CONCORD, N.C. - It's that time of year again. This Sunday, 16 drivers will begin their 10-race quest for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series driver championship and 16 teams will be chasing after the owner championship. Hosting the action will be South Carolina's Darlington Raceway as the sport's top division prepares for this year's running of the Southern 500.
As the host of one of the Cup Series' crown jewel events, Darlington's history in stock car racing runs deep. The 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval features two completely different ends of the racetrack and weathered pavement, making tire conservation a key factor in the event. At 500 miles, the race can often turn into a battle of attrition. The race's transition from day to night is also another key element that teams will have to navigate to take home the victory.
In his fifth playoff appearance, William Byron enters as the top seed with 2,036 points. While that cushion does help, the No. 24 Liberty University team will need to be on top of their game at Darlington to take full advantage of the situation. Historically, the track has been a strong one for Byron, with a win, three top-five finishes and four top-10s in his last six starts there. In the 2022 spring race, he nearly claimed the victory before being bumped from the lead with two laps to go. In May, he capitalized on late-race drama between the leaders to earn the victory. Over the three Next Gen races at Darlington, Byron has earned the most points (136) of any driver.
PLAYOFF ANALYSIS: Byron and the No. 24 team
Kyle Larson enters his seventh postseason appearance as the sixth seed with 2,017 points. Heading into the playoff opener, the No. 5 HendrickCars.com team will have Darlington circled on their calendars. In May, the 2021 Cup Series champion was in contention for the win before contact while battling for the lead took him out of the mix. Over his 11 starts at the track "Too Tough to Tame," Larson has three runner-up finishes (the second-most of any driver prior to a win at Darlington), led 715 laps (the third-most of any driver prior to a win at Darlington and holds the third-best average finish at the venue (10.2). He'll also compete in Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race in the No. 17 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro to gain more track time ahead of the 500-mile main event on Sunday.
PLAYOFF ANALYSIS: Larson and the No. 5 team | MORE: Larson in Darlington Xfinity race
While not in the hunt for the driver championship, Chase Elliott and the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts team will still fight for the owner championship this fall. The owner playoffs work similarly to that of the driver playoffs. The bottom four teams on points (without a win in that round) are eliminated at the end of each three-race round. The Dawsonville, Georgia, native has enjoyed more success at Darlington in the spring months than in late summer's Southern 500. Four of his six top-10 results came in the track's first race of the season. That said, the 2020 Cup Series champion comes into this race with two top-five finishes in his last three 2023 races and Darlington will mark the first non-superspeedway track that he is making a second start at this season.
PLAYOFF ANALYSIS: No. 9 team's quest for owner championship
Alex Bowman missed Darlington's spring race, which was one of three points-paying events he was forced to sit out due to a fractured vertebra in his back. He has one top-five finish and three top-10s at "The Lady in Black," with top-10s in two of the last three Southern 500s. Over these final 10 races, Bowman, crew chief Blake Harris and the No. 48 Ally Racing team have an opportunity to build momentum heading into the 2024 season. There is the chance to also play spoiler to the playoff teams -- all three of last year's Round of 16 races were won by non-playoff teams. They will look to build off of their two top-six finishes in the last three regular-season races.
RELATED: Bowman, Elliott focused on finishing season strong
Here's what you need to know to catch this weekend’s action.
WHAT TIME IS PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING?
Group practice will take place on Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12:35 p.m. ET with coverage on USA Network. Immediately following practice, group qualifying will begin at 1:20 p.m. ET with coverage also on USA Network. Byron and Larson will be in Group A, while Elliott and Bowman will be in Group B.
The Xfinity Series will also practice on Saturday, Sept. 2 at 10:35 a.m. ET with coverage on the NBC Sports App. Qualifying will follow practice and begin at 11:05 a.m. ET, also on the NBC Sports App. Larson will be the second of the 39 cars to qualify.
WHAT TIME IS THE RACE?
The 367-lap Cup Series main is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 3 at 6 p.m. ET with coverage on USA Network. A post-race show will take place on Peacock.
The Xfinity Series main event will go green on Saturday, Sept. 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET with coverage on USA Network.
CAN I LISTEN ON THE RADIO?
Both races will be broadcast on the MRN Radio Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (channel 90).
CAN I STREAM ONLINE?
FIVE FAST FACTS HEADING INTO DARLINGTON
2: Bowman's best result at Darlington was a second-place finish in NASCAR's return to racing following a two-month shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic.
10: Top-10 results for Elliott this season in 19 races. The driver of the No. 9 missed seven races over the course of the 2023 season.
55: Playoff victories from Hendrick Motorsports. This mark is 20 more than the next-closest team.
261: Byron's points earned on the six tracks that are in the playoffs, which have already hosted races in 2023. That total includes three of his wins (Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Darlington) and is the best of all the playoff drivers. Larson ranks second in this statistic at 221 points.
656: The number of laps led by Larson in eight Southern 500s. He has led laps in six of those races, with at least 100 circuits out front in three events.