Kyle Larson’s Saturday (Sept. 18) night consisted of burning his tires down on the frontstretch at Bristol Motor Speedway.
For 11 of his fellow competitors, it was time to move on to the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
McDowell and Reddick both qualified for their first playoffs in 2021, McDowell by virtue of his upset win in the Daytona 500 in February and Reddick on points. The former suffered a crash in the playoff opener at Darlington Raceway, followed by a three-penalty night at Richmond Raceway, while Reddick finished 18th and 15th in the first two races and never quite found the speed he needed.
They gave it their all tonight. Unfortunately, without power steering, @Mc_Driver had his work cut out for him.
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) September 19, 2021
Busch, meanwhile, won at Atlanta Motor Speedway to lock himself into the playoffs and to be on the right track with a sixth-place finish at Darlington. That was followed by a massive crash at Richmond, where his No. 1 Chevrolet lost a left-rear tire, smacked the wall driver’s-side first and relegated him to a dead-last finish.
The point deficit heading to Bristol was apparently not as much of a concern to Busch as it could’ve been, especially at a track where he’s won six times in Cup.
“For us, after a flat tire like that last week, I just thought we were done and we were gonna be -20,” Busch said before Saturday’s race. “So it’s like we’re [rejuvenated]. We’re ready to go.”
McDowell had been consistent at points during the season and recorded the best year, stats-wise, of his career.
“Why not us? The races the last two nights have been awesome,” he said prior to the cars rolling off pit road. “[…] When it gets crazy, [let’s try to] sneak a win out of here.”
Reddick never ran into any huge issues during the first round, but suffered elimination all the same after subpar runs. He finished 12th at Bristol and missed by two points.
“Unfortunately, we certainly gave up more than two spots over the course of this first round,” Reddick said. “[…] One situation, the situation tonight, doesn’t really stick out as the one that makes it sting. It was just unfortunate getting to the playoffs, we don’t really have the pace that we had to just point our way into the playoffs leaderboard.
“Winners never quit,” he added. “Hopefully one day the right break will come our way. We continue to learn and get better even though we didn’t make it through to the Round of 12 […] we were able to pick up on some things that are going to help us when we come back here next year or go to another track.”
Almirola nearly had a comeback for the ages. The No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing entry started smoking badly before midway and had to trundle down pit road a number of times, the crew alternating between diagnosing the issue and keeping their driver on the lead lap and in contention for a spot in the Round of 12. It turned out to be a faulty oil line.
“It was frustrating,” Almirola said after the race. “Disappointed to have it end like that just because we had battled so much adversity throughout the night, got into a position where we were running top 10, doing what we were needing to do.
“That’s not the way we wanted it to end. But we’ll keep going and battle it out the rest of the playoffs and see if we can’t finish inside the top 10 in points.”
Despite that setback, Almirola had battled back inside the top 10 relatively quickly, but began to fall off as the race wore on and finished 18th.
“Just frustrated,” he said. “Our season as a whole was not what we wanted. We went to Loudon and pulled out a win, which was awesome, then just kind of had a renewed sense of energy going into the playoffs. Thought we were going to do everything we needed to do in this first round to transfer to the next round. Unfortunately didn’t pan out.”
2021 marked Almirola’s fifth playoff appearance.
“Can’t blame it on tonight,” he added. “There [were] plenty of opportunities throughout the first two races where we gave up some points as well.
“[…] Just frustrated.”
Four more drivers will be eliminated after the Bank of America ROVAL 400 on Sunday, Oct. 10 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, but before then the series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week and Talladega Superspeedway the next.
The South Point 400 kick off Sunday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
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