Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Bristol Marked the End of Championship Hopes for Harvick, Logano, Stenhouse, and McDowell

Kevin Harvick eliminated from NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Bristol Motor Speedway Bass Pro Shops Night Race
Kevin Harvick suffered what he felt was the worst performance of his NASCAR Cup Series career as his championship hopes ended Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. Photo Credit: Jonathan McCoy, Racing America.

Four points. That’s how close Kevin Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang, was to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 12 Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway. However, as Harvick heads toward retirement from NASCAR Cup Series competition at the end of the season, his last championship bid has officially come to an early end.

Harvick’s car was ill-handling for the majority of the Bass Pro Shops Night Race, and the 47-year-old struggled mightily on his path to a 29th-place finish, five laps off the pace.

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It’s an unfitting end for Harvick. And for the legendary racer, Saturday’s race was one of the most frustrating of his 819 starts in NASCAR Cup Series competition.

“I’ve had some good days and bad days, but that’s definitely the worst one I’ve had with fenders on it,” Harvick stated with a sad, and dejected tone.

While he didn’t advance to the Round of 12 in the Playoffs, Harvick still has plenty to race for, as he has had stretches of the season, where he’s been close to reaching victory lane. He won’t go out with a championship, but Harvick could still go out as a winner.

Logano Becomes First Defending Champion to be Bounced From Opening Round of Playoffs

Joey Logano eliminated from NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs
After being swept up in a multi-car accident on Lap 262, Joey Logano saw his hopes of defending his 2022 NASCAR Cup Series championship come to an end at Bristol. Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, Racing America

It was apparent all season long that Joey Logano and the No. 22 Team Penske organization just didn’t have the same speed they had down the stretch a season ago when Logano scored his second NASCAR Cup Series championship.

But the 33-year-old racer looked to be heading toward advancing to the Round of 12 of the Playoffs Saturday at Bristol. That is until all hell broke loose on Lap 262.

As Logano was minding his own business, and was sitting six points above the cutline, when trouble broke out ahead of him.

Corey LaJoie got stacked up behind Erik Jones, and LaJoie couldn’t keep ahold of his No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet. LaJoie would spin, and then slam into the inside wall, which would send him careening across the track. The rear of LaJoie’s car would slam into the left rear wheel of Logano’s car.

The damage was massive, and Logano was done for the night. As the race played out, Logano wound up four points shy of advancing to the next round of the Playoffs. By failing to advance, Logano becomes the first defending series champion to be eliminated in the opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

While the crash was a big disappointment, Logano says it was a by-product of the more overarching issue with his team this season.

“Speed,” Logano said when asked what his team was missing this season. “Just a lot of things.”

Logano continued by saying, “It’s what happens. You don’t go fast enough, you’re in the back and they wreck in front of you at Bristol on a restart and you’re going so fast that you can’t whoa up or turn or do anything and you get kind of pile drove into the wreck. It’s our own fault.”

The Ford Mustang, which is the lone car in the NASCAR Cup Series that didn’t have an aerodynamic update to its body, will have an update for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season. Logano, and Team Penske, obviously hope those updates bring much more consistent speed week-in and week-out next year.

Stenhouse and McDowell Put Field on Notice Despite Early Playoff Exits

Michael McDowell finished sixth at Bristol on Saturday night but failed to advance to the Round of 12 of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. Photo Credit: Jonathan McCoy, Racing America

While they each didn’t advance to the Round of 12, the two underdog NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders proved that they belonged in the running for the championship.

Michael McDowell came home an impressive sixth, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. recorded a solid 10th-place finish in Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol.

Stenhouse, who quietly put together a really solid Round of 16, narrowly missed advancing to the Round of 12 by just seven points. Stenhouse and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team were put behind the eight ball with something that has plagued them for the majority of the season — a bad qualifying run.

Stenhouse started the race from the 25th position, and as a result of the poor starting spot, he was never really in a position to score Stage Points in Stages 1 and 2.

“We executed in the race really well, but just didn’t execute on Saturday good enough to put us starting up front and get some stage points early,” Stenhouse explained. “That’s kind of where we’ve been lacking, I would say most of the year – just with qualifying and being able to set ourselves up for the beginning stages of the race. I’m proud of the effort and another top-10 finish. Our No. 47 Scott Brand Camaro was really fast and really good there at the end when I needed it to be. We went as far forward as we could, but it just wasn’t enough. We’ll keep learning and trying coming back better next year.”

McDowell entered the day in a massive hole in the point standings, which made pointing his way quite improbable. As a result, McDowell and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team put their best foot forward in an effort to win the race outright.

Ultimately, McDowell came up short with the sixth-place finish as the Night Race never really got wild down the stretch in a long green-flag run to close the race out.

“It’s disappointing not to advance, for sure, but we dug ourselves such a big hole those first two races that we were in a must-win situation,” McDowell said. “We weren’t good enough to do that tonight, but I’m still really proud of the speed that we brought and the effort that we brought. We still needed a little bit more to contend for that win, but we gave ourselves a fighting chance. Unfortunately, in the end, there wasn’t enough action. Normally at Bristol, you get a late-race caution and get the front row beating and banging and maybe you get an opportunity, but that just never happened.”

While an opportunity to make something happen on a late-race restart never happened for McDowell, he and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team made massive gains in performance from their previous Playoff appearance in 2021.

“The performance was there. I don’t want to downplay that, but we just didn’t execute well and we had some issues,” McDowell admitted. “We qualified in the second round of all three races, which you need to do if you want to advance, so we got that part down. At Darlington, we got into that crash at the end and that’s 10-15 spots. That’s all you need to make it, so a lot of things could have gone differently that would have put us in a position to advance, but it just didn’t work out. It wasn’t meant to be. We’ll learn from it and get better for the next time.”

While both the No. 34 and No. 47 teams exited the Playoffs in the Round of 16, as many predicted they would, they were a hell of a lot closer to advancing than many expected. Now, both organizations have a lot of things to build off of as they head into the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Toby Christie
Toby Christie
Toby is the Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Toby is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, he is an award-winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.

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