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Halfway Home: Count on surprises, familiar faces in second half of NASCAR’s regular season

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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — The first half of NASCAR’s regular season wrapped with a satisfying, drought-busting win by past champion Brad Keselowski at Darlington Raceway.

Keselowski, in his third full season as a driver-owner at Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, locked himself into the playoffs and marked himself as a title contender for the fall.

There are several other usual suspects to watch including 2021 Cup Series winner Kyle Larson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron and Joe Gibbs Racing leader Denny Hamlin, who is tied with Byron for the series lead with three victories this season.

Not so fast, said former driver and current NASCAR TV analyst Jeff Burton. Just look at the past two champions in Penske racers Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

“Raise your hand if you had them winning the championships this time of year these past two years,” Burton said. “It’s very hard to know what’s going to happen.”

But it’s not difficult to make a few logically informed predictions as the circuit heads into its All-Star Weekend at North Wilkesboro.

Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing Strong Once More

JGR’s Hamlin has been on a championship quest since coming up short last season and has had one of the strongest cars each week. Along with his three victories, Hamlin has led laps at each race this season and finished fourth at the Goodyear 400 this past Sunday. Christopher Bell, who won at Phoenix, gives JGR two playoff participants so far.

Byron and Larson are leading the Hendrick charge, combining for five wins this season including Byron’s success at the Daytona 500 to start Hendrick’s 40th anniversary season. Chase Elliott’s victory at Texas gives Rick Hendrick three spots in the playoffs with Alex Bowman, who was eighth at Darlington this past week, the only team driver without a win. Bowman sits ninth in the standings.

Byron said at Darlington he needed to be more consistent in this upcoming summer stretch to prepare for the playoffs.

“We have the pace,” Byron said. “I feel like that’s what you’re really striving for, to have pace to win races. We have that, it’s just that we’re not consistently putting the weekends together, in terms of balance and execution.”

FORD CHARGING FORWARD

Keselowski’s victory at Darlington was the first for a Ford this season, but likely won’t be the last. Keselowski’s RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher, who has won four times since Keselowski became a co-owner in 2022, has come agonizing close to winning again the past two races.

Buescher lost a photo finish to Larson at Kansas two weeks ago by 0.001 second, the closest finish in NASCAR history. At Darlington, Buescher got knocked into the wall by Tyler Reddick while leading with nine laps to go.

Neither Buescher nor Reddick, 1-2 at the time, were contending after their tangle and Buescher angrily confronted Reddick after both got out of their cars.

Those were tough for Buescher to deal with, but it’s likely he won’t disappear in the season’s second half. In fact, there were four Ford drivers among the top seven finishers at Darlington.

WHO ELSE?

Neither of the past two series champs in Logano and Blaney have won a race to assure themselves the postseason, although Blaney is in better position at eighth in the standings while Logano is 17th, first out of the 16-driver field.

Neither one had a strong showing at Darlington. Blaney got squeezed when Byron clipped Martin Truex Jr., who then pushed Blaney into the wall and out of the race.

Logano got a speeding penalty entering the pits late in the race and was sent to the back of the field. He finished 21st.

Josh Berry, who replaced NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 at Stewart-Haas Racing, had his best placing this season in third.

Other winless drivers among the top 16 on points include Truex in second, Ty Gibbs in seventh and Kyle Busch in 13th.

All will be sorted out when the series returns to Darlington for the final regular-season race, the Southern 500, on Sept. 1.

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AP NASCAR: https://apnews.com/hub/nascar-racing

By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer

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