William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney were eliminated from the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs on Saturday in the Bristol Night Race.
While DiBenedetto and Blaney entered the race in must-win mode, there were five other drivers within 25 points of both sides of the elimination cutline. After 500 laps, neither DiBenedetto nor Blaney won, Byron was crashed out and Custer simply wasn’t fast enough.
This is how the first three-race round ended.
1. Kevin Harvick (2 wins)
2. Brad Keselowski (win)
3. Joey Logano +77
4. Denny Hamlin +71
5. Chase Elliott +67
6. Kyle Busch +63
7. Austin Dillon +53
8. Alex Bowman +51
9. Martin Truex Jr. +42
10. Aric Almirola +34
11. Kurt Busch +31
12. Clint Bowyer +28
13. Cole Custer -28
14. William Byron -33
15. Ryan Blaney -37
16. Matt DiBenedetto -41
Byron opened the night just three points below the cutline and had put himself in position to advance until disaster struck on Lap 234. Byron had finished eighth in the first stage and was running inside the top-10 when he was wiped out of an incident not of his making.
Joey Gase, already 17 laps down, slowed drastically in front of both Christopher Bell and Byron. When everyone jammed on his brakes, Byron had nowhere to go but into the rear of Bell’s No. 95 Toyota Camry.
I can assure you that the stack up was the 51 cars fault….18 Laps down by the way….
“I think the No. 51 car (Joey Gase) checked up in the middle of the straightaway,” Byron said after his release from the infield care center. “As fast as we were running the top, I was right behind the No. 95 and I had literally nowhere to go. You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that.
“Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out. I thought honestly we had a shot to run top-five or seven. The car was really, really good. We just needed a couple good pitstops. We were running probably ninth or tenth there. Just super disappointing – I’ve got to go back and watch that because that was kind of ridiculous.”
“What an idiot.”
William Byron has been eliminated from #NASCARPlayoffs Round of 12 contention. He’s out of the race. Listen in to the No. 24 team’s radio. pic.twitter.com/P0vKtIPBey
Meanwhile, Custer entered the race with an eight-point deficit but just didn’t have the speed from the start. He finished 23rd after spending most of the race outside of the top-20.
“We just struggled here,” Custer said. “I don’t know why. I’ve always liked Bristol. It just hasn’t come together this year here. We’ve just really struggled … I just wish we had a better night. We were just a little bit off.
“I think we can hang our heads high on what we’ve done this year, but we still have a lot of races to win the rest of this year, so we just have to keep building.”
Custer was one of the two surprise entries into the playoffs, alongside Austin Dillon, as drivers who won high downforce, low horsepower intermediate track races from outside the top-16 in the standings. Custer won at Kentucky on a chaotic late race restart, and offered a commendable showing as a rookie in the first round of the playoffs.
He posted finishes of 12th, 14th and 23rd at Darlington, Richmond and Bristol.
As had been well documented throughout the week, DiBenedetto and Blaney faced virtual must-win scenarios entering the race at the Tennessee half-mile, with point deficits of 25 and 27 respectively.
DiBenedetto gambled early on a two-tire pit stop and led 17 laps, but his older tires dropped him out of the top-10 before the end of the first stage.
2 tires just didn’t work out obviously. We have to make risky calls though so no harm no foul. What’s a little concerning is how quick the 2/22/12 fell off at the end. Concerning for us I mean. Although we had 30 lap older right side tires so we’ll see. P12
Their fortunes got worse with a loose wheel, speeding penalty and a cut tire that eventually relegated them to 19th.
We will end up 19th for the day. What a night of ups and downs. Really proud of the fight in Matt over the course of this one. Here’s the tire pic.twitter.com/23W4B8Bxsz
The driver is also awaiting news on his fate for next season and Wood Brothers Racing holds a contact extension option on the 29-year-old, and advancing to the second round in de facto Team Penske equipment would have been a beneficial bargaining chip.
“If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all,” DiBenedetto said. “I don’t know. It’s just frustrating. I hate it. I want to get Menards and Dutch Boy and this team a good run like they deserve because we’ve had a rough couple weeks, and had a loose wheel, overcome it — drive through the entire field with a lot of green flag.
“We get to seventh, hoping for a caution, but either way we drove to the top 10 — good run — and I was screaming, ‘Debris in 1,’ three damn times and we found it. We ran it over multiple times and I cut the right-rear down and it just ruins our day.”
DiBenedetto only landed at Wood Brothers because he was displaced at Leavine Family Racing who needed to make room for Christopher Bell. He only landed at Leavine because he willingly left GoFAS Racing in 2018 with the conviction that he could compete for wins with a stronger organization.
He hopes to build on this foundation in the iconic No. 21 in 2021.
“I can’t possibly explain to people the emotional rollercoaster of doing this for a living,” DiBenedetto said. “I am very appreciative to do it and love it and I hope I’m driving for this team next year and hope to keep on doing it. We have a lot to build off of. We’re just barely getting started, but, man, it is tough.
“I’m glad we made the playoffs. I’m proud of my team. Tonight shows the fight that we have as a team, rebounding like that. I just hate that we miss the next round and had some not-so-good races, bad luck tonight, you name it, but we’ve got a lot of season left. We still have a lot of positions in points to fight for and we have fast race cars like you see tonight, so we still have a lot of stuff left and hopefully a lot of good things to come.”
And then there was Blaney, who entered the final 10 races as an expected dark horse, after contending for wins throughout the spring and summer.
There was the 10-point penalty prior to the Southern 500 immediately placing them below the cutline. That was compounded by two uncompetitive and mistake plagued races at Darlington and Richmond. After posting an average finish of 14th during the regular season, Blaney could do no better than 24th, 19th and 13th during the first three-race round.
Blaney showed initial speed at the start of the Bristol Night Race, but the pendulum started to swing with every adjustment crew chief Todd Gordon made on the No. 12.
“We started off tight and then that second run we got really tight after the comp caution and lost a lot of track position,” Blaney said. “After that, we kind of were able to drive up through there. We got to fifth or sixth the one time and we were super tight again and it went really long. That just kind of made it worse and we just kind of got behind there.
“The track just swung really tight,” Blaney said. “I was kind of tight all night, but it just swung really tight on us and that was just the wrong direction that the track needed to be at. That stinks. I thought we got our car pretty close there in the second half of the race after the second stage, and then we were on the cycle of pitting and getting laps down and was on old stuff, so it was an unfortunate end for this 12 group, but I’m really proud of the effort this year and we’re not done.
“We can still go and try to win races and try to get fifth in points, so thanks to Advance Auto Parts and Menards and Ford for what they do. We’ve got seven more races. We’ll do our best.”
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