Austin Cendrick, center, celebrates with crew members in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 on February 20 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP Photo)
Darlington, South Carolina – Austin Sendrick had more than six months to think about the NASCAR playoffs. The rookie rider thinks he has a winning plan: Maintain his steady, downward style as the 10-race postseason begins Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
Cendrick is among a group of four players for the first time in the field of 16, along with Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. They are all excited — and filled with questions about how things will unfold when the Green Flag of the Southern 500 waves.
“I want to do my job. My only expectation is to have a team that has all the resources and ability to do that,” said Cendrick, who won the inaugural Daytona 500 of the season.
Cendrick will start in 14th place on the playoff grid. Chastain, with two wins and eight more from the top five, starts the playoffs in third place behind regular season champion Chase Elliott and second seed Joey Logano.
Cup Series Defender Kyle Larson is the fourth seed. Prisco, seeded 12th, and Suarez are directly in 13th.
Lugano, who won the May race in Darlington, took the lead on Saturday and will top seven playoff riders on the grid. Christopher Bell was ranked second, followed by William Byron, Tyler Riddick, Kyle Busch, Cendric and Larson.
Elliott will be the furthest qualifying rider on the field, starting at 23.
Darlington starts the opening round of three races. Chastain said his week was “surprisingly normal” after all he heard about supplement anxiety.
“It’s wild. I thought there would be differences, I thought I would feel different or wake up and not be able to sleep,” Chastain said. “I’m really happy because it was a normal week.”
Suarez, of Trackhouse Racing, also sensed that this was a normal week, regardless of what you wait for the Series Cup trophy at the end of the next 10 weeks.
“I think if we can keep calm and relax and keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past few months, we’ll be in great shape,” said Suarez, NASCAR’s first Mexican-born race winner.
The Southern 500 starts round one of three races, which continue in Kansas and Bristol. The winner of Darlington, as long as he is in the playoffs, advances to the second round among the last 12 competitors.
Round two consisted of Texas, Talladega and Charlotte Roval, after which the playing field was reduced to eight.
The top four after the third round of Las Vegas, Homestead-Miami and Martinsville advance to the final on November 6 in Phoenix, where the title will be awarded.
What is the next step for Keel Bush?
Kyle Busch, NASCAR Series Champion in 2015 and 2019, said he sees a near end to discussions about his racing future.
Busch’s longtime sponsor, Mars, Inc. , withdraws from NASCAR after this season. Bush said this week that he has multiple tracks ahead, including a return to Joe Gibbs Racing.
However, he said “time is running out”. “There are a lot of other options and a lot of other dominoes that need to drop. Speaking of other things, I’m the first to need to drop.”
On Thursday, Bush said he expected a decision on next year to be made within seven to 10 days.
When will Kurt Bush return?
Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, said Kurt Bosch is still recovering from a concussion and doesn’t know when Bosch might be back in the car.
Hamlin said the recovery has “stabilised” at around 80% and that Bush needs more time before getting back on track.
Bush was injured during a qualifying accident in Pocono in late July. He missed the last six races of the regular season and gave up his place in the playoffs when he was not allowed to return to the Southern 500.
Bubba Wallace has been transformed into Busch’s number 45, who is vying for the title of owner. Wallace will run that machine the rest of the season.
Possibilities and endings
Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin are the odds-makers’ picks to win the Southern 500 at 6-1, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Tyler Riddick and Chase Elliott were next with a 7-1 score with Ross Chastain at 7.5-1. …there are many erratic 16 field qualifiers who have had success in Darlington and could throw a wrench into the plans of those contending for the title. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, both former NASCAR Series champions, have racked up three Darlington wins over the past six years. … Kyle Larson, who won the series title in 2021, thinks the chase this year is wide open because the next generation car has met the expectations of all the qualifying hopefuls. …the inaugural race winner went on to win that season’s title four times, Kurt Bosch in 2004, Tony Stewart in 2011, Brad Keselowski in 2012, and Martin Truex Jr. in 2017. …the 500 Southern sold since 2019. The facility’s listed capacity is about 47,000. Officials said all indoor sites and suites are full.