BRISTOL, Tenn. — It’s becoming a theme across all three NASCAR national touring playoffs early this autumn that everything that could go wrong for the expected championship contenders will go wrong.
That was certainly the case on Friday night at Bristol Motor Speedway which absolutely mimicked the playoff openers for the Truck Series at Milwaukee and Cup Series at Darlington with just how many things happened to guys who expect to race for a championship this fall … and between teammates no less!
This doesn’t even include the drama and excitement of Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his first start of the season. The Food City 300 was quintessential short-track stock car racing in NASCAR’s playoff era.
The JR Motorsports drama
The first playoff dominoes dropped on lap 167 when Josh Berry and Sam Mayer came together from inside the top-five, cutting the right front of the Berry car and sending him into Mayer, but also collecting JR Motorsports teammate Brandon Jones.
The crash eliminated three JR Motorsports cars in one fell swoop, including two running for the championship, and Mayer was immediately furious.
“He better hope that it was a tire he cut down,” Mayer said on TV.
Just seconds later, their paths crossed outside of infield care, where Berry explained that’s exactly what it was. Mayer simply shrugged and held court with the press.
“You all saw me talk to Josh so I’m not going to say anything stupid now,” Mayer said. “Obviously, an unfortunate and disappointing way to end a solid day.”
But even still, in that moment, he harbored a degree of frustration towards Berry.
“He said he cut a tire and that’s part of it but racing that hard at the end of stage 2 for no reason, that’s not a veteran move in my opinion.
“There’s no ill-intent there,” Berry said. It’s just racing. I was running the bottom and he was running the top. I hadn’t seen if there was prior contact that set the car down and turned it right.”
“I obviously didn’t turn right and just wipe him out,” Berry added.
The RCR drama
Then came lap 217 when Austin Hill, the regular season champion spun off the nose of Richard Childress Racing teammate Sheldon Creed, sending him hard into the wall and out of the race.
The usually mild-mannered Hill was absolutely furious about the contact saying “who needs enemies with teammates like this” and that Creed “always finds a way to (screw) me” when it matters the most. Sure, most of it was the heat of the moment and reflective of both cars not having speed all night, but it’s still a reflection of how much the moment mattered.
Hill, who was unable to continue, also declined his mandatory post-race media obligations — a reflection of just how mad he was. Creed, who rallied to 11th, accepted most of the blame after the race and insisted it was just a byproduct of close racing at Bristol.
“It’s not like I hit my teammate on purpose,” Creed said, echoing Berry not an hour earlier.
“It obviously wasn’t my intention to come up off the corner and hit him in the left rear either,” Creed said. “I didn’t think we were going to get together, but I haven’t seen a replay yet, but I came up off the bottom but he also probably had a couple of feet from the wall.”
That’s also objectively true.
“I don’t know, its on me because I’m the one trying to make a pass and I’m the one on the bottom who came up off the race track,” Creed said. “We’ll have to talk about it. He’s going to be pissed. He doesn’t take things like this easy.”
He can say that because, despite the tension, they are really close.
“We’re really close actually,” Creed said. “He’s going to be mad, and he should be. It sucks to spin him like that.”
Allgaier wins, advances
Lost in all the drama was that Justin Allgaier was put on the offensive by crew chief Jim Pohlman when they were the only team to pit for new tires with 45 to go. That decision was the result of Allgaier staying out on Laps 150 and 221, Pohlman saving that last set for when his driver could be the only one to use them.
Restarting 15th, Allgaier carved through the field, enjoyed a prolonged respectful battle with Daniel Hemric, but drove away inside 10 to go.
“It’s an eerie feeling when you’re the leader and you stay out,” Allgaier said. “I mean, I said it over the radio, are you sure about this and he said the car was good enough and he wanted me on the offensive. And really I realized it when we were lapping cars, once I realized there would be only 14 or 15 cars on the lead lap, it came together.
“Once we got to fifth, I knew we were going to do it. Daniel raced me hard but respectfully but I let out a deep sigh of relief when I cleared him, because in clean air and on new tires, I knew they weren’t going to pass me.”
And just like that, Allgaier is in the Round of 8 and will have a tremendous shot at the final four at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.
His best shot of those three?
“All of them,” he said. “We can go anywhere right now and have a chance to win. I feel that strongly about what we’re doing right now.”
Updated playoff grid
Justin Allgaier Win, advanced
John Hunter Nemechek +65
Cole Custer +39
Austin Hill +21
Chandler Smith +18
Daniel Hemric +12
Sammy Smith +5
Sheldon Creed +4
Jeb Burton -4
Sam Mayer -14
Parker Kligerman -22
Josh Berry -24
The Xfinity Series will close out the first round with races at Texas and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, and Josh Berry will probably have to win one of those two races in a season in which he has yet to win.
“We have a long road ahead of us,” Berry said succinctly.
So does Parker Kligerman, who broke a wheel hub early in Sunday’s race and also hasn’t won yet despite a second half that had seen the Big Machine Racing No. 48 routinely run inside the top-five over the past dozen races or so.
Mayer has won twice, with both victories coming on road courses, so maybe the ROVAL is an opportunity there. At 14 points back, he has more of a cushion than the winless Kligerman and Berry.
Once again, this is a theme that has also repeated itself across all three national tours as Hill is still 21 points up, and Mayer is only falling to 14 points back. That is a testament to their respective regular season success and the padding the bonus points earned over the regular season provided them.
Hemric really helped himself tremendously with his runner-up, going five points below the cutline to 12 above. That’s how quickly things could change. Creed was lapped early in the race, and despite the incident with Hill, went on to finish 11th and move to four points above the cutline.
But the most herculean effort came from Jeb Burton, who crashed in practice and drove a backup car all the way to a 13th-place finish to move to just four points below the cutline. And what makes it even more remarkable is that the backup car was actually the primary from last week at Darlington and that these cars all come from the underfunded Jordan Anderson Racing stable.
Burton is the only driver in this playoff that doesn’t receive manufacturer support.
“It had the wrong steering box on it,” Burton said. “It was a 10:1 and we run a 8:1 here. The geometry was different. The whole car was different. Surprisingly, it wasn’t terrible, it was just too tight in the middle. … We have 25 employees and you know what we’re racing against, so we’re just hustling hard. All we can ask for is a shot. If we keep doing what we’re doing, if I do all I can, if it’s enough, it’s enough.”
Burton was lapped early and actually stayed out to take a waive around under the first caution, catching a lucky caution just when he was lapped again to catch the free pass. That might have saved their season.
“I was hustling hard when I stayed out, and when (Allgaier) caught me, I was prepared to tell the guys to be proud of the effort we put in,” Burton said. “We almost got it, (Joe Graf) crashed and we just barely missed that. We needed a little bit of luck tonight, got it, and now it’s time to see if we can do something with it.”
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.