And then there were 12. Four of the 16 playoff drivers were eliminated from the NASCAR Cup postseason run Sept. 17, as yet another non-playoff driver went to victory circle.
It’s the first time since the inception of the current playoff format that championship-eligible drivers were shut out of an entire round. It also brings the tally of different winners to 19, tying 2001 for the most different winners. Can we hit 20 or more? We have seven more chances.
Chris Buescher was Saturday night’s Bristol winner, scoring only his second career NASCAR Cup win. It was also the first win for the Roush-Fenway-Keselowski organization since Brad Keselowski assumed part ownership this season. Like the previous week’s winner, Bubba Wallace, Buescher’s previous win came in a race called early for weather.
Joe Gibbs Racing posted mixed results, with two of their drivers finishing in the top 10 and two others at the bottom of the order, along with satellite-team 23XI driver Ty Gibbs. Gibbs and Martin Truex Jr. succumbed to steering issues, while Kyle Busch suffered his second engine failure in the last three races. One wonders if Busch’s lame duck status with the team relegates him to using the dusty old engines from the back corner of the shop. For a while it looked like he might still advance due a wreck involving other playoff drivers. But Austin Cindric kept his head down and passed enough people to end the race three points ahead of Busch. Other drivers cut from further playoff contention were Kevin Harvick and both Richard Childress Racing drivers (Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick).
While the Gibbs drivers had issues, the Hendrick boys all advanced to the Round of 12, with Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and William Byron finishing in the top five at Bristol. Alex Bowman, despite wrecking early and finishing 32nd, had enough points to advance. However, he is below the cut line going into the next round. Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney join Cindric to keep Team Penske’s championship hopes alive, while both Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez keep Trackhouse Racing in the mix. Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell are the two Gibbs contenders still alive, and Chase Briscoe is the lone Stewart-Haas Racing driver remaining in contention.
Could another non-playoff driver win at Texas on Sunday? Busch, Dillon, and Harvick are all out of contention now, and all have won at Texas recently — Busch in 2018 and 2021, Dillon in 2020, and Harvick in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Among the those still in the playoffs, Larson won both the All-Star and the fall race last season, Blaney won this year’s All-Star race, and Suarez the Open. Hamlin won in 2019 and swept in 2010, while Logano won in 2014.
The USA Network will broadcast all of this weekend’s NASCAR action. Opening odds have Hamlin the favorite at 6-1, with the trio of Larson, Elliott, and Bell at 8-1. Ross Chastain is at 9-1, as is non-playoff contender Kyle Busch. Blaney, Truex, and Byron share 12-1 odds and Wallace, Logano, and Harvick are 18-1. My favorite dark horse pick is Aric Almirola at 200-1.
Xfinity qualifying airs at 8:05 a.m. Saturday with the Andy’s Frozen Custard 300 at 12:30 p.m. The Cup cars qualify at 10:20 a.m. Saturday, with the Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 300 at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Finally, the NASCAR Cup 2023 calendar is set. Along with the traditional races and dates, the Clash at the LA Coliseum is back, along with the Indianapolis road course in August. New for next season is a Chicago street race on July 2, the first event of its kind for the series.
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