If you had tuned in to watch the opening stage of Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, you probably wrote off any chance of Chase Briscoe ending the afternoon in a solid position.
After starting from 16th, Briscoe would quickly tumble down the running order when the green flag was displayed, having dropped more than 10 positions by the conclusion of the race’s first 20 laps.
Things continued to progress in a negative manner, as Briscoe found himself running a dismal 31st-place after a round of green-flag pit stops was completed halfway through the race’s first stage, which lasted 80 laps.
At that point in the event, things were looking extremely bleak for Stewart-Haas Racing’s sole remaining entry in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, with Briscoe having fallen one lap behind the pace of race-leader Bubba Wallace late in the stage.
Perhaps the luckiest break in his short NASCAR Cup Series career came at lap 76 when Kyle Busch lost control of his No. 18 Toyota Camry in turn four and spun around from a position inside the top-10.
The incident drew the first yellow of the afternoon, allowing Briscoe to utilize the free pass to return to the lead lap, thus saving the championship-eligible driver from being trapped a lap behind the leaders.
Luckily for Briscoe, Stewart-Haas Racing, and everyone involved in the championship run for the No. 14 Ford Mustang, it was at this point in the race that things started to head in the right direction.
For the race’s next 20-lap stint, Briscoe remained 25th, but was able to catch an additional caution flag before the field returned to the spread-out composition that it had carried throughout Stage 1.
After a couple of quicker cautions and wild restarts, the biggest journey of the event began for Briscoe, trying to claw his Code 3 Associates entry up the running order, to obtain track position inside the top-15, and eventually better.
Stealthily, Briscoe would restart the race inside the top-15 with less than 100 laps to go, a result of gaining track position over the course of a 60-lap green flag run in the second stage, as well as a masterful pit stop by his crew.
Continuing to make adjustments on the No. 14, Briscoe would hover around ninth to 12th in the first half of the final stage, before an increase in cautions – and restarts – would help him make strong moves to climb up the running order.
Then, with less than 40 to go, another incredible pit stop, as well as a near-miss on a restart at the front of the field, allowed Briscoe to maneuver his way into the runner-up position at lap 233.
However, it was another intense restart that provided Briscoe the opportunity to get to the outside of Justin Haley for the lead, just managing to clear the No. 31 before another caution was displayed.
Then, 163 laps after receiving the free pass, Chase Briscoe was officially the leader of the South Point 400, in which a victory would find him granted a berth into the ‘Championship Four’ in his first NASCAR Cup Series Playoff appearance.
Alas, the final restart of the race wasn’t as kind to Briscoe as the previous restarts had been, almost immediately losing the lead to Ross Chastain, before slipping back into the clutches of eventual winner Joey Logano, as well as Kyle Busch.
However, a fourth-place finish, considering the No. 14 was running outside the top-30 on merit in the early portions of the event, must feel like a victory for the team, even if it doesn’t ensure their advancement to the ‘Championship Four’.
“We weren’t the greatest at the start of the race and, obviously, it didn’t really matter there at the end,” said Chase Briscoe in a team release. “We put ourselves in position and, when I was running second and Justin [Haley] was in the lead, I wish that run would’ve gone to the end.”
The complete 180-degree pivot from struggling to stay on the lead lap, to legitimately fighting for the victory in the closing laps of a 400-mile event, is a prime example of why it’s important to never give up, no matter how bad things seem.
“I feel like I was probably going to get by him in the next five laps. We had such a big gap compared to everyone else. Nobody else had tires. We were all on equal tires. On that last restart, I just didn’t get the job done. [Haley] stalled me out and less Ross [Chastain] put us three wide, which put me in a really bad spot into [turn] three. When you give up the lead, you’re kind of just stuck.”
The caution that ultimately hindered what Briscoe concedes was a legitimate chance at the victory was triggered by an accident at the rear of the pack, when something punctured the grill of Landon Cassill’s No. 77, sending him spinning in turn three.
“Who knows? Those guys were coming on tires and I doubt I would’ve been able to hold them off, but I would’ve felt better about it if I had the opportunity. We kept ourselves in the ballgame and still have a lot of work to do, but we still have a chance. We’re running the best we have all year long, and that is about all you can ask for.”
Briscoe’s season has truly seemed to turn around in the last month or so, recording four consecutive top-10 finishes at Texas (5th), Talladega (10th), Charlotte’s ROVAL (9th), and now Las Vegas (4th).
Prior to this four-race streak of top-10 results, Briscoe had only scored four top-10 finishes throughout the first 29 races of the NASCAR Cup Series season, a large driving force behind the surprise of Briscoe advancing to the ‘Round of 8’.
Now, heading to what he considers his favorite track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, Briscoe sits a very manageable nine points below the cutline, a gap that could be mowed down with the help of stage points and another top-10 finish.
So really, who knows? The way Briscoe and Stewart-Haas Racing have picked up the pieces of a dismal season, we could maybe see the No. 14 sneak into the ‘Championship Four’ at Phoenix, the track where they triumphed earlier in the year.