Podium Preview: Cook Out Southern 500

By all means, the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington remains a crown jewel race. (Photo: Michael Guarilgia | The Podium Finish)
By all means, the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington remains a crown jewel race. (Photo: Michael Guarilgia | The Podium Finish)

All things considered, the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington serves as the perfect kickoff race for the NASCAR Playoffs. Even if the throwback paint schemes primarily showcase in the May race, this race remains a crown jewel event.

After all, the prestige with winning at Darlington likens with a postseason series win at Fenway Park. Of course, for those outside of the Playoffs field, a win can be just as kind.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Ashley HobbsCody ShoppeKobe Lambeth, Luis TorresMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorTaylor Kitchen, and yours truly ruminate over Ryan Blaney’s victorious streak and non-Playoff drivers.

Podium Preview: Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington
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Question 1
Might Ryan Blaney continue his winning ways at Darlington? (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

Might Ryan Blaney continue his winning ways at Darlington? (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

While Kyle Larson won the regular season championship, Ryan Blaney and his No. 12 Team Penske crew have incredible momentum. With back-to-back wins at Michigan and Daytona, what can we expect from Blaney and crew chief Todd Gordon starting in the Round of 16?

Hobbs :  While momentum is a big player in this sport, come Playoff time, that momentum needs to be there every single week. Michigan and Daytona are both fast tracks, and while Daytona requires a bit more strategic planning than Michigan, you cannot deny Ryan Blaney strategized both weeks to get to victory lane. Now, the series heads to the track coined “Too Tough to Tame”, and it is not one of Blaney’s best tracks. One thing going for Blaney is a good amount of Playoff points – but he (and the field) have half the points of one, Kyle Larson.

What else is going for Blaney is there are drivers in the Playoffs that don’t necessarily have the equipment to keep up; so rather than focus on having to beat out 15 other teams to be safe, Blaney can rest easy knowing he has a relatively good chance at moving on baring catastrophe. But, it means that the Round of 12 is when things need to be clicking 100%.

Tiongson :  Much as Mac Jones asserted himself as the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots, Ryan Blaney seems poised as Team Penske’s lead Cup racer. With three wins, including back-to-back victories in as many weeks, Blaney seems prime for a deep Playoffs run.

Personally, if I see Blaney run and finish well at Richmond, this spells trouble for the other Playoffs racers. Typically, Blaney struggles at the 0.75-mile short track regardless of his performances ahead of the final 10 races.

Still, with crew chief Todd Gordon as determined as ever in his final season and Blaney’s stock rising, I expect more wins at places like Talladega and Kansas. I don’t have him penciled for the Championship 4 but he’s making a case for one of those coveted spots come November.

Sisoler : Ryan Blaney’s momentum is something to be feared by the rest of the field at the moment, because he has proven he can win at two high-speed and yet different race tracks (my home track at Michigan, and Daytona), and has the equipment to back it up racing for, arguably, the best Ford team in the field at Team Penske.

However, just because you have momentum entering a round, any round, doesn’t mean you are a lock to advance. Blaney should take care to avoid thinking he’s safe, managing the risk of a crash with the capability to go win and lock himself into the next round, or else he could end up like Kevin Harvick last year. On fire entering a round, yet out in a cloud of smoke (literally in Harvick’s case) before the next round.

Raynor : I feel like Blaney and his team have great momentum but he has always fallen off during the playoffs. He hasn’t been great at Darlington and as this year has been, I expect to see the unexpected.

I do feel like his team will pull out all the stops and push the limits to do whatever it takes for them to make it to Phoenix and contend for the championship. They just can’t beat themselves or make costly mistakes like we have seen in the past.

Lambeth : Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 team are certainly carrying the most momentum than any of the other playoff contenders entering the postseason. It feels like they are peaking at just the right time to carry on with this hot streak and potentially dethrone regular season champion Kyle Larson. I think Blaney can make a deep playoff run into the Round of 8. What about the Championship 4? Stay tuned!

Question 2
Can Matt DiBenedetto make some noise in Sunday night's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington? (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

Can Matt DiBenedetto make some noise in Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington? (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

While the Playoff drivers and teams garner plentiful attention, which driver and team outside of the Playoff field warrants plentiful watching in the final 10 races?

Shoppe :  There are plenty of non playoff drivers that could do some great things these final ten weeks, sadly they will likely get very little attention. As we know, Matt DiBenedetto will be desperate to do something special to catch the eye of an owner in any series!

Same goes for Ryan Preece as the No. 37 team will disappear at season’s end. Also, I’m keeping an eye on Ross Chastain in the No. 42. Remember back in early to mid June, Chastain was on a roll. Could he possibly find the same form as Chip Ganassi racing ends their storied NASCAR tenure?

Torres :  No question it’ll be Ryan Preece with JTG Daugherty Racing. They’re in absolute dire, maybe all for not, to get the top-25 bonus money. 

Why all for not? The race team will scale back into a one-car operation and the signs say Preece will be the one getting the boot.

The entire No. 37 team have done fine in spite of being a non-charter and still unknown if they can even complete the 36-race schedule. It’ll be interesting to see how all parties will fare in the final 10 races. Especially for Preece, whose Cup career hasn’t been stellar. He’ll likely have a ride somewhere in 2022, but how he does from this point will decide where his national touring career ends up.

Should he not find a Cup ride next year, key runs and a possible top-25 campaign will still do him wonders elsewhere. Maybe it can lead to a top tier ride in Xfinity or Trucks. If not, there’s always the Whelen Modified Tour where he’s among the top guys whenever he competes.

Jones : There are quite a few I would be watching, however, if I had to narrow it down to one, I would say Erik Jones. Hear me out! So many drivers sitting around Jones are uncertain of “what’s next.” With a freshly inked contract for 2022, Jones has the opportunity to focus on the here and now and do what he loves to do – race! 

Kitchen :  Once the playoffs begin, only 16 drivers have the spotlight.  However, I will keep my eyes on the rest of the field to see who will use this time to improve, and who will use this time to take their foot off the gas. 

Specifically, two drivers I will have my eyes on are Bubba Wallace and Matt DiBenedetto as these “big named drivers” may not get much attention during the remaining 10 races. Yet, these drivers still have something to prove and things to accomplish as the season rolls to a close.

I am wanting to see what the 23XI team can do with the remainder of the 2021 season. I would love for them to find consistency and reach higher in the points standings. The team had many high expectations going into this season that were not reached, but there is still time for them to get close to meeting those goals and finish this year on a good note.

For Matt DiBenedetto, I am wanting to see him prove himself. DiBenedetto is out of a ride after this season and is looking for an empty seat. He has been having better finishes with his new crew chief, but I would love for them to (like the 23XI team), find consistency. Unfortunately this season I do not think a win is in DiBenedetto’s future. But, Matt needs to keep his head in the game and needs to finish these races in the best positions possible in hopes those statistics will help him land a future ride.

Excellent job by our team with nailing two laps around Darlington! Now, we rewind back to last Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona with our race and points reports.
Luis Torres wrapped up the regular season with a solid finish by Bubba Wallace.

Luis Torres wrapped up the regular season with a solid finish by Bubba Wallace.

Meanwhile, there's the points standings reset for the Playoffs kicking off with Sunday night's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.

Meanwhile, there’s the points standings reset for the Playoffs kicking off with Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.

Next, some Playoffs content return for this year’s final 10 races. At the start of each Playoffs round, The Podium Finish panelists make postseason predictions. First, here’s our predicted eliminated four drivers following the Round of 16.
Predicted Round of 16 Eliminations

Hobbs :  Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Tyler Reddick

Tiongson :  Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick and Michael McDowell

Raynor : Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick, Michael McDowell and Tyler Reddick

Lambeth :  Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Kevin Harvick

Shoppe :  Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell

Torres :  Aric Almirola, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Tyler Reddick

Jones : Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick

Kitchen :  Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Tyler Reddick

TPF Stats : Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Tyler Reddick

Earlier this season, each of us made preseason championship picks. Did we stick with them? Or did we change things up? Find out with our championship picks now! 
Predicted NASCAR Cup Series Champion

Hobbs :  Kyle Larson is on fire and I really do not see that stopping.

Tiongson :  No slight against Joey Logano as I have him with my current Championship 4. However, I’m choosing Kyle Larson for the championship. Consistently, Larson, crew chief Cliff Daniels and the No. 5 pit crew deliver and execute consistent, frontrunning results.

When they have a dominant car, they often capitalize. If they struggle, they carve out top 10 results. Consistency still matters but having that winning attitude proves just as important. Look for Larson and the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy Camaro team as this year’s Cup champion.

Raynor : Kyle Larson although I feel like he won’t because it may be someone who has only won once. But I will stick to it

Lambeth :  While the current momentum is on Ryan Blaney’s side, it is hard to bet against the overall regular season dominance of Kyle Larson. Hendrick Motorsports has four strong contenders in the title fight, so I think those Chevys will be incredibly tough to beat.

It seems like Larson is the favorite to win almost every single week. At this point, it appears that only a fluke or a shocking string of bad luck stands between Yung Money and his inaugural NASCAR Cup Series championship. The hardware is his to lose.

Shoppe :  Kyle Larson. Yeah, there will probably be some kind of craziness throughout these playoffs that could spoil his already deserved 2021 title. But as of now, with just the regular season results to go off of, Larson and the No. 5 team are by far the best this year. Will that be enough for the championship? Time will tell but I think it will.

Jones : I originally chose Kyle Busch. Sorry Kyle. But I’m going with the other Kyle. I think after all we have seen this season, it will be hard to bet against Kyle Larson for the Cup Series Championship. Granted, this time last year, everyone thought Kevin Harvick had the championship in the bag. But, I feel like Larson’s “fire” and domination this season is different from that of Harvick’s in 2020. 

TPF Stats : Kyle Larson – numbers don’t lie.

Kitchen :  I am all about statistics and numbers. Knowing the stats, only one driver has stood out amongst the rest and, like the TPF stats machine says, “numbers don’t lie.” However, I am reminded that the numbers failed us last season as the most dominant driver missed the Championship Four.

The way these playoffs are formed, the driver that has the most successful season is not guaranteed the championship. For one, the “a win gets you in” rule can knock someone out who is good on points and when looking at the tracks in some of these rounds, chaos and surprises are sure to ensue. This will cause major upsets and shocking playoff cuts.

That aside, this was a tough call. But I went against the numbers and will predict that Chase Elliott can defend his title. The numbers, in his case, show that he is having a better season than last and the No. 9 team tends to “turn up the heat” in the face of adversity and pressure. So, Elliott will go back to back and be our 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion.

As always, Ashley Hobbs crunches the numbers for Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.
First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.

First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.

In the past two NASCAR Playoffs races at Darlington, the Cook Out Southern 500 winner has an average starting spot of sixth, led an average of 78 laps, started within the top five 50% of the time and started within the top 10 100% of the time.

In the past two NASCAR Playoffs races at Darlington, the Cook Out Southern 500 winner has an average starting spot of sixth, led an average of 78 laps, started within the top five 50% of the time and started within the top 10 100% of the time.

Quite the Cook Out between these Cup champs at Darlington.

Quite the Cook Out between these Cup champs at Darlington.

Next, consider the trends for the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington as a NASCAR Playoffs race in 2004 and '20.

Next, consider the trends for the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington as a NASCAR Playoffs race in 2004 and ’20.

Cha-ching.

Cha-ching.

Before the field goes racing, here’s a look at the top 10 starters for tonight’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington!
Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Lastly, here’s our picks for Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington!
Introducing the fab four for Sunday night's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.

Introducing the fab four for Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington.

Torres : Martin Truex Jr (MTJ) hasn’t won since the last time he was at Darlington. Truex obliviated the competition with only Kyle Larson being a true threat towards the end. I don’t see that changing when the race is at night and 100 miles longer. This will be a vital race for him if he really wants to be anywhere near towards the championship. No question it’s been a real weak campaign lately. Had Darlington not been in the opening round, I honestly feel he’d be among the first four out. Fortunately, we don’t have to think about that possibility.

Jones : We haven’t heard a lot of noise from Martin Truex Jr lately. He has a couple wins at Darlington and I could easily see him locking into the next round this weekend. Thus, giving his team the opportunity to focus on the round two opener (Las Vegas. Oh yeah. He has a couple of wins there too!).

Kitchen : I am going to go with Kyle Busch for this weekend at Darlington. I would have picked Martin Truex Jr. for this weekend but with how our playoff format works at TPF, we can only use a driver once for our race picks and I would like to save Truex for Martinsville. So, here is to hoping that “The Candyman” can come through and win the Southern 500!

Sisoler : In honor of it being a trip to Darlington for the Southern 500, aka the traditional NASCAR throwback weekend, I’ll be throwing it back (to earlier this season). Martin Truex Jr., over the past few years with the show-up-and-race format, has been one of the best drivers at The Lady in Black, including winning the earlier race at the track this season. I believe that MTJ will be the first to the checkered flag again at the egg-shaped oval in Sunday’s Southern 500.

Tiongson : Gosh, this is a tough one. But playing the somewhat conservative game, William Byron hopefully proves like a trip to Marshall’s. And not the islands. I mean the bargain store. As in here’s a good bargain pick for the Playoffs kickoff.

Lambeth : When someone says “Hendrick Motorsports is going to win at Darlington this weekend,” most people will assume they are referring to Kyle Larson. Yes, Larson is one of the favorites to win this crown jewel event. But I am going to bet on his teammate William Byron to take home the Cook Out Southern 500 and punch his ticket to the next round of the playoffs!

TPF Stats : The Machine will likely spit out Kyle Larson each week, so The Machine will rely on multiple statistical factors each week to pick a driver just once over the next 10 weeks. No matter how the numbers get sliced, Larson comes out the favorite this weekend; so, The Machine is using The Golden Child right off the bat.

Shoppe : Kyle Larson has a crazy amount of laps lead here without a win. That was before he joined Hendrick! I think the 5 team makes a statement win to start off the Playoffs!

Raynor : Larson. …he’s been on a streak and hasn’t won in a few plus he’s the regular champion.

Hobbs : Strategy in the Playoffs in key, and I think this race will be the telling sign of how far Kevin Harvick can go in this years Playoffs.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the 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!  Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine! Take the shot to save your life and others! Also, thanks for reading our content throughout this season.

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.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $20 or more, be sure to use coupon code TPF2021 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you and buy some new die-casts now!

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 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 his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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