Entering Saturday night’s Round of 16 NASCAR Cup Series cutoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway, it looked like William Byron was going to need a Hail Mary to advance to the next round.
Turns out, that wasn’t the case.
Byron entered the 500-lap race with an 18-point deficit to the cutline. Immediately ahead of the No. 24 team ranked Aric Almirola (+21 on Byron), Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman (+18) and Tyler Reddick (+13).
Despite picking up just one stage point in the opening stage, Byron earned seven big points in stage two, giving him eight stage points for the night. Compare that to zero for Almirola, Bowman and Busch, and just two for Reddick, slight advantage goes to the No. 24 car.
But during the final run to the finish, Byron remained in the top five. Meanwhile, Busch, the six-time winner at Bristol finished 19th — about where he was running all race long. Bowman was able to sneak into the top five, enough to advance to the Round of 12. But Reddick placed 12th in the final rundown while Almirola faded to 18th.
In the end, Byron made up 20 points on the cutline, making it into the Round of 12 by two points over Reddick and Almirola.
“I don’t think I breathed for 100 laps,” Byron said with a relief. “It was trying to go as hard as you could. … I was trying to make as much speed as we could and felt like that’s what our car had. We tried to hold off the [No.] 12 and drive it as hard as you can.
“That’s a pretty awesome moment that we could pull through. Being 18 points out coming into this race and finish third and advance is pretty amazing.”
At points in the race, both Reddick and Busch were trapped one lap down. Despite finishing ninth in the second stage, the No. 8 Chevrolet had to return to pit road for a second time during the stage break to secure loose lug nuts on the right rear tire.
Just over 100 laps later, Reddick was off the lead lap. While still managing a 12th-place finish, the two-time Xfinity Series champion doesn’t believe it was an average run at Bristol that kept him out of the Round of 12.
“We certainly gave up more than two spots over the course of this first round,” he said. “Darlington, getting stuck down a lap at Richmond. Not just one key opportunity, but there was a number that was the difference.
“The situation tonight, doesn’t really stick out as the one that makes it sting. It was just unfortunate getting to the Playoffs, we don’t really have the pace that we had to just point our way into the Playoffs leaderboard. Missed it by two. Have the races we did. It kind of all adds up.”
Almirola entered the race three points to the good and confident in Stewart-Haas Racing’s 750 horsepower package. After all, the No. 10 Ford made the playoffs solely by winning a 750 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Towards the end of the opening stage, though, Almirola’s car began to smoke. It continued smoking into the second stage, and the No. 10 team was saved by a caution where he was black flagged. Ultimately, crew members went under the hood and replace an oil line that had a leak.
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Aric Almirola gets black flagged and hits pit road with smoke pouring out from his car. pic.twitter.com/gTgjZw5Eqe
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 19, 2021
With over 100 laps to go, Almirola looked to be in a solid points position, at times having upwards of 15 ahead on the bubble. But with a couple of bad restarts, the No. 10 was tracking backwards. And then a loss of grip settled him into 18th position. Come lap 500, the No. 10 Ford was scored 18th.
Almirola said after the race, “Disappointed to have it end like that just because we had battled so much adversity throughout the night, got into a position where we were running top 10, doing what we were needing to do.
“That caution came out at the end where we had 18 laps on our tires. We stayed out. For whatever reason when we fired off on those tires, the car was up on the top of the racetrack skating. Wouldn’t turn. Struggling.
“That’s not the way we wanted it to end.”
By squeaking into the Round of 12, Byron proves to be a tough out. The schedule heads to some of his best types of tracks: Las Vegas (won on a mile-and-a-half earlier this year at Homestead), Talladega (almost always a frontrunner on superspeedways, including his first Cup win at Daytona) and the Charlotte ROVAL (consistent on road courses).
Byron knows that he runs well on the wild card type of tracks, too.
“I think we’re going to some really good tracks,” he said. “I feel like we just had to get through this round. We had a really unfortunate start to it and made up for it tonight.”
On Saturday night, Byron escaped a first round exit for the third year in a row. That can be scary for the competition, as the No. 24 team showed earlier this year it can be consistent for a long period of time (at one point had 11 consecutive top-10 finishes).