Tensions were high as race day arrived at the Charlotte Roval, with playoff contenders hungry to earn their way into the Round of 8. In a race usually dominated by excitement, Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series elimination race didn’t disappoint in keeping up with the track’s chaotic reputation.
At the start of the race, no driver was safe in the playoff picture, except for pole sitter and driver of the #11 Denny Hamlin, who locked himself into the Round of 8, with a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Just 22 points kept Kyle Larson above the cut line in second, after a horrific race at Talladega leading to his fellow competitors being not too far behind him, with Joey Logano creeping up on the regular-season champ, with +21 points and Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. both with +20 to the good. The previously mentioned Keselowski would start the race in second alongside Hamlin, with championship favorite Larson starting in tenth. Other notable starting positions included the most popular driver and previous Roval winner Chase Elliott in eighth, and the driver just above the playoff cut-line, Kyle Busch, in ninth.
The green flag dropped just shortly after 2:30 p.m. with Hamlin quickly gaining the lead over Keselowski heading into turn one. The early laps of the race were relatively drama-free, aside from Aric Almirola taking a spin after having brief contact with driver of the #17, Chris Buescher. With the competition caution coming at lap ten, some drivers came to pit road a lap early on a strategy call, grabbing four tires, but no fuel as they were not allowed to because the caution flag had yet to wave. Pit stops served as the start for playoff drivers, as Christopher Bell was penalized for speeding. Once the competition caution did come out, the remaining drivers who hadn’t come to pit road the lap prior did so now, however, not including leader Ryan Blaney, second-place Joey Logano, and third-place Chase Elliott.
At the drop of the green, Blaney had the advantage over Logano and quickly regained his lead, meanwhile, Blaney and Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski went for a spin off the front end of Alex Bowman entering the backstretch chicane. Keselowski was able to get it turned around, so no caution came out. The caution, however, would come out just a few short laps later after Ryan Newman came into contact with the wall, as a result of a flat right rear tire. With only mere laps left in the stage, playoff drivers came to pit road on strategy, including Hamlin, Byron, Kyle Busch, Bowman, Harvick, and Larson, whereas Blaney, Logano, and Elliott, once again opted to stay out. On the restart, yesterday’s Xfinity Series race winner, AJ Allmendinger, battled with Blaney for the lead, but neither driver was any match for the “King of the Road”, Chase Elliott, who would pass the two to go on and win the stage. As they ran at the end of the stage, despite just winning it, Elliott was below the cut-line, along with teammates Byron and Bowman, and JGR’s Christopher Bell.
Blaney, Logano, and Elliot, finally pitted before the start of stage two, but Allmendinger didn’t, putting him in the lead on the restart. Kyle Busch was able to pass the Xfinity Series winner and take over the lead. More problems began to arise for our playoff drivers, particularly the Hendrick drivers as both Bowman and Larson began experiencing battery and alternator issues. Luck would be on their side, however, as the caution would come out just as Larson and Bowman’s issues came about. The caution would come out after contact between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe, which resulted in a spin for Briscoe. On pit road, Bowman changed a battery and Larson the same. On the restart, Kyle Busch held on to the lead, as William Byron battled hard in second, desperate to lead as he was in a must-win situation in order to advance to the Round of 8. As the stage continued, Bowman continued to have voltage issues and fought with his car, whereas Larson’s issues seemed to dial down. Bad luck also continued for Christopher Bell, as he went too wide into a turn, sending his car into the grass and damaging the splitter. Despite hard fought efforts from Harvick, Byron, and stage one winner Elliott, Kyle Busch ultimately was the winner of stage two. As they ran at the end of the stage, Kevin Harvick fell below the cut-line, where Bowman, Byron, and Bell still remained.
At lap 54 stage three was underway with William Byron gaining the lead over RCR driver Austin Dillion. Where Byron was determined to get himself above the cut-line, Kevin Harvick still had the events of Bristol looming heavy in his head, where he and Chase Elliott had words to share after the conclusion of the race. Perhaps in an act of retaliation, Harvick made contact with Elliott, sending the rear of his car hard into the wall, making him spin, collecting Cole Custer with him. After the incident, Elliott was quoted as saying on his radio that if he got to Harvick, he would wreck him to get into the Round of 8. When the race returned to green, Byron held off Austin Dillon for the lead. The stage continued uneventfully for a time, aside from Allmendinger blowing an engine. Bowman continued to face battery issues but held off on pitting under green while other playoff drivers did, in the hope of a caution coming out. Bowman got his wish, as his teammate Chase Elliott’s bumper cover came off, causing a caution for debris.
All playoff contenders came pit road, except the one man already through to the next round, Denny Hamlin. At the drop of the green with 20 to go, Hamlin held off Matt DiBenedetto for the lead, with Byron slipping into third. As laps winded down, the yellow flag waved once again for debris as a result of contact between Corey Lajoie and Joey Hand. The caution would come back out just a few laps later as Kevin Harvick crashed hard into the “Heartburn Turn”, much to the pleasure of the fans in the stands after the move he pulled on the most popular driver Chase Elliott. As a result of the wreck, Harvick would not finish the race and miss out on the Round of 8.
With just eight laps to go, Denny Hamlin battled hard with Kyle Larson for the lead, with the very fast Tyler Reddick not far behind them and the desperate-to-win Byron as well. In the end, though, Larson would be the one to earn first place, as Byron did all he could to get to the front. Byron pushed too hard though, sending himself into the wall and ultimately out of the next round. Despite having a wickedly fast car, Reddick just couldn’t pass the man who has been almost undefeatable this season, as Kyle Larson would go on to win for the seventh time this season. The four below the cut-line heading in, remained the same going out, as Kevin Harvick, William Byron, Alex Bowman, and Christopher Bell would not advance to the next round in the playoffs. The Round of 8 includes the following: Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Martin Truex Jr. Tech concluded with no issues, except for Kyle Busch’s #18, missing two lug nuts, resulting in a one-race suspension and $20,000 dollar fine for crew chief Ben Beshore. Hamlin and Buescher’s cars also had one missing lug nut each (monetary fines to their crew chiefs). The NASCAR Cup Series will return to racing next Sunday, October 17th, at Texas Motor Speedway on NBC at 2:00 P.M. EST.
Featured image credits to @NASCAR on Twitter.