Five hundred laps at Bristol will usually be enough to generate a story or two, as Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott can attest after Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series. But it’s been a while since a race has changed the story the way this one did.
In a matter of hours, racing fans went from assuming that Hendrick Motorsports would settle for two drivers in the next stage of the playoffs to wondering how all four managed to get through. It was the sort of drama that surely left NASCAR officials and NBC executives smiling.
“Just a crazy kind of Game 7-type feeling out there,” said William Byron, driver of the No. 24 Chevy. “I mean, these last 50 laps, I didn’t breathe.”
The NASCAR playoffs are down to 12 survivors
William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman, Tyler Reddick, and Michael McDowell all entered the elimination race at Bristol below the cut line. It was a given that McDowell, the Daytona 500 champion, was a goner.
Bowman pretty much only needed to beat Kurt Busch to the finish line to survive, and Reddick only needed to make up a five-point deficit. However, Byron began the race 18 points in the hole. That meant that the fourth-year NASCAR Cup Series competitor could put up a strong result and still miss making the second round.
When the checkered flag came down, Hendrick’s Kyle Larson had won his sixth race of the season, holding off Harvick. Byron placed third, Bowman fifth, Reddick 12th, Busch 19th, and McDowell 24th.
That left Reddick, Busch, McDowell, and Aric Almirola on the outside looking in. They’ll finish out the final seven races, but their championship hopes are officially over.
William Byron and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates can breathe again
When the NASCAR Cup Series resumes on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval, Kyle Larson remains the No. 1 seed. Teammates Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, and William Byron hold spots six through eight. So, not only are the Hendrick Motorsports teammates still alive in the playoffs, they’re actually positioned well (for the moment) for the cut to eight after the Charlotte road course race (“the Roval”) on Oct. 10.
“I think we’re going to some really good tracks,” Byron said, according to Racer.com. “We won on a 1.5-mile earlier this year. The Roval, we’ve been really fast there and have had a number of poles on road courses, so I feel like we just had to get through this round. We had a really unfortunate start to it, and we made up for it tonight.”
Said Bowman: “There are some good tracks coming up for us this round, and I’ve just got to go do my job and not make any more mistakes and have a good rest of the playoffs.”
Alex Bowman can relax now that William Byron is safe
Had William Byron not made it to the next stage of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, it would have been a long rest of the season for himself and even longer for Alex Bowman.
Just 14 laps into the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, which kicked off the playoffs, Bowman tapped the wall. He thought he could stay out there until the competition caution on lap 25. Instead, he ended up pushing Byron’s Chevy into the turn 4 wall. Bowman finished 26th, but Byron cut a tire later in the race and placed 34th.
That put a dent in Bowman’s championship hopes and seriously damaged Byron’s prospects.
“I’m just proud of everybody on this ‘48’ team for not giving up,” Bowman said. “My mistake at Darlington kind of put us in this box; us and the ’24.’ I’m really glad the ‘24’ made it because if they wouldn’t have, that would have been on me, too.”
Bowman endured his share of challenges throughout the night at Bristol, but all worked out in the end, and he was able to joke afterward.
“We were pretty awful at the start of the race. Greg (Ives, crew chief) threw everything, including a laptop at it, I think. I heard there was a laptop casualty there during the race, it was so bad.”
Better to lose a laptop than the possibility of a championship.