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Saturday's motors: Playoffs begin with 14 drivers chasing Harvick and Hamlin

Jenna Fryer
Associated Press

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are expected to race head-to-head for the NASCAR Cup title when the 10-week playoff series begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway.

The duo heads to the South Carolina track with a combined 13 regular-season wins between them — they each won a race at Darlington in May when racing resumed during the coronavirus pandemic — and they’ve accumulated enough playoff points to practically coast into the championship-deciding finale. That theoretically leaves the 14 other drivers racing for just two spots in the winner-take-all race.

Denny Hamlin stands on his car after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race 
Aug. 22 at Dover International Speedway

“I met with my team and I told them at the end of this 10 weeks someone will be holding the championship trophy. Why not us?” said Rochester Hills' Brad Keselowski. “We can do it just as well as anybody and I’m ready for that challenge.”

The field consists of six former champions including Kyle Busch, the current holder of the Bill France Cup. Busch is a two-time Cup champion but has had a terrible 2020 by his standards and is still seeking his first win of the season.

“Certainly we’re not a title front-runner, we’re not a favorite,” Busch said. “We are on the bottom of the spectrum and we’re on the outside looking in.”

At stake is a winning streak of at least one victory a year since his 2005 rookie season, a source of pride for Busch and one his Joe Gibbs Racing team doesn’t want to end.

“It’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons, so hopefully we can keep that going,” Busch said. “This year has definitely been one of the biggest tests I feel like I’ve been through. It’s been nothing but something else that’s in the back of your mind like, what’s going to happen next? What’s the next thing that’s going to test your patience?

“Just seems like we can’t shake this monkey off our back. Wherever he is, whatever he looks like, somebody tell me and we’re going to go for a few roll-arounds here and get him off my back in order go out here and have a solid, successful, productive final 10 weeks.”

The field is a mixed lot of experience, with Cole Custer the only rookie to make the playoffs while Matt DiBenedetto is making his first appearance. NASCAR’s return to racing has been done with COVID-19 protocols that eliminated practice and qualifying, which put younger drivers and smaller teams at a disadvantage.

Custer, for example, is 22 years old and has raced the tricky Darlington track just five times before — only twice in a Cup car, both in May. Harvick, conversely, has 25 career Cup starts at Darlington and a pair of wins.

Kevin Harvick (4) celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Aug. 23 at Dover International Speedway

“I think I would definitely like some practice,” Custer said. “Even though we’ve been to tracks like Darlington before, some of these guys have been there for 10 or 15 years. There’s stuff as a rookie that we’d just like to try in our car to see if it was better or worse, but we don’t really have that opportunity, so we make our best-educated guess.”

The playoffs are split into three rounds of three races each, with four drivers eliminated after each round. A victory in any round earns an automatic advancement into the next round until the field is whittled down to four for a Nov. 8 shootout at Phoenix Raceway.

Busch joins his older brother, Kurt, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and DiBenedetto as drivers without a win as the playoffs begin. Keselowski, with three victories, is the only driver who has come close to keeping pace with Harvick and Hamlin, while Joey Logano and Chase Elliott have two wins each. Logano won twice in the first four weeks of the season, while Elliott scored his two wins after racing resumed.

Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Austin Dillon and Custer each have one victory. Truex, though, has only finished lower than fourth one time in the last 10 races and might be the overlooked contender. Others have been labeled dark horses, but Truex has very quietly made himself a strong challenger to Harvick and Hamlin.

“I feel like we are right there on the cusp of it. You look at what we’ve done the last 10 races,” Truex said. “We’ve had opportunities to win slip away. I look forward to seeing if we can take those seconds, thirds and fourths and turn them into wins. That’s ultimately what it takes to win the championship.”

Jones wins Xfinity race

Brandon Jones played it out in his mind over and over as he drove behind leaders Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain. When the moment arrived, Jones was ready to pounce.

Jones swept past leaders Chastain and Hamlin two laps from the end to win the Xfinity Series event at Darlington Raceway.

Jones was ready when Hamlin passed Chastain in turn four on the next-to-last lap, both leaders losing momentum as they tried to handle Darlington’s tricky curve.

“I knew it was going to come and I was ready,” said Jones, who stayed out in front for his third win this season and fourth of his career.

For Jones, it was a lot like his win in Kansas when he sat seventh on the second overtime restart and passed Austin Cindric for the victory.

Jones knew Hamlin and Chastain would struggle to regain their speed after Chastain bumped the NASCAR Cup Series racer. He told himself to drive low, find the clear air and stay focused on the finish line.

It happened just the way he thought.

“You saw them really racing hard and I knew I was catching them,” Jones said.

It sure didn’t look that way as Hamlin kept charging from behind in seeking his sixth career Xfinity win at Darlington.

Hamlin quickly moved behind Chastain after a final restart with 21 laps left. The NASCAR Cup Series driver stalked Chastain much of the way, several times pulling alongside before falling back to second.

Hamlin finally grabbed the lead with two laps left. Chastain wasn’t done, bumping Hamlin from behind to cause both to lose momentum — enough for Jones to push on past for the victory.

Jones said he only thought about getting a better exit out of the turn than his competitors.

“I did it at Kansas when I won, and that’s what came to mind,” Jones said. “I knew I need to back the entry up whenever they were racing really hard, and that was my only option, to try to get a better exit than them.”

Chastain held on for second, Ryan Sieg was third, Riley Herbst fourth and Hamlin fifth.