By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway was not kind to former NASCAR Cup Series champions, with defending champion Joey Logano and 2014 champion Kevin Harvick among those eliminated in the first round of the Playoffs.
Both drivers started the Bass Pro Shops Night Race with points advantages over the cut-off line, as Logano sat 12-points up and Harvick sat in the 12th and final transfer spot just seven points ahead of elimination. In the end, those slim margins weren’t enough to save either of them.
Logano’s night went awry just past the halfway mark of the race on lap 262 when he was caught up in a multi-car crash that started as Corey LaJoie spun while trying to pass Erik Jones. LaJoie’s car ricocheted off the inside wall and was sent back into traffic, where Logano got swept up in the ensuing melee.
With the damage to severe to his No. 22 Team Penske Ford, his night was done and all he could do was wait and hope other issues befell his fellow Playoff drivers, which never came. When all was said and done, he finished the night in 34th place, leaving him just four points shy of being able to survive and advance.
Saturday night’s elimination also marked the first time that Logano has been knocked out of the Playoffs after the first round.
“I saw the smoke. I saw the 7 spinning,”Logano said of the crash. “ Coleman was saying, ‘He’s coming up. He’s coming up.’ As I was on the brakes to try to pull onto the bottom. I think it was Newman behind me, but I think someone hit him behind him and it was just kind of a chain reaction into it. Once I got hit I was like, ‘Shoot, I’ve got to go up now’ because I couldn’t make the bottom, so I committed to that and the hole closed up.”
Meanwhile for Harvick, it wasn’t the Bristol carnage that was his downfall, it was a simple lack of speed for his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. From the drop of the green flag, it was apparent that Harvick’s final race at the Last Great Colosseum was going to be an uphill battle.
Starting way back in 21st place, he was just never able to get the handling on his Ford dialed in to his liking and was going to need some help to be able to keep his chances of running for a championship alive.
Ultimately, the cards just didn’t fall his way as he finished five laps down in 29th, leaving him equal with Logano four points in arears of the cut-off line.
“We’ve been like that all year. We’ve been hit or miss and tonight we just missed by a mile,” Harvick said of his team’s performance. “I’ve had some good days and bad days [at Bristol], but that’s definitely the worst one I’ve had with fenders on it.”
The other two drivers eliminated at Bristol included Daytona 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell. Both of the underdog drivers came into the night in a must-win position to be able to move on and while they gave it a valiant effort, it just wasn’t mean to be for either of them.
Stenhouse climbed from a 25th place starting position to finish the race in 10th place, but just didn’t have that extra bit of speed he needed to be able to contend for the win.
“We executed in the race really well, but just didn’t execute on Saturday good enough to put us starting up front and get some stage points early,” Stenhouse said. “That’s kind of where we’ve been lacking, I would say most of the year – just with qualifying and being able to set ourselves up for the beginning stages of the race.
“I’m proud of the effort and another top-10 finish. Our No. 47 Scott Brand Camaro was really fast and really good there at the end when I needed it to be. We went as far forward as we could, but it just wasn’t enough. We’ll keep learning and trying coming back better next year.”
Likewise, McDowell was a presence in the top-10 for most of the night, but even a career-best night on the half-mile concrete oval was not enough to propel him into the next round.
“It’s disappointing not to advance, for sure, but we dug ourselves such a big hole those first two races that we were in a must-win situation,” said McDowell. “We weren’t good enough to do that tonight, but I’m still really proud of the speed that we brought and the effort that we brought.
“We still needed a little bit more to contend for that win, but we gave ourselves a fighting chance. Unfortunately, at the end there wasn’t enough action. Normally at Bristol you get a late-race caution and get the front row beating and banging and maybe you get an opportunity, but that just never happened.”