Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – In the minutes and hours following the checkered flag in Sunday’s first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff elimination race of 2019, drivers were simultaneously celebratory, stunned or simply relieved – depending on their fate – in an action-packed Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.
Chase Elliott earned his third victory of the year in an amazing comeback story – motoring to the trophy even after barreling into the Turn 1 wall mid-race while leading the field on a restart. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman finished second – a substantial 3.024-seconds behind, but good enough to earn the 12th and final Playoff transfer position.
As Elliott celebrated with confetti and champagne in victory circle, Bowman slumped by the side of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, dehydrated and exhausted – physically and mentally – after an unusually hot and stressful day in the car. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates left the track – Bowman after a trip to the infield care center – representing both ends of the day’s upside.
Bowman started from the rear of the field after having to switch to a back-up No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and had trials throughout an afternoon that concluded with an inspired run right up the field – overtaking Sunday frontrunners from Kevin Harvick to Clint Bowyer and William Byron all in the final few laps.
“Glad we were able to rebound and the guys obviously gave me a really strong car to come back through the field,’’ Bowman said after his trip to the care center.
“There at the end, just cautions were rough. Under green, it kind of is what it is; you’re doing your job. But under caution when you actually have time to think about how you feel, it’s not much fun.’’
The result – his first trip to the second round of the Playoffs – will undoubtedly assuage the tough day.
Farther down pit road from Bowman, Ryan Newman crouched by his No. 6 Roush-Fenway Ford, his young daughter caringly offering cold water for him to drink. His head bowed by a combination of the heat and emotion as he came so close to advancing in the Playoffs. He was initially shown to be an excruciating single point behind Bowman in the standings upon finishing the race. But he was penalized 30 seconds post-race for failing to serve a penalty for missing a chicane while racing feverishly on the next-to-last lap, and it dropped him to 14th place in the standings – 16 points outside the cutoff.
“I felt like I made a lot mistakes trying too hard,’’ said Newman, driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
“We did not have the race car and that’s what I had to do. I felt like we were in position at one point and then just kept trying too hard trying to keep the 10-car (Almirola) behind us and missed the curbs.
“We came in at a big deficiency, finished one point out or whatever it was, but no matter what, we’re still gonna fight for fifth [in the championship standings]. I’m proud of everybody at Roush Fenway for the fight and the opportunity that they’ve given me. We’re not done, we’re just out at this point.’’
In the end, it was Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones who were eliminated from Playoff competition. Almirola and Newman were above the cutline entering the race, but exchanged places with SHR’s Clint Bowyer and Bowman, who on Sunday raced to positions inside the Playoff top 12.
“We can’t let this define us,’’ said Almirola, who finished five points shy of advancing to the Round of 12. “Last year, it seemed like everything kind of came relatively easy for a new race team and me being new to the organization to go on the run that we had last year and finish fifth in the points.
“We’ll continue to build and sometimes you go through adversity and it makes you better and stronger.’’
Bowman’s stressful entry into second round of the Playoffs may be abated by the positive vibes these three venues offer him. He was runner-up in consecutive races at all three of the upcoming Playoff tracks in Dover International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway earlier this season – a career-best string of finishes for him at the time.
Earlier this season, those races at the next Playoff venues were all won by current Playoff drivers. Elliott won at Talladega at the end of April, leading his teammate Bowman across the line. Martin Truex Jr. edged Bowman at Dover the next weekend to kick off May. And Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski won at Kansas the following week, edging Bowman, Erik Jones, Elliott and Bowyer.
And Elliott won two of these races in last year’s Playoff round, visiting Victory Lane at Dover and Kansas.
The points reset heading to Dover for the Drydene 400 (Sunday, Oct. 6 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has regular season champion Kyle Busch – who had a frustrating 37th-place finish at the ROVAL – bounce back to the top of the standings by only a five-point edge over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Truex.
In the tightest grouping to start this Playoff round, Busch and Truex’s JGR teammate Denny Hamlin is third, 16 points behind Busch. Reigning Monster Energy Series champion Joey Logano is fourth, 17 points back, and Harvick is 18 points back.
Larson, who was 13th Sunday at the ROVAL is now ranked eighth in the championship. And Bowman – who barely made the Playoff group – jumps from the brink of elimination to being ranked ninth. Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Bowyer, who also raced his way into contention, round out the top 12.
The last four Dover race winners were all won by current Playoff drivers – Kyle Busch (Fall, 2017), Harvick (Spring, 2018), Elliott (Fall, 2018) and Truex earlier this year.