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Darlington playoff opener ends with early exit for Elliott
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Chase Elliott spins after hitting the wall at the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, Sept. 4. (Photo courtesy of Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

This year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener was held at Darlington Raceway for the Cook Out Southern 500, with the race living up to its billing as the “track too tough to tame.”

The night’s festivities had major implications on the playoff picture — perhaps none more so than for Chase Elliott — who was the first of several victims of misfortune on the night.

Coming in with a 15-point cushion over the next closest driver, Elliott didn’t need a win at Darlington to move forward but certainly did not need the lap 113 incident that ended his night.

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Having moved all the way up to 13th position after starting the race in 23rd, Elliott was just starting to get his footing in the race when he suddenly flew up the track and into the wall between Turns 1 and 2.

While Elliott’s crew put in their best efforts to get him back on the track, it was established that damage to the right-rear wheel’s suspension resulted in a broken lower control arm and toe link.

It was quickly determined that the damage was too severe to be fixed within the expanded 10 minutes of allotted repair time under NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy.

Elliott’s lead atop the playoff standings vanished as a result and he is now officially in ninth place after the night’s results were finalized. He remains 14 points clear of the cutoff for the round of 16 and is 24 points behind current playoff leader Joey Logano. 

The remainder of the race provided plenty of entertainment, which included Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Kyle Larson had an equally strange and resilient night — at one point running four laps down over halfway through the race before grinding his way back to a 12th position finish.

William Byron, who had just one top-10 finish in the previous 18 races, had a bounce-back race by winning Stage One and finishing in eighth position. 

One turning point of the 367-lap race came during a green-flag pit stop cycle with around 100 laps left, when Kevin Harvick’s car caught fire as he drove out of pit road. The resulting caution would shuffle the field and cause previous contenders to take longer to regain track position.

But the most shocking turn of events came within the final 35 laps, when the two most dominant cars of the night suddenly had their nights end. 

The No. 19 of Martin Truex Jr and No. 18 of Kyle Busch combined to lead 203 laps of the race but were taken out in succession late in the race. Truex Jr faced a loss of power steering while Busch had a blown engine.

Coming in from right behind those two to take the lead with 23 laps remaining was Erik Jones, who had quietly put up a solid night— finishing in eighth and ninth at the end of the first two stages. 

While Jones would eventually hold off a determined Denny Hamlin to win his third career Cup Series race, the Petty GMS driver’s victory would mark a special occasion for his No.43 car. 

The win by Jones marked exactly 55 years to the day since the last Darlington victory for the legendary No. 43, when Richard Petty won his sole Southern 500 in 1967.

Elliott and the No. 9 team will look to rebound at Kansas Speedway in next Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400. The race is scheduled for a 3 p.m. start on the USA Network.