After taking two tires on the race’s last pit stop, Chris Buescher ran away over the final 57 green flag laps and won Saturday’s NASCAR Cup night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The win by the RFK Racing driver snapped a personal winless streak of 222 races, dating back to his first career Cup win in 2016 at Pocono Raceway. It also snapped RFK Racing’s winless streak, stretching back to the July 2017 race at Daytona International Speedway won by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The victory is also the first for the team on a non-superspeedway oval since Carl Edwards won the spring Bristol race in 2014.
“Just so special here, Bristol. I love this racetrack,” Buescher said. “I love the fans. I love every time we come here. It’s so special to me.
“Lost one that really broke our heart back in 2015 on the Xfinity side with (Scott) Graves on top of the box, so this makes up for that. That’s pretty awesome.”
Buescher, who led a race-high 169 laps, said he was “not one bit” concerned about the decision to only take two tires.
“It was up to me at that point,” Buescher said. “Just hold on and make it work. We had a really fast Fastenal Mustang. Just so proud of everybody. We knew we had a good race car after practice and didn’t quite get the job done in qualifying, but what a race car.
“It’s just special. Get RFK in Victory Lane for the first time, and we had great race cars. Brad had really good speed, too. I don’t know what else to say right now. I’m out of breath. This place will wear you flat out, and I love that about it, but such a special night.”
Buescher’s win came in the first playoff elimination race and delivered a sweep of the first three races by non-playoff drivers. Buescher is the 19th different winner in 2022, a new NASCAR Cup Series record in the Modern Era.
In an attrition-filled race with a multitude of tire failures and engine problems – mostly with Toyotas – the top-finishing playoff driver was Chase Elliott in second.
The result came after he finished 36th and 11th in the first two playoff races.
“I just needed to be able to do a better job getting in some different lanes,” Elliott said. “And then being second there, the top had gotten so dominant there at the end. The bottom was pretty good there early in the night and you could run down there for a long time, and then as the night went on the top got better and better and better, and that momentum was hard to beat.
“Unfortunately for me, we never got to any lap traffic to make him move, but we were starting to there in those last three or four laps.”
The top five was completed by William Byron (P), Christopher Bell (P) and Kyle Larson (P).
Bell, who was the first driver to advance to the second round on points, led 143 laps and won the second stage before a cut tire got in his way in the final segment of the race.
“It’s terribly disappointing,” Bell said. “That’s two weeks in a row we have had speed, and the car underneath me to win the race, and haven’t done it. Extremely proud of this 20 group. They keep bringing Camrys that are incredible to the race track. It makes me really excited about where we are going, especially Texas – which is one of my best race tracks. I proud of everyone on this group. Proud to carry the Yahoo colors. Hopefully, we can carry this momentum.”
Finishing out the top 10 were Ross Chastain (P), AJ Allmendinger, Cole Custer, Denny Hamlin (P) and Kevin Harvick (P).
At the end of 500 laps, the drivers eliminated from playoff contention were Kyle Busch (eliminated after the first round for the first time in his career), Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Harvick.
The first real problem for a playoff driver came on Lap 85 when Austin Cindric cut down a tire and got into the outside wall, forcing him to pit. He returned to the track three laps down.
Seven laps later, Cindric’s teammate Ryan Blaney has his right-front tire go down, sending his No. 12 Ford into the wall. At the same time, right behind him Aric Almirola spun to bring out the caution.
On pit road, moments after leaving his pit stall the left-rear tire came off of Blaney’s car. After all that, Blaney was 12 points above the playoff cutoff spot. During the pit stops, Amirola’s team went under the hood of his No. 10 Ford to work on the toe of the car.
Joey Logano had to pit a second time in order to properly secure a wheel.
When the race restarted on Lap 100, Keselowski led over Reddick, Larson and Bell. Kyle Busch quickly moved up to third within a lap and Bell took second.
In the laps after the restart, Blaney limped his car around the track with something clearly broken on the car as sparks flew out from underneath it. He would pit with 14 laps left in the stage. After a wedge change Blaney returned to the track, but nothing was fixed. Blaney pit with six laps to go for more work.
Meanwhile, Keselowski managed to hold off Bell to win the first stage, his first of the season.
The top 10 after 125 laps: Keselowski, Bell, Busch, Briscoe, Larson, Bowman, Buescher, Reddick, Byron and Truex.
Briscoe was first off pit road, getting out ahead of Larson, Logano and Kyle Busch. But Buescher, Harvick and Hamlin were among those that stayed out.
On Lap 140, Harrison Burton was tagged in his left-rear by Austin Cindric, sending him into a spin off a turn to bring out the caution.
Buescher retained the lead over Harvick on the Lap 146 restart.
On Lap 177, Kansas winner Bubba Wallace had to pit with a likely power steering problem after he had been running in the top five. A handful of laps later, Wallace’s teammate Ty Gibbs had to pit and eventually went behind the wall for his own steering issue.
On Lap 191, Harvick began challenging Buescher for the lead as they navigated lapped traffic. Before Harvick could do anything, the caution came out on Lap 196 for an Erik Jones’ spin.
The race was still under caution when another Toyota, the No. 19 of Martin Truex Jr., also went behind the wall with a power steering problem.
“Yeah, it blew the seal out and pushed all the fluid out on the right-front tire,” Truex said. “Just unbelievable. What did (Kevin) Harvick say? Crappy parts.”
On Lap 233, with Harvick threatening Buescher for the lead, Hamlin lost a his right-front tire and slowed down enough that he didn’t hit the outside wall significantly. That brought out the caution.
Bell had the lead on the restart with nine laps to go in the stage. He’d stay there and secure the stage win over Chastain.
The top 10 after 250 laps: Bell, Chastain, Briscoe, Elliott, Busch, Bowman, Byron, Austin Dillon, Larson and Harvick.
Bell and many other leaders stayed out during the caution and Chastain, Briscoe and Busch were first off pit road.
When the race resumed, Bell led over the Hendrick trio of Byron, Larson and Elliott.
The eighth caution of the name came courtesy of the engine expiring in Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota. It was the second DNF due to an engine failure for Busch in the playoffs. It happened in the opener at Darlington Raceway. Busch’s results in the first round: 30th, 26th and 34th.
“It just goes with our year. I don’t even know what to say. I’m flabbergasted,” Busch said. “I just feel so bad for my guys. They don’t deserve to be in this spot. They work too hard. We are too good of a group to be this low – down on the bottom, fighting for our lives just to make it through. Two engine failures in three weeks, that will do it to you. I really feel bad for all of Rowdy Nation, everybody at M&M’s, Interstate Batteries, Rowdy Energy, all of the partners that get us going every week. This is not our normal.”
The engine expires on the No. 18! pic.twitter.com/ExrqHZsWR8— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 18, 2022
The race’s ninth caution came within a lap of the restart, this time for the first multi-car wreck.
Suarez, a playoff driver, broke loose on a straightaway and chaos ensued. Collected in the carnage were fellow playoff drivers Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Alex Bowman, plus Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Bowman, who was already locked into the round of 12, was eliminated from the race, along with Dillon.
Reddick’s team made repairs and returned him to the race.
With about 150 laps to go, Jones brought out another caution for a cut tire. Larson beat Bell, Keselowski and Harvick off pit road. Chastain missed his pit box and had to pit a second time.
The race resumed with 140 to go as Keselowski got by Bell for second.
The RFK driver and co-owner tracked down Larson and, with the help of lapped traffic, squeezed by Larson with a slide job to take the lead with 113 laps to go.
Elven laps later, Logano had to pit with a failed right-front tire. After changing tires, Logano had to back up into his stall to make sure one the right-side wheels were secure.
Misfortune struck Keselowski with 87 to go when his right-front tire went down, forcing him to pit road from the lead and giving up the spot to Bell. With 80 laps to go, Bell led over Larson and Harvick.
Then with 65 laps to go Bell became the latest driver to have a tire go down, as his right-rear tire gave out causing the caution and giving the lead Larson.
Under the caution, disaster struck Harvick who was in a must-win situation when Harvick had to back into his stall when his left-front tire came off. That dropped him to 10th.
Simultaneously, Hamlin also had to back into his stall to properly secure a wheel.
Buescher re-took the lead with a two-tire stop. He led over Byron, Elliott and Allmendinger on the restart with 57 laps to go.
With 38 laps to go, while racing four fourth Bell got into Larson as he passed him in a turn. That caused Larson to get into wall, but there was no further contact.