CONCORD, N.C. – AJ Allmendinger isn’t racing for a NASCAR championship and knew full well that Kyle Busch’s entire season hinged on the outcome of Sunday’s playoff race.
Busch was only able to avoid elimination by winning at The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Allmendinger thought he knew Busch well enough that Busch would understand if Allmendinger was racing for the win.
Allmendinger spoiled the NASCAR playoffs by refusing to give up his track position even though he wasn’t in the championship field. Returning to the Cup Series full-time for the first time since 2018, Allmendinger led 46 laps for Kaulig Racing to win for the first time in NASCAR’s top series since Indianapolis in 2021.
“I knew Kyle had to win. I kept looking at the table to see where he was in terms of points,” Allmendinger said. “Kyle has been fantastic for me throughout my career. I knew he was going to run hard. I knew why he was running.
Allmendinger, who became a father in the last month, was sobbing when he collected the checkered flag.
“Because you don’t know when you’ll start again,” cries Allmendinger, who turns 42 in December. He said he normally gives the checkered flag to a fan, but saves Sunday’s flag for his newborn son.
“It was probably the driving force of my life,” he later said.
Allmendinger then went into the stands to pose for selfies with fans chanting his name. It was the third Cup Series victory for Allmendinger, who raced for 16 Cup seasons but took a mental health break from NASCAR’s top series in 2019 and 2020.
Kaulig slowly lured it back with five Cup races in 2021, building up to this year’s full season in Kaulig’s second year fielding cars at the elite level.
“I hate to cry right now, but it’s a f***ing Cup race, man. You don’t know when it’ll ever happen again,” Allmendinger said. “That’s why you do it. That’s the only reason you’re doing it. You get down. All the blood, sweat, tears. This is our second year in the Cup Series.
Allmendinger has won four straight Xfinity Series races on the hybrid road/oval course, but was not entered Saturday for Kaulig because he has already exhausted his allotted five starts in the second-tier series. Allmendinger has won twice this year in the Xfinity Series, and it is unclear whether he will compete in the Cup Series or return to Xfinity next year.
Regardless, his victory was crucial in the playoff elimination of Busch, the two-time series champion who needed to win Sunday to advance to the round of 16. Busch had a few tries but couldn’t place second – William Byron finished second – and Busch settled for third.
Busch was unusually optimistic after the elimination and said he would try to win each of the final four races.
“I would love to be the spoiler. That would be fun,” Busch said. “We have work to do, but we will continue to build. »
Also eliminated under the look of 23XI Racing co-owner Michael Jordan from the Wallace stand.
“We weren’t supposed to be here, according to a lot of people, but we proved them wrong, and then we proved to a lot of people in the garage that you can’t really rely on all 23 in a race on the road,” said Wallace, who finished 16th. “I have to keep working. I don’t think we’re a winning car yet, but we’re light years away from where we were a few races ago.
It was a brutal day for Chevrolet, which lost both Trackhouse Racing’s popular Chastain and a resurgent Busch, who won three times in his first season driving for Richard Childress Racing. He gave a boost to the organization, which won its last championship in 1994 with the late Dale Earnhardt.
“The first year at RCR means a lot to me that Richard invited me and the Chevrolet guys invited me, everyone, to get here,” Busch said. “I need to get through to the next round, so I just have to do a better job.”
Keselowski took out a Ford team, while Toyota lost a championship chance with Wallace.
GO STEP BY STEP
The eight drivers remaining in the championship race are led by Byron and Ryan Blaney, who both won the three-race round of 12 to earn automatic berths for the next three races.
Denny Hamlin moved forward in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, as did Tyler Reddick, who drives for Hamlin and Jordan at 23XI Racing. Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion, moved forward with Hamlin for Gibbs to pass three cars.
Kyle Larson drove a backup car to a 13th-place finish to join Byron, who has a series-best six wins this season, representing Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet in the next round. Larson crashed during Saturday practice and Hendrick Motorsports, which is located about a mile from the speedway, had to work through the night to get a car inspected on Sunday morning.
Ford has Team Penske’s Blaney and RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who didn’t allow Keselowski to qualify but still has a driver in contention for the championship.
Hamlin had already locked himself into the round of 16 earlier in the race thanks to stage points, so his last-place finish Sunday was irrelevant.
“We’ve already focused on Vegas and we’ll see what we can do there,” Hamlin said. “Really optimistic for the next three weeks.”
The round of 16 of the NASCAR playoffs opens Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Joey Logano is the defending winner and Byron earned his first win of the season in Las Vegas in March.