NASCAR Playoffs picture altered by penalties at Darlington

In the NASCAR Playoffs, mistakes on and off the racetrack alike are magnified to the point where any slipup could jeopardize a driver and team’s chances at a championship. Which is something that a trio of drivers leaving Darlington Raceway on Sunday night had to learn the hard way.

The opening race of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington, saw several team mistakes put drivers in a hole at the outset of the Round of 16. For Ryan Blaney, a night of troubles began well before the drop of the green flag: In pre-race inspection, Blaney’s race team was found to have improperly mounted ballast on their No. 12 Ford. As a result, crew chief Todd Gordon was ejected, Blaney was forced to forfeit his seventh starting spot, and he was assessed a 10 point penalty by NASCAR.

Blaney wasn’t able to make up those points during the race, as he languished to a 24th place finish after he suffered both a flat tire and nose damage during a long night. And he isn’t getting them back, either: Issuing a response to their penalty, Team Penske offered an explanation for their infraction and stated that they would not file an appeal to have it overturned.

“A 5lb bag of lead that is typically used during setup at the shop to simulate fluid weights prior to the race engine being installed was accidentally left in the car. The team accepts the penalty,” read a statement by the team.

As a result of his night, Blaney now enters next week’s race at Richmond 17 points back of the cutoff line for the Round of 12. And he’ll have some company from other drivers compromised by inspection issues at Darlington.

In post-race inspection, NASCAR found that both Kyle Busch’s No. 18 and Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 had two lugnuts unsecured. Per the NASCAR rulebook, that means both of their crew chiefs – Adam Stevens & John Klausmeier – will be suspended for next week’s race while also being saddled with a $20,000 fine. According to Bob Pockrass of FOX Sports, Greg Zipadelli will serve as Bowyer’s interim crew chief.

Busch & Bowyer both recorded Top 10 finishes at Darlington, with Busch coming home seventh and Bowyer finishing 10th. As a result, Busch now enters Richmond seven points above the cutoff line, while Bowyer is in a tie with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola for 12th – A tiebreaker which Almirola currently holds. By virtue of being on the other end of the tiebreaker, Bowyer is currently the first driver below the cutoff line with two races left in the Round of 16, followed by Cole Custer (-3), Blaney (-17), and Matt DiBenedetto (-17).

Saturday night’s race at Richmond Raceway will mark the Cup Series’ first trip to the Virginia short track in 2020, as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the track’s annual Spring date. Joe Gibbs Racing has won the last four races at Richmond, with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. sweeping both the track’s races in 2018 and 2019.

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