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Busch rallies after early damage, blames lapped drivers for late contact

LAS VEGAS — Kyle Busch had rallied into contention for a top-five result in Sunday’s NASCAR Playoffs opener until two late-race encounters with lapped drivers Joey Gase and Garrett Smithley thwarted his momentum at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Busch’s impassioned post-race criticism was met with grumbles in return from Gase and Smithley in a disagreement involving drivers for teams at opposite ends of the Monster Energy Series garage.

Busch, the regular-season champion, opened the playoffs with a 19th-place finish in Sunday’s South Point 400, an outcome that chopped into his playoff-point buffer in the Round of 16. Post-race, he lashed out at the two drivers’ credentials and their difficulties in yielding to his faster No. 18 Toyota.

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“I don’t know. I was told he was going to go high. I thought he was going to go high, he went middle because I thought he was going to go high, and killed our day,” Busch told NBC Sports. He was scored one lap down at the finish. “I don’t know. I should’ve run fourth probably, but instead 19th. I don’t know. We’re the top echelon of motorsports and we’ve got guys that have never won Late Model races running out here on the race track. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. So, what else do you do?”

As Busch stormed off, Gase and Smithley gave their views after debriefing with their smaller-budget teams. Smithley placed 35th, 12 laps off the pace in the Rick Ware Racing No. 52 Ford. Gase wound up 38th in the 39-car field, 18 laps down in the MBM Motorsports No. 66 Toyota.

Smithley’s No. 52 was the first to find Busch’s bumper.

“The spotter said that the leaders were coming and he said go to the top side, so we went to the top side and I was committed to that lane,” Smithley told NASCAR.com. “I mean, they’re supposed to go around us. I should’ve just stayed on the bottom, really. I shouldn’t have listened to the spotter, honestly. He did a good job all day long until he told us to go up there, so I don’t know. It is what it is.”

Gase’s encounter came a handful of laps later, as his car and Busch’s squeezed together exiting the fourth turn.

“I mean, as a lapped car you’ve just got to pick which groove you’re going to stay in because you can’t constantly switch for everybody, and I was just staying on high side the whole time and then he just decided to run in the back of me,” Gase told NASCAR.com. “I don’t know. Everyone else figured it out.”

Gase and Smithley are both Xfinity Series veterans. The 26-year-old Gase has made 38 premier-series starts, including eight this season, and has 233 Xfinity starts since 2011. Smithley, 27, made his 11th Cup Series start Sunday and has competed full-time in the Xfinity Series since 2016.

Their two teams were parked next to each other in the Las Vegas garage, at the far opposite end of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing hauler in the parking pecking order. Asked to respond to Busch’s critiques, both drivers acknowledged they were doing all they could with their equipment.

“He’s never been in the position we’ve been in, so he doesn’t know how that goes,” Smithley said. “That’s the way I see it.”

Said Gase: “Any day if he wants to switch cars, I’d be happy to.”