On a typically wacky Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, Chris Buescher outran the 16 Cup Series playoff drivers and scored his second career victory.
The 500-lap race, one of the season’s toughest, saw a bundle of problems across most of the playoff grid and made the cut line between those advancing and those departing a movable object for much of the night. There were tire issues, power steering issues and engine issues. No one seemed safe from imminent peril.
Buescher, however, jumped in front of the field courtesy of a two-tire pit stop late in the race and ran away from the rest of the field to end a 222-race winless drought. Buescher pitted on lap 439 and moved from fourth to first with the two-tire stop. He led the final 57 laps.
Buescher said he wasn’t worried about tire problems over the closing miles. “It was up to me at that point,” he said. “Just hold on and make it work. We had a really fast Fastenal Mustang. Just so proud of everybody. We knew we had a good race car after practice and didn’t quite get the job done in qualifying, but what a race car. It’s just special. Get RFK in Victory Lane for the first time, and we had great race cars. Brad had really good speed, too.
“I don’t know what else to say right now. I’m out of breath. This place will wear you flat out, and I love that about it, but such a special night.”
Following in the top five were Chase Elliott, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson.
The second-place finish lifted Elliott into the point lead.
Buescher, 29, became the Cup season’s 19th different winner, tying a modern-era record. His win gave Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing its first Cup victory since July 2017.
The night’s biggest hit was experienced by two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch, who lost an engine near the race’s halfway point and was eliminated from playoff competition in the first round for the first time in his career. It marked the second time in three races Busch failed to finish because of engine problems. “This is not our normal,” Busch told NBC Sports.
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Busch joined former champion Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick as drivers failing to advance to the Round of 12. Harvick lost a chance to race for the win when his crew misplayed its final pit stop.
Moving on to the Round of 12 are Christopher Bell, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe.
Bell, who had one of the night’s strongest cars, seemed destined to win until he blew a right-rear tire with 64 laps to go, duplicating a malady several other teams had experienced.
A multi-car crash on a restart on lap 278 sent playoff drivers Daniel Suarez, Dillon and Reddick to pit road with damage.
Tire issues plagued playoff drivers Ryan Blaney and Cindric in the race’s first stage.
Blaney took a major hit as his Ford sustained significant right rear damage. Then his car lost a wheel as he left the pits, an incident that likely will lead to four-race suspensions for team members during the heart of the playoffs.
Apparent power steering issues crippled the Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr., Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace.
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Buescher won in his 250th Cup start. After the checkered flag, he stopped beside the car of Keselowski, his team owner, as they celebrated a win in what has been a tough year.
For the first time in playoff history, non-playoff drivers (Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Buescher) won every race in the playoff round.
Stage 1 winner: Brad Keselowski
Stage 2 winner: Christopher Bell
Who had a good race: Chris Buescher, who has had strong cars this year but has fallen short of victory lane, finally cashed in, ending a 222-race winless drought. … Brad Keselowski, co-owner of Buescher’s Ford, scored his first stage win of the season, leading the opening stage. He finished 13th. … Michael McDowell (11th) and Justin Haley (12th) survived the night’s chaos to score strong finishes on the lead lap.
Who had a bad race: For the second time in three races, Kyle Busch parked with engine issues, missing playoff advancement. … Austin Dillon was involved in a multi-car crash, parked his Chevrolet and was one of four playoff drivers who failed to advance to the second round. … Kevin Harvick needed a win to advance and was in position to race for it until a long pit stop foiled his chances. … Six playoff drivers finished 25th or worse.
Next: The playoffs continue Sept. 25 with the first race (3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network) in the Round of 12 at Texas Motor Speedway.