Now the real racing begins as NASCAR Playoffs begin

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It’s NASCAR Playoff time, and it’s right on schedule to begin at Darlington Raceway with no changes to dates or locations from the original schedule as we’ve seen with a makeshift schedule during the regular season due to the pandemic.

For the next 10 weeks, the 16 drivers eligible to compete for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Championship will be chopped slowly with four drivers being eliminated every three weeks until all we have left is four drivers, or the Championship 4, racing at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8. The best finish among those final four drivers wins the championship.

After tinkering with the setup over the years, NASCAR has a nice and easy-to-understand format where those who were great in the regular season are rewarded properly in the postseason with a head start.

Kevin Harvick led the regular season with seven wins and won a bunch of stages so he starts out off with a 57-point lead over the No. 16 seed Matt DiBenedetto when the drop the flag for the Cook Out Southern 500 in South Carolina. Denny Hamlin had the second-most wins with six and begins with a 47-point lead.

Just for perspective, William Byron gained 44 points for winning at Daytona Saturday. Those head start points will carry over into each of the next nine weeks, but the Championship 4 at Phoenix will be reset with all having equal points.

While accumulating the most points to advance is the goal, winning races is the name of the game. The eligible drivers who win races in each stage automatically qualify for the next round regardless of where they stand in points. Winning races is the best way to take care of business.

The added bonus of coolness this season is the final race being at the flat 1-mile layout at Phoenix after being at Homestead-Miami Speedway since the postseason began in 2004. Being successful at the 1.5-mile tracks became the main focus for teams because there were more races on them and those who did the best usually won the championship at Homestead.

But this season is a bit different, although there are now 12 races on 1.5-mile tracks, but only four during the playoffs. We also have seen NASCAR run three different race packages this season and the most important one now becomes the 750 horsepower package, which will be used in five races, including the finale at Phoenix.

This package has been used only eight times this season (including All-Star Race at Bristol) and it wasn’t until the two Dover races two weeks ago that Harvick and Hamlin won while using it. Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski each won twice with it, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. each won with it once.

While Harvick is the all-time leader at Phoenix with nine wins, he hasn’t won there in the last four races. He’s the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s 2-1 favorite to win the title followed by Hamlin at 3-1. But perhaps the best value on future prices to win it all might be Truex (8-1) who grabbed his only win of the season using the 750 HP package at Martinsville in June. He has the momentum of eight straight top-fives, including third or better in his last four starts using the 750 HP package.

After a sluggish start with new crew chief James Small, they’re both on the same page now and clicking everywhere they stop. The 2017 Cup Champion is starving for more wins and I think he’ll get two in the playoffs.

Sunday’s race at Darlington will be the third of 2020 on the 1.336-mile high-banked egg-shaped oval. It was used for the first two races back after the shutdown on May 17 and May 20 and they used the 550 HP package, which has been used a total of 16 times so far this season. It was a preview of the Harvick and Hamlin show we were about to witness over the summer.

Harvick won his first race of the season after leading 159 laps and Hamlin finished fifth. In the next race, Hamlin won for the third time at Darlington and Harvick was third. They would go showing off in all the doubleheaders of 2020 with only those two winning. They are likely to battle it out for the win Sunday as well. Six of Harvick’s seven wins this season have come using the 550 HP package.

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Erik Jones got eliminated from the playoffs Saturday. But he’s still racing, as are 24 other drivers not in the playoffs who just want to win and have a good showing. Jones is in a lame-duck spot, knowing he won’t be back in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20. There doesn’t appear to be any rides available that are as strong out there so finding a new home and job for 2021 is his main priority and he has the equipment to make himself look great. In five Darlington Cup starts he has a 5.4 average finish which includes winning this annual Labor Day race last season. In May, he was eighth in the first race and fifth in the second race after leading 27 laps.

While you can’t ignore Harvick and Hamlin winning 10 of the 16 races using this week’s race package, I can mix in a few guys like Jones at 25-1 and Chase Elliott at 14-1. Kyle Busch should be fetching up to 12-1 odds to win his first race of the season and even though he’s only had one win at Darlington, he’s led 716 laps between his 17 Cup starts there. In the second Darlington race after the shutdown, Elliott was on his way to a win with fresher tires than everyone, and Busch wrecked him. Busch would finish second behind Hamlin.

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