The first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs came to an end on Saturday, Sept. 18. 16 drivers headed to Bristol Motor Speedway with championship hopes, but only 12 advanced to the second round after Kyle Larson held off Kevin Harvick to lock up his sixth win of the season. However, his victory became less of a focal point due to drama on pit road.
The driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang had the advantage during the final laps of Stage 3. However, Chase Elliott held Harvick back as revenge for earlier contact that cut his tire and dropped him a lap down. This move gave Larson the lead with fewer than 10 laps remaining. The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro raced his way to Victory Lane and celebrated while the fans screamed in approval.
The incident began with Elliott and Harvick fighting for position. The driver of the No. 4 tried to pin the defending champion behind a lapped car to make a pass for the lead, but Elliott dove toward the inside. Harvick slid up, the two cars made contact, and the No. 9 Chevrolet suffered a flat tire and sent Elliott to pit road. The battle then continued with Elliott blocking Harvick so Larson could get the win.
“It was kind of a chicken s*** move that he did there at the end,” Harvick told NBC Sports after the race. “We’re racing for the frigging win at Bristol, we’re three-wide in the middle, and then he throws a temper tantrum. I was just trying to get the lead and race him hard, but then he pulls up in front of me and just sits there until I lose the whole lead.”
Elliott countered with his side of the story, telling NBC Sports that Harvick “constantly” runs into the left side of other drivers at other tracks and that it occasionally leads to cut tires. “He did it to me at Darlington a couple of weeks ago because he was tired of racing me. Whether he did it on purpose, it doesn’t matter. At some point, you’ve gotta draw the line. I don’t care who he is or how long he’s been doing it, I’m going to stand up for myself and my team.”
The two drivers got in each other’s faces on pit road, nearly coming to blows before officials separated them. However, they did not stop there. They continued the heated conversation by the haulers while “The Athletic” reporter Jordan Bianchi tried to get exclusive cell phone video. The drivers ultimately moved away from the reporter and took the conversation inside of Elliott’s hauler before parting ways for the night.
The Round of 12 Playoff Field Features Several Big Names
Larson entered the race with a secure spot in the Round of 12, so he only gained playoff points for the future. Harvick sat in a similar position after clinching his spot earlier in the race, and he just added points with his second-place finish. William Byron finished third and moved on to the next round of the playoffs while Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman rounded out the top five.
The playoff field is now set after three races in the Round of 16. Larson, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Blaney, Harvick, Joey Logano, Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Bowman, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, and Byron will now move on and fight for spots in the Round of Eight. They will have three races to achieve this goal — Las Vegas, Talladega, and the Charlotte Roval.
Kurt Busch, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, and Michael McDowell will watch as their championship hopes fade away. All four drivers dealt with issues during the trip to Bristol while trying to remain above the cut line. Reddick and Almirola were both able to recover and end the race within mere points of the Round of 12, but they couldn’t fully overtake Byron or Bowman.
Busch Struggled All Night Long With His Handling
While drama between two former champions became the talking point, another driver watched as his hopes for a second trophy faded away. The driver of the No. 1 entered the cutoff race as one of the favorites to win. Busch has six previous wins at Bristol Motor Speedway, and he had shown considerable speed over the past nine races. Though he wrecked at Richmond early with a flat tire that sent him into the wall.
Despite being one of the top options to lock up the win at Bristol, Busch dealt with several issues throughout the race. He explained over the radio prior to the competition caution on lap 40 that the car was “way too loose” and that he couldn’t make it turn the way he needed.
The team made adjustments to the No. 1 Chevrolet Camaro during the stop, but Busch could not make up any ground. He continued to deal with issues that also included a bad vibration. He then fell a lap down as Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson battled for the lead and lost out on the free pass after Larson passed Dillon.
Busch was able to get back onto the lead lap during the final stage, but he could not make up enough ground. He remained buried around the 20th position while continuing to struggle with handling and finished the race six points below the cut line.