DARLINGTON, S.C. — Martin Truex Jr. needs just a 17th-place finish to pick up three wins this weekend at Darlington Raceway.
Let’s explain: Truex enters the Southern 500 with a 101-point lead on Kyle Busch and a 106-point lead on Kyle Larson in the regular-season standings. If he leaves Darlington with a 61-point edge going into the regular-season finale next week at Richmond, Truex will clinch the regular-season “title.”
If he finishes 17th or better Sunday night, he automatically will have that margin, and it’s possible for him to finish worse than that and still leave with that edge.
And the regular-season means more this year than in any other. The regular-season champion earns 15 “playoff points” — which are added to the drivers’ total at the start of each of the first three rounds of the playoffs all the way up to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the final four drivers will start on equal footing in what is essentially a winner-take-all event.
Drivers have earned five playoff points for a race win and one playoff point for a stage win throughout the season.
Drivers who finish in the top-10 in the regular-season standings earn playoff points on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.
Truex already has earned 35 playoff points for wins and stage wins — 15 more than any other driver as Busch is second at 20, followed by Larson (18), Jimmie Johnson (16), Brad Keselowski (14) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (10). Another five extra playoff points on the field could give Truex as much as a 20-point lead in the standings at the start of each round.
As the defending winner of the Darlington race, Turex is thinking about possibly earning four wins worth of playoff points Sunday.
“Darlington might be one of the most fun race tracks we compete on, but it’s also one of the toughest,” Truex said. “As we all know, there’s not much room between the track and the concrete wall.
“I seem to have run well there over the years. Getting that win there last year was incredible. A special moment in my career. When it comes to Darlington you have to race the race track and attack it without stepping over the line.”
Because a minimum of nine drivers advance on points out of the first round of the playoffs, at least five advance on points out of the second round and a minimum of one driver advances on points out of the third round, Truex could possibly be in a position where he could survive a bad race — and maybe two bad races — in each round of the playoffs and still advance.
Here’s the crazy thing — Clint Bowyer, currently 10th in the standings (14 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson) sits on the outside looking in of the 16-driver playoff field because seven drivers behind him in points have wins.
There are 12 drivers currently batting for top-10 spots in the standings. Busch, at second, is five points ahead of Larson, who is 21 points ahead of Kevin Harvick. They are pretty much set to be in the top four as Denny Hamlin, at fifth in points, is 71 points behind Harvick.
Busch has two wins in the past four races. He has won 10 stages, second behind Truex’s 15. No other driver has more than four.
“Things are going a little bit better in our direction,” Busch said. “Some of those lucky breaks are kind of floating our way rather than somebody else’s way. That’s kind of the way it goes — take them when you can get them is my mentality.
“It is so frustrating, though, for this season to be as fast as we’ve been, as competitive as we’ve been, the opportunities that were there for us to be able to score the victories, and to not get those. Man, it just makes you really literally want to pull all your hair out.”
Keselowski, sixth in the standings, is 25 points behind Hamlin for fifth. Chase Elliott is in seventh, 17 points behind Keselowski and just eight points ahead of Matt Kenseth. Jamie McMurray, in ninth, is three points behind Kenseth.
Bowyer is 58 points behind McMurray for 10th, with a 14-point edge on Johnson and a 19-point edge on Blaney in the battle for one last playoff point.