RACING

NASCAR Crash Course: Cup Series heavyweights eliminated in 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 the July 4 weekend.

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

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The first three chaotic races of the playoffs culminated at Bristol Motor Speedway, eliminating a trio of championship contenders going forward. All three found themselves battling for last place after Busch blew up an engine, leaving him vulnerable to a crash.

Keep in mind that Busch has had two engine failures in the past six seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing. In that playoff, he had two in just three races.

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

This opened the door for Reddick, only to find himself caught in a multi-car wreck not of his making on the high banks of Bristol. A crash that eliminated Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon left Reddick limping 31 laps off the pace.

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

This put Harvick in the best position to come out of the three. When a Christopher Bell puncture brought out the 11th and final warning flag, Harvick was third. A great pit stop in a track position race would earn him the victory needed to advance after three consecutive DNFs.

Instead, his pit crew gave in under the pressure – and his car caved in after driving away with only three tires on the car.

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

The chaos gave way to more surprises in a season filled with them. Chris Buescher, who hadn’t won a race in six years, took advantage of Harvick’s bad luck to lead 169 laps and win one of NASCAR’s crown jewels.

“It’s the one I would take on any other race,” Buescher said. “It’s the one I always wanted.”

It was three non-playoff drivers who won the first three postseason races, a streak not seen in NASCAR’s entire playoff era (since 2004). 19 winners this season tied a modern-era record that should be broken in the coming weeks as there is still a long list of capable drivers (Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, even AJ Allmendinger) who haven’t perforated.

It turns out that simply surviving was the way to advance in this year’s playoffs. Rookie Austin Cindric needed only 16th, 12th and 20th to steal a place in the knockout stages usually reserved for Busch, Harvick or another former Cup champion.

“I still don’t think this place loves me back,” Cindric said of a race at Bristol where he found himself four laps behind. “But it probably showed me some pity tonight, so I’ll take it and run with it.”

Traffic report

Green: Hendrick Motorsports. A ho-hum start to the postseason was enough for this team, which saw three big title rivals get knocked out. Their four drivers qualified for the Round of 16 while Championship favorites Chase Elliott (2nd) and Kyle Larson (5th) eventually got the job done at Bristol.

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

Red: Martin Truex Jr. The bad luck for a winless Truex continued in a playoff he shouldn’t have missed. Two retirements in three races, both for mechanical problems, lost 72 laps in the lead during that streak.

Speeding: The Next Gen short track pack. Bristol posted just 12 lead changes on Saturday night, the lowest tally in 13 years at a racecourse dubbed Thunder Valley for its non-stop excitement. The race fell flat, as did a flurry of right front Goodyear tires that blew out for more than a dozen riders without notice.

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

This load proved too heavy, leaving blowouts beyond the control of a driver or team leader. NASCAR should take some blame here, with Goodyear failing to strike the right balance.

But short track struggles go deeper than a weekend. Take Martinsville in April: that 500-lap race produced just five lead changes. By comparison, Daytona’s regular season finale had 39 lead changes in just 160 rounds. NASCAR needs to tackle the short-track kryptonite this new generation brings to 2023.

Oops!

We’re going to take a different direction here. 2023 NASCAR Cup Series rookie Noah Gragson started a strange tradition by winning six NASCAR Xfinity Series races this year – including Bristol on Friday night. Instead of, say, waving a checkered flag, he threw up immediately after getting out of his car and doing the burnout (we’ll let you watch this one).

Gragson blamed the, uh, bizarre stomach issue on anything from the smoke from the screeching of his tires to the holding of his breath during the final laps of the race at drinking too much White Claw during the pandemic. He seems to bounce back quickly; in Bristol, Gragson scaled the fence and found himself pull a beer just minutes after getting sick on the forehead right away.

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

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