Long: Bristol tests, torments Cup playoff field, ending title hopes for some

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — On a night when attrition turned Bristol’s dizzying 500 laps into a series of math equations, and one of the most tense battles for position involved a damaged car on track and one that had been loaded into a team’s hauler, maybe it wasn’t surprising that any playoff driver with connections — past, present and future — to Richard Childress Racing was eliminated from title contention.

Kyle Busch was “flabbergasted” after his second engine failure in this round means he will not win the championship in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing. His next title attempt will come in the No. 8 car for Richard Childress Racing in 2023. 

Tyler Reddick, the current driver of the No. 8, also was eliminated after his car was damaged in a crash and couldn’t gain enough positions. Both Reddick (25th) and Busch (34th) finished two points behind Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric — who overcame multiple tire failures and finished seven laps behind winner Chris Buescher in 20th— to secure the final playoff spot. 

Also failing to advance in the playoffs: Austin Dillon, who finished 31st, and former Childress driver Kevin Harvick, who placed 10th.

This marked the first time that Harvick and Busch each were eliminated in the first round.

“If I get done with my media obligations and NASCAR releases me, I’m going to the house,” Busch said after exiting the event. “I’ve got kids at home.”

Harvick saw his chances of winning — essentially his only way to advance — end when a wheel did not get tightened and fell off, forcing him to back up to his stall on his final pit stop. What should have been a 10-12 second pit stop took more than 30 seconds. 

“Just went from having a chance to lead the parade to being a part of the parade,” Harvick said.

But this was more than two former champions falling out of title contention. This was tires blowing, power steering systems failing and an engine puking smoke, fluids and anything else in a smokescreen that nearly took out Cindric.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, forecasted the chaos last week at Kansas, telling NBC Sports that the Bristol race was “the last challenge of the Next Gen car.”

Nothing carried over from the spring race on the dirt. The other concrete tracks are way different then Bristol and the demands put on the cars. There were concerns of how much this new car could take. 

The result was a mish-mash of mishaps that forced drivers and crew chiefs to recalculate points, refine priorities and refocus on the task at hand. 

Cindric was four laps down before the race was 100 laps old. His hopes of advancing seemed over. With such a long night ahead, he had to find a way to stay motivated.

“I guess the funny thing is that when I prep for these races, I don’t have much too much weight to lose, much to burn, so I always hydrate a ton,” he said. “I was sitting there (in the car) thinking, ‘You know what, you hydrated for a reason, you have to pee really bad for reason. You might as well use it (as motivation). 

“So I’d say it’s a small motivating things maybe that’s a little weird, I don’t know, but I came prepared and might as well give it all we got.”

Yes, that is weird motivation, but it worked.

Things changed dramatically when Busch’s engine blew on Lap 270. 

“That happened right in front of me,” Cindric said. “He had smoke coming out, stopped on the straightaway and I about ran into the back of him. I had a front row seat for about everything that happened. I guess that’s what happens when you’re in the back.”

Cindric’s chances improved on the restart when several cars crashed, including those of Reddick, Dillon and Daniel Suarez.

The incident started when Suarez got out of shape, tagged another car and triggered a pile up. Dillon tried to continue but eventually ran out of time on the Damaged Vehicle Policy. Reddick finished 31 laps behind because of needed repairs. Suarez continued, finishing six laps behind the leaders in 19th, good enough to advance. 

Cindric later got a wave around and gained enough spots to pull ahead of Busch and Reddick. 

When the checkered flag waved on the wackiness, Cindric’s crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, threw a fierce arm pump in celebration and high-fived those around him on the pit box. 

“Obviously, you’re not celebrating a win,” he told NBC Sports, “but celebrating an accomplishment.”

It’s on to the next round of the Cup playoffs and one can only imagine what’s to come.

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.