KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The opening two races of the NASCAR Cup Series postseason have been anything but uneventful. The chaos continued at Kansas Speedway in Sunday‘s Hollywood Casino 400.
It didn‘t take long, either. Kevin Harvick got tight behind Bubba Wallace and Ross Chastain while battling for third on lap 32. The end result was the No. 4 car losing control and smacking the outside wall.
While leading 38 of the opening 67 laps, pole sitter Tyler Reddick blew a left rear tire and pounded the outside wall in Turn 2. Before the opening stage was over, two playoff drivers were guaranteed to finish in the last two positions.
“The [left]-rear tire just blew like we‘ve had a few times,” Reddick said following his incident. “At Fontana, I was able to save it. But here, it snapped at the worst possible point and we just killed the wall. It broke the control arm on the right-front, so our day was over. We leave here with not a lot of points, so we‘ll have to fight hard at Bristol.”
With the events that unfolded, Reddick is still two points above the cutline going into the Round of 16 cutoff race at Bristol.
After Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got into the wall when blowing a right-rear tire from second position, Kyle Busch was trapped behind the No. 47 team on pit road. The No. 18 team had a wheel escape its pit box, with Busch pitting further back in his pit box to avoid the No. 47 crew members working on Stenhouse‘s car.
Busch received an equipment interference penalty, with one of his tires traveling into Todd Gilliland‘s pit box.
“I was going to have to go out and around so I didn‘t run over their legs,” Busch said. “You stop short so you can get yourself an out and that bunches everything backwards.”
At the time of penalty, Busch was running fourth. Restarting in the back of the field, he drove inside the top 20, until he spun out on lap 132. Busch says that came by virtue of an adjustment to make his car looser.
That damage relegated Busch to a 26th-place finish, two laps down. The eight-time Bristol winner is uncertain of his outlook going into one of his best tracks on the schedule.
“If I can have past Bristol results be Bristol results, then yeah, it shouldn‘t be a problem,” Busch stated. “But if I have Bristol results similar to what‘s happened this year, every week, then no, it‘s going to be an uphill battle.”
Busch enters Bristol 13th on the playoff grid, two points behind Reddick and Austin Cindric. The No. 2 car finished 12th at Kansas and hung in the top 15 for the majority of the race. At one point, Cindric was chasing a potential top five when his car fell off late in the race.
Being two points up going into Bristol and racing against Cup veterans doesn‘t intimidate the rookie driver.
“As good of a shot as anybody,” Cindric said of Bristol. “I‘m in right now. That‘s better than out.”
The two other drivers on the outside looking in going into Bristol are Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe. The No. 3 car has avoided any mishaps in the first two playoff races, but doesn‘t have the speed to run with the frontrunners.
Between Darlington and Kansas, Dillon has an average finish of 15.5, but sits just three points out of a transfer spot. He picked up one point at Kansas.
“We fought with the balance on our No. 3 Get Bioethanol Camaro ZL1 all day,” Dillon said. “It’s the same thing we‘ve fought all year, really. We had high hopes because we qualified pretty decent. We fought hard. We kept ourselves in it and we have a shot at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“Bristol is going to be wild and anything can happen. We‘ve given ourselves a good shot at advancing into the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs. Nobody knows what to expect when we get there, but it‘s a long race. If you‘re there at the end of the day, you‘ve got a good shot to make it.”
Chase Briscoe gained a solo point on the playoff cutline at Kansas, too. Despite finishing 25th in the opening stage, the No. 14 team worked on its car and saw it reach the top five. Unfortunately for Briscoe, he wasn‘t able to hang on to that track position and dropped to 13th. He hasn‘t recorded a top-10 finish since the Coca-Cola 600 in late May.
“I feel like that‘s the max I‘ve driven a racecar in my life,” Briscoe said, “just knowing what was on the line and knowing we had done all that work. We didn‘t start the race that well and were able to get our car better and get some good restarts and make ground on pit road. To get to fourth, I feel like we were going to stay in that area. Once we got back to 14th, we were stuck there the rest of the day and couldn‘t make it back up.”
Though Briscoe has just one Cup start on the Bristol concrete, he believes the No. 14 team can make up nine points.
Briscoe added, “It‘s one that I look forward to every year, so we‘ve got to go there and whatever the points are at the end is what they are.”
Aside from the top nine in points, which are all 26 points are more above the cutline, Daniel Suarez is in the next position in 10th, six points up.
While six points is easy to give away at Bristol, the series heads to a track where he has a pair of eighth-place runs. With how the first two races of the 2022 playoffs have gone — and Suarez having a best finish of 10th — an eighth-place result might just get the job done.
“We‘ll have to do good work during the work in simulations on the simulator to try to try to prepare as good as possible,” Suarez said.
With the Cup Series never visiting Bristol on the concrete surface with the Next Gen car, Suarez summed it up perfectly: Nobody knows what to expect for the cutoff race.