By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the first elimination race of the 2020 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 Cole Custer, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ryan Blaney would be the unlucky drivers to get the axe.
All four came into the Bristol Night Race with ground to make up in the points battle, but Byron was the closest to the cut-off line, only needing three points to climb into the top-12. However, things are never that simple at Bristol, with a lap 234 incident with a lapped car bringing an early end to Byron’s night.
The incident was a chain reaction started by Joey Gase’s No. 51 car, bringing Christopher Bell and Byron into the mix, with Byron getting the worst of it. With the front end of his No. 24 Chevrolet heavily damaged, Byron limped his car behind pit wall, solidifying his exit from the Playoffs.
Prior to the accident, Byron was doing exactly what he needed to do, finishing the first stage in eighth-place and running in the top-10 when things went awry.
“I think the No. 51 car (Joey Gase) checked up in the middle of the straightaway,” said a dejected Byron. “As fast as we were running the top, I was right behind the No. 95 (Christopher Bell) and I had literally nowhere to go. You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that.
“Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out. I thought honestly we had a shot to run top-five or seven. The car was really, really good. We just needed a couple good pitstops. We were running probably ninth or tenth there. Just super disappointing – I’ve got to go back and watch that because that was kind of ridiculous.”
“What an idiot.”
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 20, 2020
Next up was Custer, who came into the night with an eight point deficit and hopes of being able to gather enough points to join his fellow Stewart-Haas Racing teammates in the next round of the Playoffs.
However, it was a night to forget for Custer as he was only able to manage a 23rd place finish, watching his hopes of advancing vanish with each passing lap.
“We just struggled here. I don’t know why,” said Custer. “I’ve always liked Bristol, it just hasn’t come together this year here. We’ve just really struggled. I just can’t thank everybody enough at SHR, everybody at HaasTooling.com, Autodesk. I just wish we had a better night. We were just a little bit off.
“I think we can hang our heads high on what we’ve done this year, but we still have a lot of races to win the rest of this year, so we just have to keep building.”
The final two drivers to be eliminated, Blaney and DiBenedetto, were in virtual must-win positions before Saturday night’s race at the high-banked half-mile, having to make up 25 and 27 points, respectively. However, each had their own issues that kept them from truly contending for the win and a shot at making it into the next round of the Playoffs.
After starting in 16th, DiBenedetto was able to advance to the lead under the first caution of the night, holding the top spot for seven laps before falling back into the pack, where he would remain for the rest of the night.
Pit road issues didn’t help matters for DiBenedetto and the No. 21 team, with a loose wheel, speeding penalty and a cut tire in the waning laps dropping him to 19th on the final rundown.
“If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all,” said DiBenedetto. “I don’t know. It’s just frustrating. I hate it. I want to get Menards and Dutch Boy and this team a good run like they deserve because we’ve had a rough couple weeks, and had a loose wheel, overcome it — drive through the entire field with a lot of green flag.
“We get to seventh, hoping for a caution, but either way we drove to the top 10 — good run — and I was screaming, ‘Debris in 1,’ three damn times and we found it. We ran it over multiple times and I cut the right-rear down and it just ruins our day.”
Despite the early exit from the Playoffs, DiBenedetto remained positive on his first season driving for the Wood Brothers.
“I can’t possibly explain to people the emotional rollercoaster of doing this for a living,” he said. “I am very appreciative to do it and love it and I hope I’m driving for this team next year and hope to keep on doing it. We have a lot to build off of. We’re just barely getting started, but, man, it is tough.
“I’m glad we made the playoffs. I’m proud of my team. Tonight shows the fight that we have as a team, rebounding like that. I just hate that we miss the next round and had some not-so-good races, bad luck tonight, you name it, but we’ve got a lot of season left. We still have a lot of positions in points to fight for and we have fast race cars like you see tonight, so we still have a lot of stuff left and hopefully a lot of good things to come.”
As for Blaney, two lackluster races at Darlington and Richmond to start the first round of the Playoffs put him behind the eight-ball heading to Bristol, but handling issues would be his Achilles heel on Saturday night as he brought his No. 12 Team Penske Ford home in 13th place.
“We started off tight and then that second run we got really tight after the comp caution and lost a lot of track position,” Blaney said. “After that, we kind of were able to drive up through there. We got to fifth or sixth the one time and we were super tight again and it went really long. That just kind of made it worse and we just kind of got behind there.
“The track just swung really tight. I was kind of tight all night, but it just swung really tight on us and that was just the wrong direction that the track needed to be at. That stinks. I thought we got our car pretty close there in the second half of the race after the second stage, and then we were on the cycle of pitting and getting laps down and was on old stuff, so it was an unfortunate end for this 12 group, but I’m really proud of the effort this year and we’re not done.
“We can still go and try to win races and try to get fifth in points, so thanks to Advance Auto Parts and Menards and Ford for what they do. We’ve got seven more races. We’ll do our best.”