With four races remaining to set the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff field, this Saturday‘s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) may be one of the most pivotal afternoons of the late season.
Darlington — with all its nuances and unpredictability — is typically considered a season wildcard event. And the final points position in the 12-driver playoff field is as close-quartered competitively as the cars will be on the 1.366-mile historic track this weekend.
RELATED: Complete Darlington schedule
Only one full-time Xfinity Series driver, Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Chase Briscoe, has won previously at Darlington. Briscoe scored the victory this May in a race that was not originally on the schedule but added as NASCAR carefully re-opened its season in South Carolina during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The race featured a very competitive battle among Briscoe, who led 45 laps, Kyle Busch, who led 45 laps, and Xfinity full-timer Noah Gragson, who led a race-high 46 laps and won Stage 1.
Interestingly, half the current playoff-eligible field earned best Darlington finishes this spring, from current points leader Austin Cindric (fourth in May) to Gragson (fifth), to veteran Justin Allgaier (third) to Ross Chastain (eighth).
The uptick in finish is perhaps a very encouraging sign for Chastain, who is ranked third in points earned but eighth in the playoff standings — best among drivers still looking for their first win of 2020. Not only did Chastain earn his best Darlington finish this May, the track was the site of a superb showing in 2018 — even if the 25th-place finish doesn‘t properly reflect the effort.
In 2018, while driving a short schedule of races for Chip Ganassi, Chastain won the pole position and led a dominant 90 of the opening 112 laps of the 147-lap Darlington race — winning both the opening two stages. But while racing veteran Kevin Harvick for the lead on Lap 111, the two collided, ending Harvick‘s day and derailing any hope of Chastain earning his first career Xfinity Series win. That would come two weeks later, however, driving Ganassi‘s car to a victory in Las Vegas.
With the near-miss in 2018 and a career-best finish this spring, Chastain — who now drives the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet — is undoubtedly eager to see if Darlington can be his first victory venue of the 2020 season.
Certainly a victory this week would boost the playoff hopes for Brandon Brown and Jeremy Clements too, who are separated by only 32 points contesting that final 12th-place position. Brown, the driver of the No. 68 family-owned Chevrolet, scored his best finish (13th) in four Darlington starts this May. That was one position behind Clements in his family-owned No. 51 Chevrolet.
Clements has 10 starts at the track, earning his only top 10 (eighth place) in 2016. Brown is still looking for his first top 10.
Justin Haley will be starting from pole position alongside Briscoe. Cindric will start fourth. Clements will start 13th, and Brown will start 17th.