After one race in the 2023 NASCAR playoffs, some drivers may be against the wall.
Not Kyle Larson, who advanced to the Round of 12 with his win at Darlington on Sunday night — although he didn’t mind being literally against the wall during the opening round of the 10-race playoffs.
“Been really, really fast here my whole career,” he said of the Track Too Tough to Tame. “Just usually get in the wall. Finally, we have the Next-Gen car that’s tough enough to allow me to hit the wall.”
The Cup Series champion from two years ago nabbed his first win on the 1.366-mile asphalt loop after three previous second-place finishes and a third-place run among seven top-10s. Now he can breathe easy for the next two races — at Kansas and Bristol — because he knows he’ll still be in contention when the Round of 12 begins at Texas on Sept. 24.
Others can feel good right now. Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing led 90 laps in an expert run and took second, just ahead of RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who finished a career-best third on the South Carolina track for his fifth top-10 in the last six races.
They built valuable cushion, as did William Byron, Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney with their top-10 finishes.
Panini America NASCAR Brand Ambassador Joey Logano brought his Team Penske No. 22 Ford Mustang home in 12th and stands 11th in the standings.
It’s only one race, but already the pressure is amping up because there are only three chances per round to stay above the 12-driver cut line.
Bubba Wallace, the last qualifier in the field, notched a top-10 but came away one point below the line. Kevin Harvick got to the front in his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford Mustang before a pit road penalty late cost him position, and he took 19th. He stands two points below the cut.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Michael McDowell are farther back, now 15th and 16th in the standings.
Just above the cut line is Christopher Bell — by a point — who led 40 laps and salvaged a 23rd-place run after much adversity.
“We have speed,” Bell said. “We’ve had speed a lot, and I know that in Kansas we’re going to be fast again.”
Everybody has two more chances to be fast again. They have to, to advance. Except Larson, who can be fast while he waits on his competition in the Round of 12.