By David Morgan, Associate Editor
CONCORD, N.C. — Eight drivers down, eight to go.
Round two of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is now complete, with four more drivers getting the boot when the checkered flag waved on Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte.
Up until the closing stint of the race, it looked as if the four drivers that came into the race under the cut-off line would stay there when the checkered flag flew, but when a caution came out on lap 105, the race for the final transfer spots got turned on its head, with it taking until an overtime finish to determine who was in and who was out.
When the dust settled and Christopher Bell won his way into the next round with a walk-off victory, defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson was the first driver on the outside looking in. He would be joined by Daniel Suarez, Austin Cindric, and Alex Bowman as the drivers that saw their championship hopes vanish on Sunday.
Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (Missed cut by two points)
For the second time this weekend, a defending champion has seen their season come to an early end at Charlotte.
It happened for defending Xfinity Series champion Daniel Hemric on Saturday and on Sunday, it was Kyle Larson’s turn.
What seemed to be just another race that the No. 5 team would pass with flying colors turned into a nightmare when an encounter with the wall broke the rear toe link on his Chevrolet, forcing him to pit road for repairs.
Though the team was able to get the part switched out and get him back on track, the damage had been done. Add in the chaos of the end of the race and when all was said and done, Larson had fallen under the cut-off line, missing out on a transfer spot by just two points.
“As soon as I hit the wall,” Larson explained of when the concern set in. “Yeah, you just give up that many spots; you know it’s going to be close and then the caution there. So, yeah, I just made way too many mistakes all year long. Made another one today and it ultimately cost us a chance to go chase another championship.
“Just extremely mad at myself because I let the team down a number of times this year and let them down in a big way today. We will keep fighting and we will come back stronger. I will definitely come back stronger, smarter and make better moves out there. Just mad at myself. Bummer.”
Daniel Suarez – No.99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet (-9 points)
Suarez came into Sunday’s race with a double-digit points advantage over the cut-off line and a top-three starting position, but unfortunately, a mechanical issue would be his downfall by the time the checkered flag waved.
After finishing both the first and second stage inside the top-10, Suarez lost power steering in the second half of the race, forcing him to have to manhandle his Trackhouse Racing machine around for the remainder of the event.
Suarez fell off the pace as the increased physicality took its toll on his body, and he just had to gut it out to the finish, crossing the line in 36th place.
“Very tough,” Suarez said. “The second-half of the race was probably the most difficult race I’ve driven in my life, but it is what it is. Unfortunately, me as a driver, that’s something that’s out of my control.
“The first-half of the race was good; and then we had a mechanical failure with the steering and after that, it was game over. It’s very disappointing to lose a race like that. Our No. 99 CommScope Chevy was good; it was fast. I felt like it was going to be an easy transition based on the speed that we had, but once we lost the steering, I was just trying to survive.
“My arms are destroyed right now. My hands are destroyed. It’s just unfortunate.”
Austin Cindric – No. 2 Team Penske Ford (-13 points)
Cindric came into Sunday’s race needing the performance of a lifetime to be able to make up the points deficit he was at to start the day and while he gave it a run, he would fall short of his goal and find himself eliminated from the Playoffs.
The Daytona 500 champion started Sunday on a high note, finishing the first stage inside the top-five, but from then on, it was a dogfight, with the youngest member of the Team Penske stable scrapping and clawing for every position he could get.
But even a noted road course driver like Cindric couldn’t make up enough ground to keep his title hopes alive, finishing the race all the way back in 21st place and missing out on the cut by almost the same margin that he entered the day with.
“My guys did a great job all weekend,” Cindric said. “We had a long shot, but had a shot at it and kept ourselves in the game. Obviously, I had a great shot at the end.
“That last caution really stung because we would have been in without that last caution. Old tires against new tires. I wish we would have had probably some better track position and probably do a few things right here and there, but, overall, great to have a shot, great to be in the playoff picture. I learned a lot in my rookie season racing against a lot of the best.
“I was a bit of a bonehead on the last couple restarts just trying to make something happen with 30-lap worse tires than everybody around me, but, overall, great experience but just a little bit short.”
Alex Bowman – No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Then there’s Bowman, who has been sitting on the sidelines for the last two weeks, watching everything play out and not being able to participate all due to something outside of his control.
After crashing out of the first race of the round at Texas, Bowman has been out of the driver’s seat since then as he recovers from concussion-like symptom, which also resulted in him being eliminated from Playoff contention.
In a social media post earlier in the week ahead of the race at Charlotte, Bowman explained that he has been focusing on his recovery while he has been away and is looking forward to returning when his health is back to 100%.