What to Watch: The road to a championship kicks off at Darlington

Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

(⏰ Sunday, 6 p.m. ET | 📺 USA, NBC Sports App | 📻 MRN, SiriusXM)

Everything you need to know for Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington, the 27th points-paying race of the 2023 Cup Series campaign.

Weekend schedule | TV schedule | Weather tracker | Darlington playoff race 101

📍 Location: Darlington, South Carolina
📐 Track length: 1.366 miles
🎟️ Buy tickets: Find weekend passes, seats for the race
💰 Cup Series race purse: $8,260,258
📏 Race distance: 367 laps | 501.32 miles
🔢 Stages: 115 | 230 | 367

📋 Starting lineup: Bell on pole at Darlington
🚗 Pit stall assignments:
See where drivers will pit
🏆 Most recent winner: Erik Jones, fall 2022

Key things to watch 🔑

Saturday’s sessions

Christopher Bell kicked off the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Darlington Raceway by taking his third pole of 2023. He led a Toyota 1-2-3 qualifying effort as Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick qualified second and third, respectively. Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski completed the top five. Aric Almirola, who qualified 10th, is the only non-playoff driver starting in the top 10. There are no Chevrolets starting inside the top 10. | Read the full practice, qualifying recap

Big story line

Can several playoff contenders start building momentum and consistency at Darlington?
In NASCAR’s previous trip to the “Lady in Black” in May, Ross Chastain and Kyle Larson tangled while fighting for the win in the Goodyear 400. Both drivers have made the postseason, but neither appears to be an early favorite to walk away with the Bill France Cup in November. Larson has not won in the Cup Series since mid-April and only has three top-10 finishes in the last eight races. For Chastain, the Trackhouse Racing driver has been inconsistent since winning at Nashville. If last year’s Championship 4 contender wants to make another deep playoff run, kicking off the 2023 Cup Series Playoffs on a strong note at Darlington is a must. In the last 14 races, Chastain has finished inside the top 10 three times.

Meanwhile, in the first 15 races of the 2023 season, Kyle Busch won three races in his first season with Richard Childress Racing. Toward the end of the summer stretch of races, Busch ran into some inconsistency problems. The two-time Cup Series champion enters the playoffs with two finishes better than 14th place in the last seven races. Now is the time for these drivers to rediscover their early season magic. | Relive Larson and Chastain’s clash in the 2023 Darlington spring race

History tells us…

Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. enter Darlington as the favorites.
After missing out on the regular-season title to Truex Jr., Hamlin will reset his focus on trying to win his fourth Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday night. In the last two years, Hamlin has finished first and second in the 367-lap event. To keep this pattern consistent, another trip to Victory Lane in South Carolina would not be a huge surprise – especially considering Hamlin is rolling off second. In his last six Darlington starts, Hamlin has three top fives and, surprisingly, no DNFs in 22 career starts.

With two Southern 500 victories under his belt, Truex Jr. will look for win No. 3 at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” Despite leading laps in the last 10 of 12 Darlington races, the No. 19 Toyota has finished 24th or worse in the last three races. All three were DNFs, two for crashes and one for an issue with the water pump. Although Truex Jr. has not shown the results during the Next Gen era at Darlington, the odds still list him as a 5-1 shot to win.

He may not be the betting favorite to win, but watch out for…

Chase Elliott. With no more pressure of making the 2023 Cup Series Playoffs to compete for the driver’s title, Elliott and his No. 9 team can zero in on competing for race wins. After missing a total of seven races during the regular season, Elliott fell short of the postseason this year. While his No. 9 Chevrolet remains eligible for the Owner’s Championship, he will be a non-playoff driver this year as his quest for a second Cup title will have to wait until 2024. In 2022, non-playoff drivers won the first four races of the postseason, so maybe Elliott can keep that trend going a year later and spoil the party for 16 drivers looking to win and advance to the Round of 12.

In his last five Darlington starts, Elliott has finished seventh or better three times, including his best career finish of third at the South Carolina track earlier this year in May. Entering Sunday night’s race with an odds of 17-1, the Hendrick Motorsports driver will try to reach Darlington Victory Lane for the first time in his Cup Series career. | Elliott misses playoffs: ‘Gonna be some lessons taken from it’

Talkin’ Trophies 🔍

In this installment of ‘Talkin’ Trophies,’ we explore the origins of Darlington’s Johnny Mantz trophy that it hands out to the winner of the Southern 500.

Familiar favorites ⭐️

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.

– At-track photos: See the best images from Darlington playoff weekend | Photos
– Bubble Watch: Stacked playoff field creates minuscule margin of error | See the bubble
– Fantasy Fastlane: It’s postseason time at Darlington | See fantasy tips
– Paint Scheme Preview:
See the schemes for Darlington-2 | Pick a favorite
– Power Rankings: Can William Byron kick off playoffs with Darlington sweep? | Latest driver rankings
– Stacking Pennies:
Corey LaJoie reacts to getting a top-10 finish at Daytona | Listen to the podcast

💎 NASCAR 75: Learn more about the history of the sport, from pioneers to current stars | Visit NASCAR 75 hub

Get in on the action 💰

Think you know NASCAR? Put your mettle to the test with gaming, fantasy and Fan Rewards.

– Fantasy Live: Participate in interactive gameplay from week to week | Choose your lineup
– Fan Rewards: New in 2023, get rewarded for your participation | Learn more
– NASCAR BetCenter: Don’t miss your chance to make picks each week | Visit the BetCenter
– Going the distance:
2023 Cup Series championship odds | See them here

🔮 Advance to Victory Lane: Racing Insights projects the finishing order