Podium Preview: Cook Out Southern 500

Surely, the Cook Out Southern 500's throwback atmosphere means all-out Playoff action! (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Surely, the Cook Out Southern 500’s throwback atmosphere means all-out Playoff action! (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

By all means, the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington always provides excitement and prestige for the NASCAR Cup Series. Without a doubt, it remains one of stock car racing’s crown jewel events.

Returning to its cherished Labor Day weekend date in 2015, Round 27 of the season seems quite perfect with kicking off the Playoff action. Certainly, one could dub the Round of 16 as the Southeast Swing of Classic Tracks with Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol awaiting title hopefuls.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists, consisting of columnists, photographers, and fans, preview the racing action. This weekend, Ashley HobbsCody ShoppeKobe LambethLuis Torres, Matteo MarcheschiMichelle RaynorStephen Conley, Terra Jones, and yours truly ponder about Jimmie Johnson’s best shot at a win and Kyle Busch’s title prospects.

Podium Preview: Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington
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Question 1
Can Jimmie Johnson return to the winner's circle soon? (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Can Jimmie Johnson return to the winner’s circle soon? (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

During Jimmie Johnson’s press conference Saturday night, he had a message to the 48 fans; “don’t worry, we still have ten more races to go, and we are focused on winning.” With the intensity of playoffs, the pressure of no longer being on the Playoff bubble, with Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin domination, can Johnson win before hanging it up? If so, where do you see Johnson notching winning number 84, tying him with Darrel Waltrip and Bobby Allison? 
Bonus question to this question → Do you see Johnson breaking his tie for sixth among all time NASCAR Cup wins, tying for fourth, sitting solo in fourth, or remain tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough?

Jones :  I guess my easy answer is I don’t see it happening. I would love to see him get one more before he hangs up the “full-time suit,” however I just don’t see it in the cards. If it were to happen, it would probably be Sunday night at Darlington – one of those “so close” moments where it came a week too late.

Hobbs :   As a Jimmie Johnson fan, I would love nothing more than to see him win and celebrate at least one final time. However, the latest statistics do not bode well for him and the 48 crew. If I had to pick a place I’d love to see him win, it would be Martinsville. Martinsville and Johnson go together like peanut butter and jelly; and it would mirror the way his mentor and owner, Jeff Gordon, ended his season.

I see Johnson staying tied for sixth all-time NASCAR wins with Cale Yarborough, with the glimmer of hope for him to get to the level of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. No matter what, Johnson will go down in NASCAR history as one of the best and greatest NASCAR drivers we have ever seen and probably will see for a very long time.

Sisoler :  I think without the pressure of the playoffs, Jimmie will have a better chance than if he was still battling for a championship, but I just don’t know if I see it happening. It’ll have to be at a track that we aren’t really expecting. If I had to say one, maybe redemption on the Charlotte ROVAL? Odds say no for JJ winning a race in his final 10, but odds can be proven wrong.

Lambeth :  With the pressure off, I truly believe that Jimmie Johnson is going to end his full-time NASCAR career on a positive note. He can go out there and enjoy the final 10 weeks of the season. He no longer has to worry about trying to make the playoffs. While I do not see him picking up multiple victories, I think we will see the No. 48 Chevrolet in victory lane one more time with Johnson behind the wheel.

Marcheschi :  I can definitely see it. In the last few races, Johnson has been strong, and now with points being a nonfactor, winning is everything for the 48 team. While Johnson could win in any of the ten playoff races, I’d narrow it down to three possibilities: Darlington, the Charlotte ROVAL, or Texas.

Johnson was strong at Darlington in May before a wreck took him out of the lead on the final lap of stage one. The Roval has been fairly kind to Johnson, with a near-miss in 2018 and a ninth-place finish last season. Of course, Texas has also been kind to Johnson, though not lately. He has seven wins at the track, six of which came from 2012 to 2017. While I don’t think Johnson will win multiple races in these final ten, my heart of hearts says he’ll find victory lane one final time.

Question 2
Moreover, will Kyle Busch break out of his funky times in 2020?

Moreover, will Kyle Busch break out of his funky times in 2020?

Kyle Busch is in the playoffs, but the defending series champion still doesn’t have a win in 2020. Do you feel that Rowdy could pull off in Cup what Matt Crafton did last year in the Truck Series and grab the title despite going winless for an entire season? Or where do you think Kyle will breakthrough for that elusive first win of the season and why?

Tiongson :  I am honestly concerned with the 18 team. Most NASCAR greats endure that winless year like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart. Kyle Busch has been wildly inconsistent and even when he’s fast, it’s just not been enough to contend against the Harvick and Hamlin tandem this year. I just can’t see him contending for the title this year in a season that’s thrown everything but the kitchen sink with bad luck.

Shoppe :   I would never count Kyle Busch out no matter what the circumstances, but I’ll say he can but won’t. When you look at his two championship runs, he didn’t win in the playoffs until he had to in the finale. The 18 team’s MO in the playoffs is getting by on the healthy number of playoff points they have accrued over a successful regular season. This year however, Busch has a single playoff point. This means no room for error in the early rounds and this team has been far from error-free all year. Kyle Busch, Adam Stevens, and the 18 team are more than capable of doing what’s necessary to overcome this defect but to quote Kyle, It’s still 2020.

Conley :  I don’t think Kyle will pull a Tony Stewart and win half the races and the title, or a surprise run like Crafton, but I do believe he will show why he is a Champion and rebound from a dreadful season. The playoffs could be good for him as 8 out of the 10 races are tracks they’ve run at, at least once this season. Twice for Darlington. Kyle has been adamant about not unloading fast, but the notebook they have built with end results could be almost as good as having a little practice. I fully expect a win in the final ten by the 18, and it could come in round 1

Raynor : Kyle Busch will not pull off a Tony Stewart year. This team has struggled the most with the current format and when convid hit, it was like it hit this team hard. Their issues are more than just on the track. This team thrives on practices and having track time. It’s been harder for this team to get the setups and adjustments right. It also seems Kyle is not as conditioned as he was last year. I do hope they finally win a race. They have been getting closer and it’s only a matter of time before they win. 

Golly, with three trips to Darlington, the TPF brigade got around “The Track Too Tough to Tame” quite nicely! Before we focus on the Cook Out Southern 500, here’s our race and points reports from the regular-season finale at Daytona!
A trio of panelists netted good points with Ryan Blaney.

A trio of panelists netted good points with Ryan Blaney.

However, the points have reset for the Playoffs! Let's go.

However, the points have reset for the Playoffs! Let’s go.

Next, Ashley Hobbs breaks down the numbers that mean quite a lot for the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington!
First, here's how your favorite team fares in the Cook Out Southern 500.

First, here’s how your favorite team fares in the Cook Out Southern 500.

While it's quite even across, Ford holds a slight advantage at Darlington.

While it’s quite even across, Ford holds a slight advantage at Darlington.

Since 2004, the Cook Out Southern 500 race winner has an average starting spot of 8.9, led an average of 81.1 laps, started within the top-five 25 percent of the time, and started within the top-10 62.5 percent of the time.

Since 2004, the Cook Out Southern 500 race winner has an average starting spot of 8.9, led an average of 81.1 laps, started within the top-five 25 percent of the time, and started within the top-10 62.5 percent of the time.

MTJ holds the advantage over his title comrades.

MTJ holds the advantage over his title comrades.

Next, here's the trends in the Cook Out Southern 500 since 2010.

Next, here’s the trends in the Cook Out Southern 500 since 2010.

Now, here's the trends for the Cook Out Southern 500 since 2015.

Now, here’s the trends for the Cook Out Southern 500 since 2015.

Really, are you seriously surprised?

Really, are you seriously surprised?

First, you know it’s postseason time when we expand the preview! With this in mind, let’s talk about our 2020 Champion Pick!
Without a doubt, Kevin Harvick might prove quite popular with our championship pick. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Without a doubt, Kevin Harvick might prove quite popular with our championship pick. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Conley: Denny Hamlin

Hobbs: Kevin Harvick

Jones: Kevin Harvick

Lambeth: Kevin Harvick

Marcheschi: Brad Keselowski

Shoppe: Kevin Harvick Joey Logano

TPF Stats: Kevin Harvick

Tiongson: Joey Logano

Raynor: Kevin Harvick 

Torres: Kevin Harvick

Sadly, each leg of the Playoffs results in four drivers seeing their championship dreams end. Now, here’s our predictions for the Round of 16 Eliminated Drivers.
Could it be frustrating times for Austin Dillon?

Could it be frustrating times for Austin Dillon?

Conley: Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch

Hobbs: Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto, and William Byron

Jones: Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, and Clint Bowyer

Lambeth: Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, William Byron, and Clint Bowyer

Marcheschi: Clint Bowyer, Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, and William Byron

Shoppe: Austin Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Cole Custer, and Alex Bowman

Tiongson: Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer, and Matt DiBenedetto

TPF Stats: Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Kurt Busch, and Matt DiBenedetto

Raynor: Cole Custer, Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, and Clint Bowyer 

Torres: Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Clint Bowyer, and Kyle Busch

Now, here’s our picks for tonight’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington!
By all means, tonight's Cook Out Southern 500 provides plentiful choices!

By all means, tonight’s Cook Out Southern 500 provides plentiful choices!

Conley :  Darlington was a big factor for Jimmie Johnson missing the playoffs after wrecking from the lead on Lap 90, the final lap of Stage 1 of the Real Heroes 400. That win comes a week too late.

Lambeth :  Chase Elliott will get the one that got away last time at Darlington and claim the crown jewel Southern 500.

Marcheschi :  Denny Hamlin… That’s all I really have to say. Hamlin has dominated this season, and his record at Darlington is no different. Hamlin has three wins at The Lady in Black, including the most recent race there back in May. Of his 16 starts, Hamlin has nine top-five finishes and 13 top tens. Hamlin will start the playoffs off with a bang and a victory at the track Too Tough to Tame.

Tiongson :  When I recall how fast Kurt Busch was in Round 5 of the year at Darlington, I figured this driver might make sense for the Southern 500. I stand by this thought from mid-May.

TPF Stats :  I feel my relationship over these next 10 races is going to toggle between the best guys this year. I foresee Kevin Harvick starting things off right this weekend.

Hobbs :  He’s been quiet the past few weeks, but I think he is Chase ready and will start it off with a bang! I will be watching Brad Keselowski this weekend.

Shoppe :  Brad K has a knack for starting playoffs well. A while back, he was on people’s minds as the third title contender and will solidify that with another Southern 500 win!

Jones :  That Jones Boy will make a statement and go back-to-back in the Southern 500.

Sisoler :  After just missing the playoffs, I think EJ breaks through for the victory he needed last week this week with his second Southern 500 victory. JGR is fast at Darlington, and Jones seems to have a knack for putting himself in contention on NASCAR’s trickier ovals.

Torres :  It may come as a surprise, but JGR has been strong at Darlington for several years now. Martin Truex Jr‘s been on the mend of finally getting a second win of 2020 and why not start a bid for a second title with an absolute banger of a victory in his Busch Series colors.

Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway!

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into this tonight’s race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Let’s stay connected as we focus on getting back together on the track soon!  Please stay safe, wear a mask, and wash your hands often!

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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