Ryan: Bristol shows the grit of Michael Waltrip Racing

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Rob Kauffman gritted his teeth for much of Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

For the majority owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, this might have been a familiar feeling after an agonizing week in which he delivered the news to 200 employees that the team would be shuttered after the season.

But this wasn’t the soul-sapping angst of fretting about an uncertain future.

This was the exhilarating anxiety of a team that raced with nothing left to lose Saturday night and nearly left with a victory on the rough-and-tumble 0.533-mile oval.

With 150 laps remaining, MWR teammates Clint Bowyer and David Ragan were running 2-3, and Kauffman, watching from a Speedway Motorsports Inc. suite overlooking the 160,000-seat bullring, politely asked forgiveness from a visitor while he gnashed his molars.

“I said, ‘Give me one second, when the guys are side by side, I grit my teeth a lot,’” Kauffman said with a laugh. “So sadly, 100 laps later, I gritted my teeth for a different reason.”

On Lap 371, disaster struck just as things seemed to be unfolding so well for MWR.

Just as it always seems to do during the team’s tumultuous, star-crossed existence over the past decade.

The flagship of Toyota’s ballyhooed entry into NASCAR’s premier series … that was plunged into a jet fuel controversy in the opening race of its nightmarish first season.

An organization on the cusp of entering the top echelon of Sprint Cup two years ago … that slowly sank into oblivion after the fateful night it all unraveled in a team orders scandal at Richmond International Raceway.

The narrative continued Saturday night at Bristol with MWR poised to deliver one of the season’s most unlikely outcomes.

Battling for third place, Jimmie Johnson and Ragan collided off the second turn. Ragan made contact with Bowyer, spun into the wall with heavy damage and finished 40th.

Bowyer got punted by Brad Keselowski and fell to 12th for repairs, but he rebounded and drove all the way to fifth over the final 100 laps.

“I drove my ass off and just came up short,” Bowyer said. “But (crew chief) Billy Scott and all these guys, they’re digging.

“It’s fun to be a part of a group that can answer the call. When you’ve got to dig down and reach down and get a little bit more to get in that Chase and be a part of an elite group. These guys are up for the challenge. They are really finding that extra something that you have to find for a championship-caliber team to compete.”

With the specter of unemployment looming, Bowyer’s team is trying to stay laser-focused through extraordinary circumstances that easily could undermine morale.

But the esprit de corps was evident at Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota as driver and owner made the rounds congratulating team members. Eventually, their paths crossed while Bowyer was being interviewed.

“Good job, bud,” Kauffman told his driver.

“Sorry, man,” Bowyer replied.

Though not his fault, he still was hung up on the wreck that ruined an impressive run for Ragan, who had qualified in the top five for the third time in the past six races after replacing Brian Vickers (blood clots) in the No. 55 two months ago.

“Really bad deal,” Bowyer said. “It’s just frustrating. David has done such a good job with coming in and stepping up to the plate, filling in that seat and that void and being a great teammate.”

It still wasn’t a total loss for the team. Clinging to the final provisional spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Bowyer increased his cushion with two races remaining in the regular season.

He has a 35-point lead on Aric Almirola after his first top five since June 29 at Sonoma and his fourth top 10 in the past five weeks.

“You don’t want to get in the Chase and be just part of it and be the first one out,” said Bowyer, who lost 27 points off his lead with a 41st last week at Michigan International Speedway. “You want to hit this thing with stride, momentum, confidence.

“We had a big hiccup last week, but nonetheless, we were again a top-five car. These are the cars we’ve got to keep unloading. It’s fun to see these guys step up to the plate when we need it.”

Kauffman seemed pleased, too, but stopped short of agreeing he was “reveling” in a strong finish after a difficult week.

“We only really revel if you have Gatorade and confetti on the car,” he said. “A top five is nice, but we’re here to win.”

They won’t be much longer.

But Saturday night at least proved the team’s true grit.

Kauffman might not be done gritting his teeth — for a good reason.


NASCAR Open starting lineup at Bristol

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Michael McDowell will start on the pole for the NASCAR Open at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw. Aric Almirola joins him on the front row.

Click here for NASCAR Open starting lineup

The winners of each segment advance to the All-Star Race, along with the fan vote winner. Last year, Kyle Larson won a segment in the Open to advance to the All-Star Race and then won that event. Other segment winners last year were William Byron and Bubba Wallace. Alex Bowman advanced through the fan vote a year ago. Bowman has already qualified for this year’s All-Star Race.


NASCAR Open at Bristol 

Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Wednesday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile speedway)

Length: 85 laps over three segments, 45.3 miles

Segments: Segment 1 is 35 laps. Segment 2 is 35 laps. Segment 3 is 15 laps.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Texas (200 laps, 300 miles), 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Truck race: Saturday at Texas (167 laps, 250.5 miles) 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Martin Truex Jr. to start on pole for All-Star Race at Bristol

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Martin Truex Jr., who is seeking his first All-Star Race win, will start on the pole for Wednesday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw.

Truex will be joined on the front row by Alex Bowman.

Rookie Cole Custer, who earned a spot in the All-Star Race with his win Sunday at Kentucky, will start eighth.

Click here for All-Star Lineup

  • Positions 17-19 will go to segment winners from the NASCAR Open. The 20th starting spot goes to the fan vote winner, which will be announced after the NASCAR Open

Among the special rules for the race:

# The Chose Rule will be used. As drivers approach a designated spot on the track, they must commit to the inside or outside lane for the restart.

# The car number will move from the door toward the rear wheel to give sponsors more exposure.

# Cars that have automatically qualified for the All-Star Race will have underglow lights on their cars.


NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol 

Race Time: 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile speedway)

Length: 140 laps over four segments, 74.6 miles

Segments: Segment 1 is 55 laps. Segment 2 is 35 laps. Segment 3 is 35 laps. Segment 4 is 15 laps (only green flag laps count in this segment).

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Saturday at Texas (200 laps, 300 miles), 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Next Truck race: Saturday at Texas (167 laps, 250.5 miles) 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Xfinity playoff grid after Kentucky doubleheader

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The Xfinity Series went to Kentucky Speedway for a doubleheader and Austin Cindric left the track with two wins and a spot in the playoffs.

Cindric, who claimed the first oval track NASCAR wins of his career, is now third on the playoff grid among the six drivers locked into the postseason. He has 15 playoff points.

Noah Gragson, who is second on the grid, won three of four stages in Kentucky and has 18 playoff points.

Six spots remain to be filled on the playoff grid. The last two drivers currently in the top 12 are Ryan Sieg (+57 points above cutline) and Brandon Brown (+14).

The first four drivers outside the top 12 are Myatt Snider (-14 points from cutline), Jeremy Clements (-30), Alex Labbe (-42) and Jesse Little (-47).

Cup playoff grid after Kentucky Speedway

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Cole Custer delivered the first curveball to the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff chase Sunday when he won at Kentucky Speedway.

Custer entered the race 25th in the points, nine spots back from the cutoff line for 16-driver field.

Now, Custer is one of nine drivers locked into the playoffs, meaning the cutoff for the postseason is 15th in points.

Among those currently in the playoff grid who are not locked in, the last two are William Byron (+30 points) and Jimmie Johnson (+24).

The first four drivers sitting outside a playoff spot are Austin Dillon (-24 points from cutoff), Tyler Reddick (-41), Erik Jones (-42) and Bubba Wallace (-84).