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.
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.