By David Morgan, Associate Editor
CONCORD, N.C. – Through two rounds of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, the 16-driver starting field has now been cut in half, with four more drivers getting axed from title contention following Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte.
Entering the day, Tyler Reddick, Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain, and Kyle Busch were the four drivers on the outside looking in, with Brad Keselowski hanging on by a thread, just two-points ahead of the cut-off line.
By the time the checkered flag flew, Reddick had raced his way in with a sixth-place finish, leaving Busch, Chastain, Wallace, and Keselowski as the odd men out.
Each had their own stories on the day that would keep the tide from turning in their favor, but all had the same result of their championship runs coming to an end.
Busch came into the day in a must-win position and his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team certainly did not go down without a fight. After posting a top-five qualifying result, Busch was in the mix all day long, finishing in the top-10 in both of the first two stages.
It was at the start of the final stage that things really started to go Busch’s way as he jumped to the lead, but his six-lap stint at the front would be short-lived as eventual race winner AJ Allmendinger surpassed him for the top spot on lap 58.
Though Busch lost the lead, he still had a shot at it over the course of five restarts in the final half of the race, but just didn’t have enough to get back by Allmendinger, eventually falling to third at the finish.
Despite getting eliminated, Busch was upbeat about being able to fight for the win down the stretch.
“The guys gave me a great piece today,” Busch said. “The Lenovo Camaro was pretty fast, just lacked a little bit on the long run, just didn’t quite have the feel of the tire that I was really looking for to be able to turn into the corners and to be able to drive out of the corners and keep pace with the front two there at the end…
“But overall this ride is on me anyways. The first two weeks of this round was obviously not very good, and we didn’t score any points. That’s where it’s at. That’s where it lies. Texas, Talladega, just not being able to execute and do a good job when points were on the line.
“It sucks to be out this early, but let us do Texas over again, and I feel like we’re right there. We’re ready.”
Chastain was the next in the final rundown at Charlotte, rebounding to finish in 10th place after finding himself mired back in traffic in the latter stages of the race. However, coming into the day with a double-digit points gap to make up, it just wasn’t enough to see him through to the Round of 8.
While he won’t have a chance at racing for the championship a second year in a row, Chastain still had a smile on his face afterwards as he reflected on the season he and the team have had and the path forward that still lies ahead for the rest of the year.
“We knew it coming in that it was going to be tough,” Chastain said. “We put together a heck of a day for us on road courses. Lately we’ve just been slower and slower. The curbs, I can’t get over them. There’s a lot of reasons. I can’t brake. And we’ve reverted on some of that through Watkins Glen and here and it’s really paid off.
“I’m really excited in the gains we’ve made, because we came out of the box super strong last spring. Won the first road course race in the Gen 7 car and it just slowly kind of stepped back all the way until mid-season this year…
“It’s not over. We’ve signed ourselves up for a long time together. Ty [Norris] says ‘til I’m gray in the beard. I can’t wait to get to work in the morning for Vegas and every race after.”
Asked if there was one moment in particular that was the turning point in this round that led to Sunday’s elimination, Chastain pointed squarely to his crash at Talladega that put him behind the eight-ball coming into Charlotte.
“Ultimately, I can just pinpoint it to a single moment, down the backstretch at Talladega. I get off the bottom to the middle so I can get to the top, leave the outside, [Christopher Bell] pushes me, [Ricky Stenhouse Jr.] runs outta gas. I hesitate. I should’ve just hit the brakes and followed the [Kyle Busch]. I tried to shoot the gap and take, you know, the five points and I ultimately gave up 25 or something. Right?
“You never know, but I look back at that moment and in my feet, I hesitated. Everything in my body told me to check up, but there was a gap and I never want to not go for that gap. I mean, there’s the famous Senna line of the gap, and I believe that. I don’t ever wanna stop doing that. Ultimately, it’s hurting us right now. It’s painful, but, keep going for gaps and I’m living my dream.”
Much like Chastain, Bubba Wallace had some work to do coming into Sunday, and while many would have written his No. 23 23XI Racing team off before the day even started, recent gains on road courses had him in the ballpark – even if the final results don’t reflect it.
Wallace was lockstep with his teammate Tyler Reddick in qualifying in the top-five and finishing in the points in the first two stages, but late in the race found himself mired back in traffic before his race really went off the rails with 22 laps remaining.
Coming into the backstretch chicane, Wallace was the victim of a stack-up between Daniel Suarez and Austin Cindric that sent him spinning. Since the hit caused him to miss the corner, Wallace served a stop-and-go penalty and then brought his machine to pit road for fresh tires, dropping him all the way down to 32nd.
While he rebounded to 16th at the finish, he was still 18 points shy of being able to transfer on.
“This weekend was incredible,” Wallace said. “Just from the effort from the team and from myself. Just all clicking, right? And it felt really good to be competitive and run upfront, pass cars on road courses and not be passed. There’s a lot to look at.
“What I analyze is what could I have done and not be in that situation? Could I have been faster and passed another car? How to be better to not put yourself — when you’re racing around there with squirrels. It is what it is. Just didn’t have enough and it wasn’t in the cards.
“I’m not mad. I’m happy for the team. I’m pumped for our season. It’s not over yet. I’m really excited for next week and Homestead and Martinsville. Phoenix, eh, I might just go on vacation (laughter). But we’ve still got four races to go out and do it. I’m proud of the team so I appreciate them.”
Last, but not least was Keselowski, who needed to have a solid day in Charlotte to be able to keep his razor-slim points advantage in his pocket to be able to move on.
Unfortunately for him, he got the exact opposite.
After starting mid-pack, Keselowski’s race started heading downhill just 17 laps in when he missed the frontstretch chicane and did not serve a stop and go penalty on the lap the miss occurred on. As a result, he would have to report to pit road for a pass-through penalty instead, which left him playing catch-up for the rest of the day.
In the end, he would finish the race in 18th, but it wasn’t enough for him to be able to keep his first Playoff run as the co-owner of RFK Racing alive.
“Pleased for all the advancements we’ve made this year, but not satisfied,” Keselowski said. “We want wins and you want to advance in the Playoffs and do all those things and go for a championship. It’s bittersweet, you know, to not have the shot for the championship, but we still have a shot of the top five in points and we’re gonna make a hard push for that.”
Keselowski added that the issues that he and the team ran into on Sunday wasn’t the deciding factor on whether they made it through or not, but a combination of all three races in the round that led to their exit.
“We needed to have a little better race in all three races. I don’t think it was one race, certainly a cut-off race always lends itself to measuring yourself by that stick…Had the opportunity to score points all season long, or all this round long. So, we want more than what we got today, but we’re moving forward.”