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Darlington Will Be Pivotal in Race to Playoffs

2024 Cup Darlington I pack racing V - Austin Cindric, No. 2 Team Penske Ford, and Justin Haley, No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Ford (Credit: NKP)

The NASCAR Cup Series regular season reached its halfway point this past weekend with a hard-fought battle at Darlington Raceway.

Brad Keselowski scored his first win in a full-field race in three years, likely securing a spot in the 2024 playoffs.

Yet Darlington will prove to be a pivotal race for several other drivers. Once the postseason field is set, this past weekend may play a key role in who reaches the playoffs and who contends for the championship.

In the first place, Keselowski’s victory shakes up the battle to reach the postseason. Going into Darlington, the No. 6 team was on the playoff bubble, holding the last transfer spot by only four points over Bubba Wallace. Now, Keselowski becomes the eighth driver to win a race in 2024, meaning that half of the playoff field is likely set. For those drivers who have not won a race yet, the pressure to get to victory lane is already building.

One of the playoff contenders who still needs a win is Keselowski’s teammate, Chris Buescher. Buescher and the No. 17 team nearly pulled off back-to-back victories in the last two races and it’s hard to say which loss was more brutal. At Kansas Speedway, Buescher led on the white flag lap but lost a drag race against Kyle Larson back to the finish line by 0.001 seconds.

A week later at Darlington, Buescher made a daring three-wide pass on Keselowski and Tyler Reddick to take the lead with 30 laps to go. It looked like Buescher was going to make up for the missed opportunity at Kansas, only for Reddick to chase him down with 10 laps left.

With the race on the line, Reddick tried to sweep low past Buescher in turns 3 and 4 but could not hold his car on the bottom of the track, sliding into the No. 17 and sandwiching him against the wall. The contact led to flat tires for both drivers, opening the door for Keselowski to steal the win. An angry Buescher confronted Reddick on pit road after the race, though Reddick apologized for the incident and nothing more than hard words were exchanged.  

Although Buescher had a reason to be upset with Reddick, there is little doubt that the circumstances of the last two races fueled his displeasure. If the No. 17 team had won either of those events, Buescher’s playoff future would be in little doubt. Victories in both races would have given him 11 playoff points, as opposed to just having one from a stage win at Kansas. Instead, he is 14th in the playoff grid, 15 points above the cut…

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