Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 02: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Genuine Draft Ford, affixes the winner’s decal on his car in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 2, 2018 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

From the drop of the green flag to lap 355 of a long, gruelling Southern 500 at Darlington on Sunday, Kyle Larson paced the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field. Although after a late restart bunched the field up for the third time in the final 50 laps, Brad Keselowski was there to jump at the opportunity.

Brad Keselowski steals win from Kyle Larson at Darlington

Keselowski took to the inside of turn one to get around Larson while Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano followed suit. Within three laps of the restart, Larson was out of contention for the race win, watching yet another victory slip through his grasp. That’s just the season it’s been for Larson, too.

After 25 races, Larson managed to finish in the top three at Las Vegas, Fontana, Bristol (Spring), Pocono, Chicago, and Bristol (Fall) without capturing a win. The result has put him in 12th place in the NASCAR playoff standings with one race to go until the regular season ends. Not to mention, even if he wins next week’s regular-season race, the highest Larson could start in the playoffs would be seventh.

To put it into comparison, last season Larson was in third with 18 playoff points at this time in the year. Right now, he has two. It will be tough for him to battle his way to Homestead without a larger sum of playoff points, but if anyone can do it, Larson is a safer bet. If there was any silver lining for Larson, he pushed himself into the playoffs with his top-five finish. The trick over the next 11 weeks will just be finishing the job.

As for the Penske Racing team, they seem to have the most momentum heading into the playoffs. Keselowski and Logano earned the team’s first one-two finish since the 2017 spring race at Richmond. Both will go into the playoffs with a win, and the newly added third car of Ryan Blaney is into the playoffs in 11th. Behind them, the playoff grid is pretty much set.

Alex Bowman is the final driver who is ahead of the cutoff line by 68 points, meaning he can’t be passed on points during the final race. The only way Bowman can be passed up is if a driver outside of the current playoff grid wins next week’s race at the Brickyard.

Ahead of Bowman is seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. As long as Johnson holds his 19-point lead on Bowman, he isn’t in remote danger of losing his spot on the grid. All in all, two of three drivers – Bowman, Johnson, and the IMS winner – will earn a spot in the playoffs after next Sunday’s race.

The series returns to the track next week as it runs its regular season finale at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race will be televised by NBCSN and the green flag will drop at 2:00 p.m. ET.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Grid
After 25/26 regular season races
1. Kevin Harvick (7 wins, 40 playoff points)
2. Kyle Busch (6 wins, 35 playoff points)
3. Martin Truex Jr. (4 wins, 27 playoff points)
4. Clint Bowyer (2 wins, 10 playoff points)
5. Brad Keselowski (1 win, 9 playoff points)
6. Chase Elliott (1 win, 8 playoff points)
7. Joey Logano (1 win, 7 playoff points)
8. Kurt Busch (1 win, 7 playoff points)
9. Erik Jones (1 win, 5 playoff points)
10. Austin Dillon (1 win, 5 playoff points)
11. Ryan Blaney (0 wins, 5 playoff points)
12. Kyle Larson (0 wins, 2 playoff points)
13. Denny Hamlin (0 win, 2 playoff points)
14. Aric Almirola (0 wins, 1 playoff point)
15. Jimmie Johnson +87
16. Alex Bowman +68
Playoff Cutoff line
17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -68
18. Ryan Newman -83
19. Paul Menard -93
20. Daniel Suarez – 99

Notes:
– Drivers not listed are not eligible to race their way into the playoffs on points. They will need a win to advance.
– Drivers in bold are clinched in, either mathematically or with a win.

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