The 2019 NASCAR Cup Series rolls on to the historic Darlington Raceway this weekend, with Kyle Busch seeking to consolidate his advantage at the top of the standings with the postseason in sight.
Busch has been able to extend his lead at the top of the rankings to 39 points in recent weeks, with defending champion Joey Logano, his nearest challenger, finishing no higher than 13th in his past four races.
The man in form going into the race is Denny Hamlin, who won the most recent race in Bristol. He's finished in the top three in each of the past five races and will be seeking to further chop down the gap to the top two with a strong performance in South Carolina.
There will also be an eye on the playoff battle, with three of the 16 spots still up for grabs with two races left in the regular season.
Race Date: Sunday, September 1
TV Info: NBCSN (U.S.)
Live Stream: fuboTV (U.S.)
Saturday, August 31
2:05 p.m. (ET): Cup Series qualifying
Sunday, September 1
6:15 p.m. (ET): Southern 500 race
A full list of drivers taking part can be found on the NASCAR website.
For long spells of the 2019 season, the race for top spot appeared set to be a battle between Logano and Busch. However, Hamlin has made matters interesting with an excellent purple patch in recent weeks.
His win at Bristol in the previous race was arguably the best performance of the season from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, as he was impressive in practice, topped the timesheets in qualifying and then overcame challenges to triumph on raceday.
He produced this slick overtake on Matt DiBenedetto late in the race to win, having previously been two laps down:
The Bristol Motor Speedway account noted there was plenty of sportsmanship on show between the pair after their battle:
Hamlin will consider himself a serious challenger for this season's title and is undoubtedly the man to watch going into the Darlington spectacle.
Busch has been able to remain consistent in recent weeks despite not getting podium finishes, and that's ensured he's pulled away from Logano, who has endured a few challenging rounds.
In the past three races, Logano has finished 23rd, 17th and 16th, seeing him lose ground on his rival and start to look over his shoulder nervously at the scorching Hamlin. Busch will know a win at Darlington will guarantee him top spot in the regular season, with September 8's race at the Brickyard the final event before the playoffs.
In 2018, Brad Keselowski was the winner at Darlington, with this crucial pitstop move from his team vital in his taking the chequered flag:
Of the 16 playoff spots available, nine have been filled by race winners, while four more are secured by racers who have already accrued enough points. It means the drivers occupying spots 14, 15 and 16—Erik Jones, Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez, respectively—need big showings on Sunday.
The Darlington race is one of the most prestigious on the NASCAR calendar and also provides the drivers with a unique challenge. The circuit is egg-shaped and unsymmetrical, meaning it's tough to settle into a rhythm on race day.
Ahead of qualifying, Kurt Busch topped the first practice runs, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was quickest in final practice.