field is whittled to 12, with four drivers eliminated from the postseason following the Sept. 18 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Winner

Denny Hamlin avoided the pitfalls that jolted several contenders and shook up the first race of the Cup Series Playoffs, locking up a clutch first victory of the season in the Cook Out Southern 500. His fourth triumph at Darlington Raceway gave him an automatic berth in the Round of 12. He led 146 of the 367 laps to win NASCAR’s oldest 500-mile race for a third time.

RELATED: Unofficial results | At-track photos

Who’s hot

Kyle Larson. The regular-season champion led a race-high 156 laps and backed up his status as a Cup Series Playoffs favorite. He wound up second to a strong Joe Gibbs Racing driver for the second consecutive Darlington race.

Martin Truex Jr. The No. 19 driver rallied twice from trouble — overcoming an unscheduled stop for a loose wheel and later a pit-road speeding penalty — to finish fourth. The result marked Truex’s first top-five effort in a month.

Who’s not

Kyle Busch. Busch was out shortly after Stage 2 set sail, his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota making significant contact with the Turn 2 wall. After a check at the infield care center, Busch was critical of his team’s performance, absolving Austin Dillon — the other driver involved in the incident — from blame. He’s won multiple times at Richmond and Bristol — the next two races on the schedule — but he’ll be entering those events at a deficit after finishing 35th.

William Byron. The Hendrick Motorsports driver was among the first playoff-eligible drivers to find trouble, clipping Alex Bowman on Lap 14 after his teammate slowed with a wall scrape. Byron was able to recover and be competitive for a time, but a broken valve stem and downed tire sent him hard into the wall on Lap 200.

Michael McDowell. The Daytona 500 winner acknowledged his playoff underdog status entering the final 10 races, and an early exit in the Darlington opener has him fenced into a virtual must-win scenario. His No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford ended the day on the wrecker’s hook after heavy contact with the inside wall, completing just 30 laps and finishing last in the 37-car field.

BUBBLE WATCH

Rank Driver Points to cutoff
9. Christopher Bell +5
10. Chase Elliott +4
11. Aric Almirola +3
12. Tyler Reddick 0
——– ELIMINATION LINE ———-
13. Alex Bowman 0
14. Kyle Busch -2
15. William Byron -9
16. Michael McDowell -20

Next race

The NASCAR Cup Series travels to Richmond Raceway for the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders on Sept. 11 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Who it favors

Kyle Busch. He leads active drivers with six wins, 18 top fives and an average finish of 6.8 at the 0.75-mile track. The only active driver with more top-10 finishes at Richmond is Kevin Harvick, who has 26 to Busch’s 24. But Harvick holds a 40-31 advantage over Busch in number of starts at Richmond.

Who it hurts

Michael McDowell. His average finish of 31.9 at Richmond is the worst among this year’s playoff drivers. McDowell’s best finish at Richmond was 12th in 2016 for Leavine Family Racing. Since moving over to Front Row Motorsports, his best finish has been 21st in 2019.