The same four drivers who entered Bristol Motor Speedway on the outside of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs’ safety zone left without making season-saving moves above the cutline.
Clint Bowyer was the benefactor as the last driver to qualify for the postseason’s Round of 12 on the basis of points. That left four drivers eliminated — rookie Cole Custer, William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto — from championship contention with seven races left in the season.
Bowyer advanced after notching a sixth-place result in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race, marking a season-best string of three straight top-10 finishes to open the playoffs.
“I mean, I just feel comfortable we’re getting back to our consistency,” Bowyer said. “I guess for a long time in my career I was kind of Steady Eddy, and that’s what it takes in these playoffs. To go the rounds, you can’t make mistakes. I said that going into these playoffs. For our team, we’ve got to live up to our capabilities, and if we can do that and race to our capabilities and not make the mistakes we were making through the summer months, we can contend and move forward rounds in this playoff system, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Others vying to make up points deficits were less fortunate. Byron’s demise was the most spectacular as his Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet became crossed up with Christopher Bell and Joey Gase just before the end of Stage 2. Byron retired after 232 of the 500 laps with a 38th-place night.
The other three drivers eliminated hurt their cause by finishing outside the top 10 — both at the checkered flag and when points were paid out at each stage.
Blaney fared the best of the ousted drivers with an unlucky 13th-place outcome. The Talladega Superspeedway winner from earlier this year had issued a warning he’d be aggressive if given the chance Saturday night, but the speed he flashed in the early segments of the season eluded him at Bristol.
“I’m upset about it,” Blaney said. “I don’t want to be knocked out with seven races to go and not be able to run for a championship. I’m not very excited about that, but there’s a lot of things we could have cleaned up as a group together, myself included, and we just didn’t perform. We didn’t perform in the first round like we needed to to transfer and that’s something you’ll have. We just needed to step up and we just had too many issues, but we still have seven races left. We’ll try to win one or two of them and try to get fifth in points. We’ve still got that, so there’s still a goal that you’re trying to go to.
“Yeah, it sucks that you’re not able to run for it, but I’m just disappointed — not really disappointed. It’s kind of hard to put into words. I wish we all had a better three races as a team. I know this team can have great races and it’s a shame we missed that a little bit.”
DiBenedetto rallied from an unscheduled pit stop early but ended the day in 19th — which wound up being his average finish for the three races in the postseason’s opening round.
“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.”
Custer, who made the playoffs on the strength of a first-time win at Kentucky Speedway, finished with a crinkle of damage to the nose of his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in 23rd place.
“We’ve accomplished a lot of our goals,” Custer said. “I mean, to go from where we started and be able to be competitive now. Obviously, tonight we were off a little bit, but for the most part we could run pretty competitively and I think that was one of our goals by the end of the year and then also to make the playoffs and to have a win by now, and to win Rookie of the Year. There are a lot of things that we can hold our head high on, but at the same time as a competitor I’m not happy about getting knocked out in the first round and really struggling tonight, but we’ll keep working at it and that’s part of it. We’ll just keep trying things and keep grinding away at it.”