By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the first elimination race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs on Saturday night, marking the end of the road for four drivers and their championship aspirations.
Several drivers entered the night within striking distance of the top-12 in points, but when the checkered flag fell Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell were the unlucky drivers to be on the outside looking in.
Just two points separated Almirola and Reddick from being able to continue on in the Playoffs, with both having issues in the race that ultimately led to their downfall.
For Almirola, it was a combination of mechanical problems and a mishandling car that kept him from advancing.
Almirola’s night first took a turn for the worst before the race even reached the halfway point when a leaking oil line brought him to pit road to get it replaced. After returning to the track, Almirola was able to race his way back into the top-10 and was in position to transfer, but as the laps wound down, the handling went away on his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and he would ultimately finish the night in 18th.
“It was frustrating,” said Almirola. “I’m disappointed to have it end like that just because we had battled so much adversity throughout the night and got ourselves in position to where we were running top 10 and doing what we needed to do, and then that caution came out there at the end where we had 18 laps on our tires and we stayed out, and for whatever reason when we re-fired on those tires the car was up on top of the racetrack, skating, wouldn’t turn, I didn’t have any side bite and just struggling.
“That’s not the way we wanted it to end, but we’ll keep going and battle it out the rest of the playoffs and see if we can’t finish inside the top 10 in points.”
As for Reddick, it was an unscheduled trip down pit road for a loose lug nut that put him behind just past halfway. Despite giving it his all in an effort to make up the deficit, Reddick was only able to climb back to 12th by the end of the race, falling just shy of being able to move on.
“Winners never quit,” Reddick said of his outlook for the remainder of the season. “Hopefully one day the right break will come our way. We continue to learn and get better even though we didn’t make it through to the Round of 12.
“We feel as a team we were able to pick up on some things that are going to help us when we come back here next year or go to another track, short track.
“We’ll see where it goes from here. We’re not racing for a championship anymore, but we still have a lot to race for with this team. Make the most with the rest of the races we have.”
Kurt Busch came into the night with no margin for error, tied for the 12th and final transfer spot, but handling issues throughout the night kept him out of contention from the drop of the green flag. Finishing the race in 19th, he would fall just six points short of being able to continue on in his mission of trying to deliver team owner Chip Ganassi a championship before the team closes its doors at season’s end.
“Really disappointing effort today,” Busch said. “That was not a championship-type effort. We missed it big time. We had bad luck last week and we have no shot at a championship this year. We have to race for pride, dignity and honor for the next few weeks. The team is shutting down and we’re eliminated early. That’s not the way we wanted this to go. Maybe we can crawl our way back up to a fifth to tenth-range in points. But tonight was not a night to miss the setup
The fourth and final driver eliminated, Michael McDowell, had his work cut out for him from the start of the Playoffs and Saturday night’s result was just a continuation of the struggles for the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team. McDowell’s only path to advancing into the next round would have come with a win, but the 2021 Daytona 500 champion would finish the night in 24th, ending his first Playoff run after three races.