Kyle Busch, leading a race he had to win, not once believed he was driving toward victory lane.
NASCAR will crown a new champion this year as the worst season of Busch’s career extended Sunday when he was knocked from the playoffs. It’s the earliest the reigning Cup champion has been eliminated since the format debuted in 2014.
Chase Elliott won on the hybrid road course-oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Busch and three others were trimmed from title contention. It was Elliott’s fourth straight road course victory dating to last season.
Busch needed his first win of the season to move into the round of eight and that was a tall ask in this bumpy year for Busch. He seemed good as done when a flat tire at the end of the second stage should have ended his chances.
He sounded resigned when over his mic he said, “Good job this year, guys,” to his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing crew. But Busch worked his way back into the top three and took the lead when he gambled and didn’t pit under caution.
His fate was in his hands for the final 20 laps but Busch knew he didn’t have a chance.
“We were trying something, anything,” Busch said. “I didn’t have anything for nobody.”
Busch led just one lap after the restart before both teammate Erik Jones and Elliott passed him and then his Toyota began to fade. Busch finished 30th. There are only four races remaining for him to extend his streak to 16 consecutive seasons with at least one victory, and Busch failed to advance to the final four championship finale for the first time since 2015.
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He acknowledged the mental toll of this disappointing year and didn’t rule out personnel changes for his team.
“There have certainly been times I’ve thought there was something wrong with me,” Busch said. “I don’t know what to think, but certainly it would be nice to get a win. That would be a consolation for this year.”
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Austin Dillon in a Chevrolet for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola in Fords also were eliminated. Bowyer, who this week said he’s retiring at the end of the season and will move to the television booth, was taken to the care center for treatment of an undisclosed ailment after the race.
Elliott, meanwhile, won for the second consecutive year at “The Roval” and third time this season. It’s his second win this season at Charlotte — he won on the oval in May when NASCAR resumed racing during the pandemic.
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Elliott will try to take that momentum into the round of eight, which he advanced to for the fourth-straight year. Elliott has never made it to the championship finale.
“Best way to get into the next round is to win,” Elliott said. “Looking forward to the opportunity and looking to make some noise.”
Elliott advanced along with Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch, who won the first two races of the second round, along with Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Alex Bowman.
Bowman battled anxiety through the race as he worried Kyle Busch would win bump him from the playoffs. When Busch didn’t pit, Bowman nervously asked his Hendrick Motorsports team if he was about to be eliminated.
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It didn’t matter as Elliott took control of the race to win in his Hendrick Chevrolet and proved to be the best active road course racer in NASCAR with a 42% winning percentage.
“I feel like road courses have been fortunate to us the last few trips, but I feel like we just try to get a little better every time and tweak on the small things,” Elliott said.
Logano finished second in a Ford and was followed by Erik Jones, who is not in the playoffs, in a Toyota. Kurt Busch was fourth.