Kyle Busch had literally just left the Kansas Speedway media center moments before, telling those in attendance that the key to his playoff run was simply limiting making mistakes that set his team back, when misfortune struck.
“Just like every other weekend, always put in a hole, always put behind, always have to come and dig ourselves out,” Busch said. “Hate it for all the guys; the car was really good. We had good longevity there. We were just running laps and running some pretty good laps compared to the rest of our group that we were with at that time. Was just going to fine-tune some things in order to get ready for qualifying, and here we are starting last again.
“Just never ends. I don’t know what to do to change it. Hate it, again, for our Casey’s General Stores guys; got a lot of work ahead of us tonight, but we’ll do it.”
It’s the second week in a row that Busch has made contact with the wall in practice, forcing his team to have to rally from behind to begin a push towards the championship race in November. Busch finished 11th last weekend in the Southern 500 but did not score any playoff points. He enters this weekend seventh in the standings, and 20 points above the elimination cut line.
That is dangerous living in the first round but would be absolutely terminal in the second and third rounds.
Byron keeps starting spot
William Byron was poised to start at the rear of the field despite a ninth-fastest qualifying effort due to unapproved adjustments but an appeal to NASCAR overruled that initial decision.
Byron broke an upper control arm during practice and that needed to be replaced before time trials. NASCAR initially penalized the team but Hendrick Motorsports produced evidence that it was a parts failure due to quality control from the supplier rather than the actions of the driver or team.
Byron will start ninth after all.
“What I felt was I was coming off of (Turn) 4, coming down the front straightaway, and the wheel just kind of jerked to the left and felt like I unloaded the wheel, so I knew it was something steering-related,” Byron said. “Unfortunately, at first, we couldn’t really find it, and then when we started messing with the wheel here sitting on pit road, it’s a broken right-front suspension piece. So, pretty substantial suspension component.
“We’ve never had that happen; probably just running really fast around here. Hopefully, we get it fixed. Our Raptor Chevrolet had a lot of pace, so I felt really good about our car and was just going to try to run 20 to 25 laps and luckily, it didn’t happen on (corner) entry. It could have been a lot worse. It happened there at the end of the trioval, so we’ll be able to fix the car.”
Bell starts on pole again
For the second week in a row, Christopher Bell will lead the field to green in a Cup Series playoff race but hopes to enjoy more luck this go around.
Last weekend, Bell got into the wall early in the race and bent a toe link, which led to a 23rd-place finish. It leaves him just one point above the cut line. So maintaining that track position and scoring stage points will be crucial for his championship hopes.
How does he do that?
“By controlling what you can control,” Bell said. “There’s – I don’t know how many people – but a handful of people on the team that just have to control what they can control. I’m a big part of that equation.
“Last week, I made a mistake early in the race that ruined our finish and that was me not doing my job. I’m glad I get another opportunity this week to control what I can control and get the best finish I can out of it.”
There are two races remaining in the Round of 16 at Kansas and Bristol. The bottom four winless drivers in the standings will be eliminated from contention, while the remaining 12 will have their points again reset before the next three race round.
By virtue of winning the Southern 500, Kyle Larson has automatically advanced to the Round of 12 no matter what happens over the next two races.
Kyle Larson Win, advanced
William Byron +45
Tyler Reddick +30
Chris Buescher +27
Denny Hamlin +27
Martin Truex +25
Kyle Busch +20
Brad Keselowski +18
Ryan Blaney +16
Ross Chastain +13
Joey Logano +3
Christopher Bell +1
Bubba Wallace -1
Kevin Harvick -2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -4
Michael McDowell -19
Tyler Reddick will start Sunday’s race from fifth but was the fastest overall in practice and also had the fastest long run speeds over the session.
Reddick’s 10 lap consecutive average was tops over Larson, Ty Gibbs, Martin Truex and Bubba Wallace, the latter of which is the defending winner of this race.
Of note, Wallace’s No. 23 failed pre-race inspection twice and lost both his opportunity to select a pit stall and will have to race without car chief Zachary Marquardt. Having to select a pit stall last means he will have a harder time getting on and off pit road as those who pick first get to choose unoccupied stalls ahead or behind them.
Gibbs will also have to start the race from the rear in a back-up car following this crash resulting from a flat tire during the practice session. He did not make a qualifying attempt.
Michael McDowell responded to the disappointment of the Southern 500 with a seventh-place qualifying run on Saturday. He was 14th on the long-run charts and 17th on the single-lap practice charts.
He qualified well at Darlington too but never showed the pace he needed. He was then caught up in a crash that leaves him 19 points below the cutoff.
“We’re fighting hard,” McDowell said. “We got ourselves in a hole at Darlington, so we know our backs are up against the wall. We all know – I know – how important track position is. I mean, I risked it all in qualifying.
“I know a lot of people did, but that was everything I had – plus some. Just thankful that I have a great car, have it stick, and we’ll have a good starting spot for tomorrow. Just trying to stay alive in this Playoff.”
If he can keep his car in the top-10 throughout the first half, he has the potential to score stage points to carve out some of that deficit.
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.