FORT WORTH, Texas — They say everything is “bigger” in Texas and certainly NASCAR‘s Round of 12 Playoff opener at Texas Motor Speedway lived up to the billing. From playoff consequences to a red-flag delay to bumper-banging aggression, tire fall-off and record statistical marks, there was no shortage of competitive drama in Sunday‘s AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500.
Ultimately Richard Childress Racing‘s Tyler Reddick prevailed as race winner — taking the checkered flag by 1.190 seconds over Team Penske‘s Joey Logano in a final 24-lap green-flag run to the finish. It was the 26-year-old Californian’s third career victory and first win on an oval after claiming trophies on two road courses earlier this season.
“We had a lot of issues today, I‘m not going to lie,” Reddick said with a smile, listing a number of setbacks from pit-road mishaps, vibrations in his No. 8 RCR Chevrolet to holding off a hard-charging Logano, who has now taken the NASCAR Cup Series championship lead by 12 points over Trackhouse Racing driver Ross Chastain.
“Every time we‘ve had a strong car we‘ve been bit by something,‘‘ said Reddick, who announced earlier this season he is leaving the RCR team to go to 23XI Racing in 2024.
“This is a tough race, 500 miles here is not an easy feat and I know it wasn‘t easy on you,‘‘ Reddick said motioning toward the grandstands. “So great to win here in a Cup car, been close here a couple times.‘‘
The outcome made it four straight wins for drivers without championship eligibility to open the postseason, denying the 12 remaining playoff drivers an automatic berth into the next round. Reddick had qualified for the 16-driver playoff field but was eliminated after last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. There was still plenty of drama among the playoff 12.
Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, who finished seventh, and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, who finished 10th had a literal “run-in” late in the race. Byron said he felt Hamlin ran him up on track causing his No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet to hit the Turn 2 wall and sustain damage. And in retaliation, he bumped Hamlin‘s No. 11 JGR Toyota during a caution, and that contact ended up sending Hamlin spinning into the infield.
“It was really hard contact,‘‘ the 24-year-old Byron said of the incident that put his car in the wall, adding, “I didn‘t mean to spin him out over there, but obviously I‘m pissed off and not going to get run like that. We‘ve always raced together so well so I don‘t know what it was all about.
“I went to go show my displeasure. Didn‘t mean to hit him and spin him out. … I‘m just not going to get run like that. There‘s really no reason. We were running second and third at the time, I think.‘‘
Hamlin, 41, took exception to the hit, and tapped his Toyota into Byron‘s Chevy multiple times after his infield spin. He still appeared miffed after the race.
“I don‘t think we touched but obviously he sent us through the infield under caution,‘‘ Hamlin said. “I keep hearing these guys and I‘ll just add it to the list, guys that when I get a chance, they‘re going to get it. It just works itself out. We‘ll be racing each other at some point. He‘ll lose a lot of spots because he‘s racing me.
“This is hard racing obviously. I‘m fine with hard racing. But wrecking me under caution is not what we bargained for. I‘m thankful to my FedEx Toyota team for bouncing back.‘‘
It was an action-packed racing afternoon on all levels. There were a record 36 lead changes and a record 16 caution periods — including a 56-minute red flag for rain just after Ryan Blaney claimed the Stage 2 victory.
When the race resumed, the resulting drop in temperatures — factoring in a light rain shower and nightfall — seemed to reinvigorate the racing on track, with side-by-side racing and passes throughout the field and multiple tire issues at the front of the field.
Martin Truex Jr., along with Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott all had tire issues while leading the race.
The 32nd-place finish dropped the 2020 series champion from the points lead coming into Texas to seventh in points — 26 points behind new championship leader Logano, and only four points above the cut-off line heading to Race 2 of this three-race championship round at the always unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway next weekend.
“Something came apart, I could hear it flapping on the right rear, so if it wasn‘t down, it was certainly coming apart,‘‘ Elliott said.
“It‘s not a great position to be in for sure, but it is what it is now. I hate it for our No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet team. We were actually decent here for once, and that was nice while it lasted. We‘ll go to Talladega and try to survive over there, get a win next week and go on down the road.”
Elliott was one of a handful of playoff drivers who had challenging days in Fort Worth. Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Christopher Bell, who came into the race ranked sixth after turning in the best Round 1 playoff showing of any of the 12 championship-eligible drivers. He suffered tire issues that ultimately eliminated him from competition as well.
The incident dropped him to 11th place in the playoff standings, 39 points behind eighth-place Daniel Suarez with eight drivers advancing to the next round of the playoffs.
“Very disappointing weekend and I was feeling optimistic when they dropped the green flag,‘‘ Bell said, adding, “It makes our decision easy on how to play Talladega. We were hoping to come out of here good and be able to ride around and just survive Talladega. We are going to have to race and get some stage points and be up front all day.‘‘
Justin Haley finished third on the day with playoff drivers Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) and Chase Briscoe (Stewart-Haas Racing) rounding out the top five. Erik Jones, Byron, Sunday‘s race pole-sitter Brad Keselowski, reigning series champion Kyle Larson and Hamlin rounded out the top 10.
Byron holds onto the third playoff spot, 13 points behind leader Logano. Larson is fourth (-14), followed by Blaney (-15) and Hamlin (-22). Elliott and Sunday‘s 12th-place finisher Daniel Suárez are seventh and eighth in the playoff standings, both 26 points behind Logano.
Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Bell and Alex Bowman (who finished 29th) round out the top 12, with Bowman 56 points behind leader Logano and 30 points out of the eighth-place position that would advance to the Round of 8.
Cody Ware was treated and released from the infield care center after a hard hit with his No. 51 Ford midway through the 500-miler. His Rick Ware Racing team released a statement saying the 26-year-old driver would return home after the race, and RWR representative Robby Benton said X-rays at the track showed no fractures. Benton added that he had some discomfort in one of his ankles, and that he would follow up with a specialist at Ortho Carolina this week as a precaution.
The race was red-flagged for rain showers and lightning after 220 laps were complete, just before the start of the final stage. That 56-minute delay pushed the finish under the lights.
The second race of this Round of 12 comes next Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in the YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Bubba Wallace is the defending race winner. Chastain won in April at Talladega.
Note: Post-race inspection was completed in the Cup Series garage without issue, confirming Reddick as the race winner.
Contributing: Staff reports