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September 1, 2023

Bubble Watch: Stacked playoff field creates minuscule margin of error at Darlington

Joey Logano drives at Darlington
Jared C. Tilton
Getty Images)

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin Sunday evening at Darlington Raceway (6 ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). This season marks one of the most stacked 16-driver fields in the current postseason format that began in 2017.

With the fewest playoff points ever scored by the top seeds entering the playoffs and just 25 points separating third to 16th in the standings, the margin of error will be slim to none during arguably the toughest event on the Cup Series calendar. Before the action kicks off this weekend, take a look at some analysis of drivers closest to the Round of 12 elimination line, courtesy of Racing Insights.

RELATED: Cup playoff standings | Meet the 16-driver postseason field



Points above: 3

Trending: Hit or Miss

Darlington outlook — Warm: “The Lady in Black” has treated Keselowski well in recent years. Even in a down season last year, he managed to score a seventh-place finish in the Southern 500 and owns three finishes of seventh or better in the last four Darlington races overall. Keselowski finished fourth at the South Carolina track in May.


Points above: 2

Trending: Hit or Miss

Darlington outlook — Hit or Miss: Reddick was phenomenal in both Darlington races in 2022, with a runner-up finish in the spring event and a third-place result in last year’s Southern 500. He finished 22nd at Darlington earlier this year but will need to score big points Sunday night with a lot to prove as he’s been eliminated in the Round of 16 in his first two playoff appearances.


Points above: 1

Trending: Hit or Miss

Darlington outlook — May Snapped Hot Streak: The defending champion is on pace to match his worst career season since missing the playoffs in 2017. However, the two-time Cup Series titleholder is known for his opportunistic tendencies in the playoffs, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Logano musters a big points day at Darlington despite finishing 18th in the spring after a late-race incident.


Points above: 1

Trending: Hit or Miss

Darlington outlook — Cold Until May: Darlington is not one of Blaney’s better tracks, but he did score one of just two top-10 results in 13 career starts in May. It appeared that his signature Coke 6oo victory could turn him into a title contender, but that has not been the case as the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford hasn’t scored a top-five finish since.



Points below: 1

Trending: Win or Bust

Darlington outlook — Hit or Miss: Not many are banking on McDowell to advance out of the Round of 16, but the last two Southern 500s have scrambled the playoff field, and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford benefitted from the wild race to kick off the postseason last season as he finished sixth. If he ends up on the positive side again, McDowell could find himself in a good spot heading to Kansas.


Points below: 3

Trending: Cold

Darlington outlook — Mostly Cold: Just one top-10 finish for Stenhouse in 15 Darlington starts doesn’t trend well for the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team, but like McDowell, Stenhouse needs to bank on a clean day and hit their goal for points.


Points below: 4

Trending: Hit or Miss

Darlington outlook — Hot: Outside of Phoenix, Darlington is toward the top of the list of Harvick’s best tracks. It would be fitting for the final Southern 500 for “The Closer” to result in a trip to Victory Lane, but if 14 top 10s in his last 15 trips to Darlington say anything, Sunday should at least be a big points day to get the No. 4 above the elimination line.


Points below: 8

Trending: Cold

Darlington outlook — Warming Up: Wallace’s debut in the playoffs has been a long time coming through six full-time seasons. With two intermediate ovals making up the first two trips in the Round of 16, he has an opportunity to make a huge splash as he finished fifth at Darlington in the spring and was the winner of the Kansas playoff race last season.