After a week off, the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns and heads to Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles' Southern 500.
Absence makes the heart fonder, but so does the fact that Kurt Busch took down the latest race to happen in the series, breaking the stranglehold of sorts put on by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch—they have combined for 13 checkered flags this year.
Parity and drama going into the playoffs is always a bonus for onlookers, so the hope has to be that Darlington can provide an entertaining event after spitting out a different winner for the past 11 years and counting.
The unpredictable nature of the 501-mile trek makes for a worthwhile journey, both for the drivers jockeying for position on the leaderboard and for the fans.
Where: Darlington Raceway
When: Sunday, 6 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live
Bojangles' Southern 500
1. Denny Hamlin
2. Kyle Busch
3. Kevin Harvick
4. Erik Jones
5. Austin Dillon
Note: Qualifying is Saturday.
2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|1. Kevin Harvick||970|
|2. Kyle Busch||1003|
|3. Martin Truex Jr.||849|
|4. Clint Bowyer||776|
|5. Kurt Busch||796|
|6. Joey Logano||768|
|7. Chase Elliott||697|
|8. Erik Jones||635|
|9. Austin Dillon||475|
|10. Ryan Blaney||733|
|11. Brad Keselowski||730|
|12. Kyle Larson||729|
|13. Denny Hamlin||707|
|14. Aric Almirola||658|
|15. Jimmie Johnson||604|
|16. Alex Bowman||572|
Drivers to Watch
Busch became the ninth driver to win a race this season by taking the event at Bristol Motor Speedway last time out, leading 24 laps out of the ninth spot to cap off a stretch in which he finished in the top 10 six times.
Now the veteran has to hope he can keep the momentum rolling at the right time of year.
It will also take some bucking of history:
Stewart-Haas Racing @StewartHaasRcng
DYK: Despite performing well at @TooToughToTame during his career, @KurtBusch has yet to score his first victory there. He's gathered three poles, a runner-up finish, and has led 266 laps. Tap the ❤️ if you think No. 41 @Haas_Automation driver will find victory lane Sunday. https://t.co/hLxgKlgm5S
There is no time like the present, right? Busch can likely keep leaning on the same approach he took into Bristol too.
"It's all about winning," Busch said, according to ESPN.com. "I wasn't worried about not making the playoffs, so we could kind of treat these races coming up as free-for-alls, and we're just going to keep going after it."
Busch was an interesting driver to watch down the stretch either way because his racing future is uncertain. Now that he's thrown his hat into the ring as a contender, he becomes a must-see attraction.
Darlington has a way of spitting out some interesting results.
As such, Denny Hamlin enters one year removed from his leading 124 laps to seize the checkered flag.
For Hamlin, the hope has to be he can force Darlington into accepting repeat winners again because the rest of the series hasn't been too kind to him. Over his past seven outings, Hamlin has only finished in the top 10 twice despite some impressive qualifying, featuring two poles and four top-four starts.
Hamlin expects his recent history at Sunday's track to hold strong.
"Every time we go there, we have a lot of success," Hamlin said, according to Chase Wilhelm of NASCAR.com. "There's no reason why this should be any different. We go there with a mindset of winning every single week, but Darlington is a race track that I know particularly that I have a driver's advantage there because I have had the success, and I feel like I do things there that give me an advantage."
Still hanging around in the playoff race, Hamlin can set himself up for a nice position on the leaderboard with a strong showing. A win would work wonders, and it's obviously what he's pursuing, but simply breaking his recent string of performances will work wonders for Hamlin and his crew.
Chase Elliott energized the NASCAR fanbase with his unexpected win to start August, leading 52 laps before heading to Victory Lane at Watkins Glen.
One of the youngest stars in the series has since finished ninth or better at two more events, even leading a season-high 112 laps at Bristol before finishing in third place.
For NASCAR America analyst Dale Jarrett, it's a sign of proper adjustments at the best possible time (h/t NBC Sports' Dan Beaver):
"They're basically trending in the right way where they're making improvements as they approach the playoffs and that's not the case for a number of other teams. I really believe that Chase Elliott has put himself in that fourth spot for the time being. If they can continue improving, with him making good decisions – especially on restarts. … If he can to do that, he has a great chance to join the other three … at Homestead."
It would be quite the stunning turn of events to see Elliott compete for the title after a year dominated by some of the best faces in the sport. But it would also be hard to complain—seeing the predictable end after a season of predictable ends would leave a dry taste in the mouth for many.
Elliott finished last season strong as well, but this has a different feel. With a win already in hand and some of the riddles potentially solved, he might have the jolt necessary to make this season memorable.