FORT WORTH, Texas — Whether it’s Brad Keselowski leading almost every lap only to lose to Jimmie Johnson and not make the Championship 4 or a good old-fashioned donnybrook on pit road with a handful of playoff drivers, Texas Motor Speedway has been at the forefront of postseason theatrics since the inception of the current format in 2014.
Sunday was no different as an array of results accumulated across the 12 drivers still eligible to win the Cup Series championship.
William Byron was the ultimate benefactor of the day, nabbing his sixth win of 2023, the 300th for Hendrick Motorsports all-time, and securing his spot in the Round of 8. However, it wasn’t a straightforward day for the No. 24 team as the group struggled in the first half of the race.
“I think it was kind of one of those days that I knew it would be a grind from start to finish,” Byron said. “Just honestly, we had kind of advanced forward quicker than maybe I expected and got the Stage 1 points and felt good about that, and then just the sequence in Stage 2, I just made a mistake and pitted there, and [crew chief] Rudy [Fugle] made the right call, and we restarted 25th or wherever we were. It was just really hard to go forward after that.”
Kyle Busch was the first to fall victim to Texas woes as he spun and crashed late in Stage 1 trying to manage his right-front tire to the Lap 80 green-white-checkered flag. Leaving the Lone Star State with just one point gained, the two-time Cup champion now sits last in the 12-driver field, 17 points below the elimination line after entering the Round of 12 eight points above.
RELATED: Busch crashes in Stage 1
“It felt really good when we came off of pit road after that green-flag stop,” Busch said. “The car had good grip in it. We had those couple of yellows back-to-back and we restarted on the outside. I felt like I had a flat right-front [tire] and I was going to come to pit road. I second-guessed it and said ‘I don‘t think so, man. It‘s just something is wrong… something isn‘t right, but it‘s not a flat.’ And just all on its own, just turned into the bottom of the race track in Turn 1 and it just swapped ends on me. That‘s the rear, not the front, not having grip, so I just don‘t know.”
Regular Season Champion Martin Truex Jr. had another difficult playoff outing with a 17th-place result and no stage points.
At the end of Stage 1, he was spun in a chain-reaction incident as fellow playoff driver Brad Keselowski hit the back of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Truex has yet to score a top-15 finish through four races in the playoffs and only holds a 19-point advantage above the Round of 12 elimination line heading to a less-than-favorable track for him at Talladega, followed by the round-closing Charlotte road course where he’s had mixed results.
Truex’s JGR teammate Denny Hamlin had an eventful day on pit road. The No. 11 Toyota was hit on the right side by rookie teammate Ty Gibbs on a stop in Stage 1 that resulted in the No. 54 going behind the wall. Hamlin continued on with significant right-side damage to pull out his third consecutive top-five finish.
“I swung out there to avoid hitting him [No. 2 tire changer]. Obviously we were three-wide with the 54 so as you can see, there’s not much room here [on pit road],” Hamlin said. “This pit lane is not very wide so one car coming out and a car two-wide, you’re going to have contact.”
Christopher Bell earned a fourth-place finish to put himself 20 points above the elimination line before Talladega and the Roval but lamented the overall performance of the No. 20 team on Sunday.
“We had to overcome a slow performance, that is for sure. We got away with one today,” Bell said. “We didn‘t have the pace to run fourth for sure. The restarts worked out in our favor, and we were able to sneak by on the bottom and get a good finish out of it. This is one of those days that I‘m going to be really, really happy on Wednesday or Thursday, but right now, I‘m pretty disappointed because the performance wasn‘t there.”
The biggest playoff drama on the day occurred in the closing laps as Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney all had individual woes.
Larson and Wallace dominated most of the day, combining to lead 201 of the 267 lap-event, but a hotly-contested fight for the lead on a restart with 20 laps to go sealed Larson’s fate as the No. 5 spun on the inside of Wallace, hitting the outside wall in Turns 1 and 2. A 12-point advantage for the 2021 champion is now just two above the elimination line, and in an odd bit of coincidence, it’s Wallace who is lurking just behind as the first driver outside of the Round of 8.
It looked as though Wallace was the clear favorite to take the checkered flag, but a tight battle for the top spot with Chase Briscoe opened the door for Byron to sneak on the inside of both to make it three-wide and take the lead off Turn 4 on the final restart. Wallace settled for a third-place finish, which marks a season-high for the No. 23 23XI Racing driver.
A winner at all Round of 12 tracks, Blaney had a day he’d like to quickly move on from, but he took advantage of pit strategy to score vital points in the first two stages after finding himself outside the top 20. Once again finding himself toward the back of the field on the penultimate restart, the No. 12’s luck ran out as it was collected in a multicar incident down the frontstretch that also included Truex, AJ Allmendinger, Erik Jones and Blaney’s Team Penske teammate Austin Cindric.
More postseason shake-ups are expected next Sunday as the Cup Series heads to Talladega (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App).