Top-seeded William Byron looks to kickoff championship chances at Darlington

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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — William Byron understands, with five wins and a high seed for the NASCAR playoffs, the wonderful opportunity he's got for a series championship. Byron also knows he doesn't want to miss his chance to enjoy the ride.

He starts the 10-race title chase tied with Martin Truex Jr. for the top spot in the 16-team grid for the playoffs, which begins Sunday night with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Byron also enters having won at the track “Too Tough To Tame” last time the series was here in May.

“I’m 25. I feel like I have years left to keep driving,” Byron said. “I feel like this is an opportunity that’s a great one, but it’s one that I’m going to relish and enjoy. I’m going to enjoy that we’re in this position. It’s fun and exciting.”

And perhaps fleeting. The Hendrick Motorsports driver only has to look in the garage to see a couple of highly regarded teammates in 2020 series champ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman who didn't make the playoff field due to injuries and missed races earlier in the year.

“I’m looking forward to having more (chances) down the road,” Byron said. “Maybe not next year. It’s cyclical and maybe next year we’re not as strong. But I know we’ve built a foundation that can sustain itself.”

It certainly won't be an easy path for Byron. Truex, the 2017 series champion, has won three times this season and has had success at Darlington, where he won the Southern 500 in 2016 and the spring race in 2021.

Truex said he's got confidence each week at every venue that he's got a chance to win, something he felt during the title run six years ago. “They are just doing a good job of pushing the right buttons and giving me what I need, which is really what this is all about,” he said.

The winner here, if they're a playoff driver, advances into the second round of 12. The opening round continues next week at Kansas and finishes at Bristol.

The first playoff race has always been a bit of a wild card. Only four times in the 19 previous playoffs has the opening winner gone on to take the championship. And it's never happened in the three times the playoffs have begun at Darlington. A season ago, Erik Jones surprised playoff drivers by winning the Southern 500 as an outsider.

OTHER CONTENDERS

Keep your eyes on a couple of usual contenders in Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson and perhaps an unexpected pick in Roush Fenway Keselowski racer Chris Buescher.

Hamlin is tied with Kevin Harvick with 17 playoff appearances, most in NASCAR history, but has not been able to come away with the trophy. Hamlin has won twice this season and is seeded third.

Larson, the 2021 champion, has two victories this season and is the fourth seed.

Buescher could be the hottest driver in the field, having won three of the past five events including at Daytona a week ago.

PREECE RETURNS

Ryan Preece will be racing a week after his frightening crash at Daytona. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver went airborne and flipped at least 10 times on the backstretch a week ago. He left the car under his own power and spent the night at a hospital before getting released.

Preece was cleared Friday. He's not sore and has no broken bones. The only evidence of the accident are his bruised, bloodshot eyes. Preece said his vision had been checked and he's good to race.

“We love to race and I feel completely fine, so why stop?” Preece said when asked if he thought about taking a break this week.

ODDS AND ENDS

Larson is the favorite at 5.9 to 1, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Truex is next at 6.5 to 1 with William Byron and Denny Hamlin tied at 8.5 to 1. ... Larson and Tony Stewart hold the mark with five playoff race wins on the way to the title; Larson in 2021 and Stewart in 2011. ... Larson in 2021 and Logano last year finished second in the playoff opener at Darlington and went on to win a title. ... There are three winless drivers in the playoffs, former series champions Brad Keselowski and Harvick and playoff rookie Bubba Wallace.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing