CONCORD, N.C. — Road course aficionado AJ Allmendinger stole some thunder from the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff drivers with a convincing victory in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.
Driving the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, Allmendinger led twice for a race-high 46 laps, including the last 33, and beat runner-up William Byron to the finish line by 0.666 seconds to win his first Cup race of the season, his first at the Charlotte road course and the third of his Cup Series career — all on road courses.
Kyle Busch finished third at the 2.32-mile, 17-turn circuit, two spots short of the win he needed to advance to the playoffs’ Round of 8. Joining Busch on the playoff elimination list were Ross Chastain (who finished 10th), Bubba Wallace (16th) and Brad Keselowski (18th).
Allmendinger took the lead for the final time when Ryan Blaney pitted from the top spot on Lap 77 under caution for a wreck in the frontstretch chicane involving Denny Hamlin, Ty Dillon and Mike Rockenfeller.
The 41-year-old veteran from Los Gatos, California, survived four more cautions and four more restarts before he completed what he termed “the drive of my life.”
Allmendinger was weeping during the cool-down lap and teared up in his post-race interview.
“I hate crying right now, but it’s a freaking Cup race, man,” he said. “You don’t know when it’s ever going to happen again …
“This is why you do it. This is the only reason you do it. You fight. All the blood, sweat, tears, everybody at Kaulig Racing has just been such … I’d say a down year, but up-and-down year. It’s our second year in the Cup Series.”
Byron and Ryan Blaney already had advanced to the Round of 8 in the playoffs by virtue of their respective victories at Texas and Talladega.
Joining them in the next round starting next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway are Tyler Reddick (who ran sixth from the pole on Sunday), Denny Hamlin (37th), Christopher Bell (15th), Chris Buescher (seventh), Kyle Larson (who started from the rear in a backup car and finished 13th) and Martin Truex Jr. (20th).
The regular-season champion, Truex, claimed the final berth in the Round of 8 by 12 points over Chastain, the first driver out.
Ill fortune that befell Chase Elliott near the end of Stage 2 facilitated Allmendinger’s victory. Just as Elliott, the race leader, was approaching pit road to “short” the stage, Josh Bilicki’s crash in Turn 4 caused the second of seven cautions and forced NASCAR to close pit road.
Elliott steered back to the racing surface and won the stage but lost critical track position after pitting during the stage break and never regained it. He finished ninth behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.
Rookie Ty Gibbs came home fourth, followed by Joey Logano.
After a strong run from start to finish, Busch was philosophical about his exit from the playoffs.
“The guys gave me a great piece today,” he said. “The Lenovo Camaro was pretty fast, just lacked a little bit on the long run, just didn’t quite have the feel of the tire that I was really looking for to be able to turn into the corners and to be able to drive out of the corners and keep pace with the front two there at the end.
“But overall, this rides on me anyways. The first two weeks of this round were obviously not very good, and we didn’t score any points. That’s where it’s at. That’s where it lies. Texas, Talladega, just not being able to execute and do a good job when points were on the line.”
SHOP: Winner’s gear
The Cup Series’ next race is the South Point 400, scheduled next Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The event will open the three-race Round of 8, which will determine the four drivers who advance to vie for the championship in the season finale Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway.
Notes: Post-race inspection in the Cup Series garage was completed without issue, affirming Allmendinger’s win. … Allmendinger became the Cup Series’ 15th driver to score a victory this season. … Byron placed first, second and second in the Round of 12 races, an average finish of 1.67.
Contributing: Staff reports