A relatively smooth sail for NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs hopefuls unraveled into late-race bedlam Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
The postseason picture made some significant shuffles after Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500, won in dominant fashion by Kyle Larson — who had the most trouble-free day among the eight remaining title contenders. One by one, other challengers found trouble in the final 40 laps.
Joey Logano was the first among the flummoxed, his No. 22 Team Penske Ford erupting in a plume of smoke that sidelined him after 298 of the 334 laps. Denny Hamlin was next, with a prolonged spin and nudge of the backstretch wall; another wreck hurt the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota more, but he placed 11th. And Martin Truex Jr.’s hard Turn 4 hit rounded out the heartache, his No. 19 JGR Toyota ending the day 14 laps shy of the finish.
Logano wound up 30th, taking some solace that engine failure hasn’t sidelined him often; indeed, Sunday marked his first engine-related DNF since June 2014 at Pocono Raceway. He entered the day seventh in the standings, just 11 points back of the provisional elimination line. He left the Round of 8 opener last in the playoff rankings, 43 points behind the cut.
“I thought it was starting to maybe give up a little bit of power in that run,” Logano said after his early exit. “We were just getting passed. Not really, though. It just kind of let go. It is one of those days when nothing went right. The strategy didn‘t go the way we wanted it to early in the race. Cautions didn‘t fall the way we hoped they would and every time we started fighting our way back something happened, and we ended up like this. Now we know what we have to do these next two weeks. We better go find a way to win.”
That caution period for clean-up touched off a series of late-race restarts. Larson held the lead at each reset, but some of his fellow playoff contenders were less fortunate.
Truex’s tumble was precipitous after a bump from Daniel Suarez’s No. 99 Chevrolet sent him on a trajectory to the outside retaining wall in Turn 4. He finished 25th, dropping from third in the standings (plus-6 on the provisional elimination line) to seventh (minus-22).
“I got loose and when I gathered it up …,” Truex said, just before seeing the replay that revealed the slight contact from Suarez. “Yeah, we touched for sure. It’s really fast right there and yeah, hit the splitter and went straight to the fence. Tough spot to have contact like that. I don‘t know. It is what it is.”
MORE: At-track photos: Texas
Chase Elliott remained below the elimination line, his car dogged by a recurring vibration issue. He had rallied into the hunt after dropping to the rear of the field at the start after his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection twice. He came back to finish seventh and sits eight points back of the provisional elimination line.
Hamlin had breezed to victory in the other round-opening races during this year’s playoffs, but Sunday was a Texas-sized struggle. A scrape with fellow playoff driver Ryan Blaney with 23 laps left caused a tire rub on the No. 11 Toyota. That turned into a lengthy slide and nose-in contact with the inside wall two laps later.
Two cautions later, Hamlin endured heavier front damage in an incident with Chase Briscoe and Chris Buescher, but somehow limped home to a lead-lap result. Despite the late-race turbulence, Hamlin’s playoff fate was actually aided by attrition from an earlier 12-car melee and the pitfalls that snared the rest of the playoff field.
Hamlin left Sunday’s 500-miler aiming for a less bumpy ride in the NASCAR Cup Series’ next race, scheduled next Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) at Kansas Speedway.
“It‘s insane. I think we ended up gaining a point over the cut, somehow,” Hamlin said. “I don‘t know. It‘s just a crazy day. The way these cars race where we are packed up for a couple laps, you just never know. It‘s going to be the same way at Kansas. Hopefully we bring a fast piece there and we can go there and compete for a win.”