NASCAR Crash Course: Cup Series heavyweights knocked out in the Round of 16

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Kyle Busch is the only active two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. Kevin Harvick won back-to-back races in August. Tyler Reddick has four top-2 finishes, including two wins, since July 4th weekend.

None of them made it past the first round of this year’s playoffs.

A chaotic first three races of the postseason peaked at Bristol Motor Speedway, wiping out a trio of championship contenders going forward. All three found themselves battling for the final spot after Busch blew a motor, leaving him vulnerable to falling out.

Keep in mind Busch had two engine failures during the last six seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. During this playoff, he had two of them over the course of just three races.

“I don’t know what to say,” Busch said afterwards. “I’m flabbergasted… this is not our normal.”

That opened the door for Reddick, only to get caught up in a multi-car wreck not of his making at the Bristol high banks. A crash that eliminated Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon left Reddick limping home a whopping 31 laps off the pace.

“I saw the crash happen, I checked up,” Reddick said. “I just got run over.”

That put Harvick in the best position to advance out of the three. When a flat tire for Christopher Bell brought out the 11th and final caution flag, Harvick was third. A great pit stop in a track position race would earn him the win needed to advance after three straight DNFs.

Instead, his pit crew buckled under the pressure – and his car buckled after leaving with just three tires on the car.

When asked what he needed to win, Harvick was direct: “Wheels to stay on.” It wasted a prime opportunity for the sport’s oldest full-time driver (46) who’s got just one more year on his current contract with Stewart-Haas Racing.

The chaos left room for more surprises in a season filled with them. Chris Buescher, who hadn’t won a race in six years, took advantage of Harvick’s misfortune to lead 169 laps and win one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.

“This has been the one I would take over any other race,” Buescher said. “This is the one I’ve wanted forever.”

That’s three non-playoff drivers winning the first three postseason races, a streak never seen in NASCAR’s entire postseason era (2004-present). 19 winners this season has tied a modern era record expected to break in the coming weeks as there’s still a long list of capable drivers (Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, even AJ Allmendinger) who haven’t broken through.

Turns out simply surviving was the way to advance in this year’s playoff. Rookie Austin Cindric needed runs of just 16th, 12th and 20th to steal a spot in the Round of 12 typically reserved for Busch, Harvick, or another former Cup champion.

“I still don’t think this place loves me back,” Cindric said of a Bristol race where he wound up four laps down. “But it probably showed me a little mercy tonight, so I’ll take it and run with it.”

Traffic Report

Green: Hendrick Motorsports. A ho-hum postseason start was enough for this team, who watched three big rivals for the title get eliminated. All four of their drivers advanced into the Round of 12 while championship favorites Chase Elliott (2nd) and Kyle Larson (5th) finally acted the part at Bristol.

Yellow: Brad Keselowski. Keselowski was thrilled with Buescher, his first victory as driver/owner since joining Jack Roush and forming RFK Racing this season. But after leading 109 laps himself, the victory could have been his until a late flat tire left him a lap down in 13th.

Red: Martin Truex Jr. The rough luck for a winless Truex has continued during a playoff he shouldn’t have missed. Two DNFs in three races, both for mechanical problems, wasted 72 laps led during this stretch.

Speeding Ticket: The Next Gen short track package. Bristol posted just 12 lead changes Saturday night, the lowest total in 13 years at a racetrack nicknamed Thunder Valley for non-stop excitement. The racing fell flat, just like a flurry of right front Goodyear tires that blew out for over a dozen drivers with little notice.

“Just difficult to pass,” Kevin Harvick said. “The cars are way too fast in the corners.”

That load proved to be too much, leaving blowouts beyond a driver or crew chief’s control. NASCAR should bear some responsibility here, along with Goodyear for failing to find the right balance.

But the short track struggles run deeper than just one weekend. Take Martinsville in April: that 500-lap race produced only five lead changes of its own. By comparison, Daytona’s regular season finale had 39 lead changes in just 160 laps. NASCAR needs to address the short track kryptonite this Next Gen brings heading into 2023.

Oops!

We’re going to go a different direction here. 2023 NASCAR Cup Series rookie Noah Gragson has started a weird tradition winning six NASCAR Xfinity Series races this year — including Bristol Friday night. Instead of, say, waving a checkered flag around, he’s been throwing up immediately after exiting his car and doing the celebratory burnout (we’re going to let you look this one up).

Gragson’s blamed the, um, bizarre stomach issue on anything from smoke from squealing his tires to holding his breath during the final laps of the race to drinking too much White Claw during the pandemic. He seems to bounce back quickly; at Bristol, Gragson climbed the catchfence and wound up shot-gunning a beer mere minutes after getting sick on the front straightaway.   

For now, NASCAR’s on board with it all as Gragson’s unique personality makes him a fan favorite.




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Tom Bowles

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