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Playoff Dramatics Continue at Kansas and into Bristol

There are six drivers within 15 points of both sides of the cutoff at Bristol.

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Make that two consecutive playoff races to be won by non-championship-eligible drivers to open the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs … albeit with an asterisk.

With a win at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, Bubba Wallace actually placed the No. 45 into the next round of the owner’s championship, even if the driver himself was eliminated from that championship after Daytona.

That’s because Kurt Busch drove the No. 45 to victory lane earlier this season at Kansas, which placed that car into the owner’s Round of 16 but when a concussion forced the 2004 champion to the sidelines, 23XI Racing moved the No. 23 team to the 45 to chase that championship.

This matters because it’s actually the owner point standings that determines the long-term value of each individual charter as well as the purse payout at the end of every season.

"I remember the conversation that Denny pulled me aside down in Florida, and he goes, 'Hey, we want you to drive the 45 and compete for a championship. We believe in you.' It's 'continue to do what we do,'" Wallace said. "I didn't walk away from that being, like, 'Oh, man, we got to ramp it up here. We've been stellar. We've been really, really good."

Wallace winning at Kansas on Sunday ensure that the 45 will continue to have a chance to win the most money at the end of the season.

"That's what we need to continue to do," Wallace said. "Yeah, it's going to ramp up as we get closer to Phoenix, but right now we're focused on Bristol, and that's it."

Meanwhile, Wallace winning at Kansas also had repercussions for those chasing the driver’s championship, because no one has been able to lock into the next round with a win between this and Erik Jones’ Southern 500 winner.

In fact, only Christopher Bell enters the final race of the Round of 16 already locked into the next round due to reaching 58 points above the cutoff threshold. Literally everyone else could theoretically be eliminated under the right set of circumstances in the Bristol Night Race on Saturday.

1. Christopher Bell (Locked in, +58)
2. William Byron +48
3. Denny Hamlin +47
4. Joey Logano +40
5. Ryan Blaney +36
6. Alex Bowman +30
7. Chase Elliott +28
8. Kyle Larson +27
9. Ross Chastain +26
10. Daniel Suarez +6
11. Tyler Reddick +2
12. Austin Cindric +2
13. Kyle Busch -2
14. Austin Dillon -3
15. Chase Briscoe -9
16. Kevin Harvick -35

Okay, but how did we get here?

For one, one week after suffering a rocker panel fire at Darligton last week, Kevin Harvick found himself in a much deeper playoff hole when he got loose in traffic from inside the top-10 and spun hard into the wall 33 laps into the race.

"When those two cars came up in front of me I just got super tight," Harvick said after leaving the infield care center. "When I lifted it grabbed and got loose. I just wasn’t expecting them to come up and my car getting that tight."

Harvick entered the race last on the playoff grid and 13 points below the cutline to 35 out.

"Yeah, it is what it is," Harvick added. "We were racing to win anyway today, so that is what we will do again next week."

Meanwhile, Tyler Reddick used up all of his two regular season wins and a third-place finish at Darlington with a mulligan as he crashed from the lead near the end of Stage 1, the result of a flat right rear tire.

Harvick finished 36th, dead last, and Reddick right above him.

"The right-rear tire just blew like we’ve had a few times," said Reddick. "At Fontana, I was able to save it. But here, it snapped at the worst possible point and we just killed the wall. It broke the control arm on the right-front, so our day was over. We leave here with not a lot of points, so we’ll have to fight hard at Bristol (Motor Speedway)."

Due to his good performance at Darlington, Reddick actually managed to leave Kansas with a two-point advantage over the cutoff line, which was better than he actually expected.

There was a sentiment that Denny Hamlin might be content to let Wallace win since he is the co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, but the No. 11 team could have used the extra five playoff points at the start of the next round as Hamlin seeks his first Cup Series championship.

Sure, he leaves Kansas 47 points to the good after the runner-up result, but he wasn’t giving the No. 45 the win by any means.

"I nearly wrecked to try to catch him and then I got bad loose and nearly got in the fence," Hamlin said. "I was driving as hard as I could. Nothing will ever come free if you’re driving for me. If you think I’m going to let you win, you better go get another job."

Bell, his teammate, has shown speed throughout various points of the year but has only come away with the one win at New Hampshire to date, and yet is the first to clinch a spot in the next round with finishes of fifth and third to open the playoffs.

"I'm very happy that we're finally getting the results that this team deserves," Bell said. "Our speed has been there all year, and I feel like we've given up a couple good finishes. Last couple of weeks we've been building on it, and hopefully we can keep the ball rolling."

But when considering that Wallace became the 18th different winner this season in 28 races, wins are just hard to come by.

Harvick is realistically the only driver in must-win mode, but there are six drivers within 15 points of both sides of the cutoff, meaning it’s going to be a dogfight for stage points and a good finish at Bristol between Daniel Suarez, Tyler Reddick, Austin Cindric, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe.

Busch looked like a contender early in the race before spinning on Lap 138.

"Just got really loose and it snapped around me," Busch said. "Then I had damage from going through the grass. Kind of ruined the rest of our day, but it was whatever happened on that pit stop that set us backwards to get us back in traffic there. Tried to make an adjustment to the car to make it faster and it did make it faster, but definitely made it looser."

He isn't super confident that Bristol will go any better for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team.

"Not with the luck of this year, nope," Busch said. "We’ll go and try hard and if what Bristol has always been to me occurs, we’ll be fine. With the way this year has been, if that occurs, it’s going to be ugly."

Meanwhile, the likes of Dillon, Cindric, Suarez and Briscoe all had middling runs, and that’s just not going to be enough with just one win’s worth of playoff points entering the first round. But it’s going to be touch and go for all of them at Thunder Valley on Saturday night.

"Bristol is going to be wild and anything can happen," Dillon said. "We’ve given ourselves a good shot. Nobody knows what to expect when we get there, but it’s a long race. If you’re there at the end of the day, you’ve got a good shot to make it."

Who else gave themselves a good shot was no. 1 seeded Chase Elliott, who recovered from a dead last finish in the Southern 500 to finish 11th and take advantage of so many other contenders’ misfortune.

Regardless, only one driver is truly safe next weekend, and William Byron at +48 is keenly aware of the potential perils.

"I’m happy with the finish and thankful for the effort," Byron said. "It looks like we’re plus 48-points going into Bristol, which is a tough track. It’s been a good two weeks in a row. We just need to put three weeks together and we’ll advance."