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Thus ends the most consequential NASCAR Playoff first round yet

NASCAR: Bass Pro Shops Night Race

By the end of the Bristol Night Race, there were indeed two previous champions eliminated from the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs but it wasn’t the combination most had expected before the start of the weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. survived but it wasn’t easy.

Instead, it was Joey Logano and the soon-to-be-retiring Kevin Harvick eliminated after 500 laps at Thunder Valley. For Harvick, the elimination was just the continuation of a woeful season where the Stewart Haas Racing No. 4 just could not recapture the race winning speed they enjoyed over the past decade.

What happened to Logano was more dramatic, an equally inconsistent season leaving him little buffer to protect him from the kind of scenario that ultimately played out in which he had nowhere to go but into a spinning Corey Lajoie, an incident that destroyed his left rear.

He was in disbelief.

Meanwhile, up front, Denny Hamlin emerged victorious over Kyle Larson in a battle for a crown jewel that also served as a potential championship preview with both teams rounding into form as the calendar turned to fall.

Thus ended the most consequential Round of 16 in format history.

Championship preview?

NASCAR: Cup Series Championship

In some ways, the Bristol Night Race displayed the best of the expected championship favorites. Denny Hamlin outdueled Kyle Larson during a stretch in which both the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 and Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 are clearly rising to the occasion.

Even Martin Truex Jr., given everything that happened over the past three weeks, found someway to persevere and will only be stronger because of it.

This isn’t a championship preview in the sense that anyone can draw predictive elements from Bristol to apply to Phoenix Raceway in November but these were all statements about what it means to be championship caliber in the first place.

“I’m not looking to beat him over the next seven weeks,” Hamlin said. “I’m just looking to try to get there, try to get to Phoenix (and) once we get there, I’ll focus on what it will take to be the best that day. It’s not him. It’s us, right?

“We know week in, week out, if we’re at our best, we can’t be beat. I just don’t think so. But you just never know. You just never know.”

To Hamlin, these 10 races are about sticking to a process because he genuinely believes this is his best chance to win a championship.

“I told you guys before the playoffs started that this year just feels different with the capabilities of our team and the speed we’re showing,” Hamlin said.

“We’ve raced head-to-head the last three weeks, right? It’s been 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. Anything can happen. Certainly (Kyle) is not looking at me over the next six weeks. There’s no way I can look at him. We just have to figure out how we’re going to get there with a shot.”

His crew chief, Chris Gabehart says he expects Truex to be better because of the misfortune.

“What I was thinking was they’re going to be tough to beat,” Gabehart said. “I know what they have. I know what their resources are. I work very closely with them. If you get down once, shame on the situation. Get down twice, shame on them. They’re not going to get down twice. They’re going to be tough to beat.

“I’m ready for the challenge. I guarantee you they will bounce back stronger in round two.”

Logano eliminated

The industry spent so much time entertaining the possibility of the top-seeded regular season champion missing the second round that it never considered that the defending champion could fail in a similar first-time fashion as well.

We all should have known better because Logano never did enough to give himself a cushion.

It’s been that kind of season for the Team Penske No. 22, just a single victory at Atlanta in March, leaving him just one point above the cut line at the start of the playoffs. Sure, he built that lead up to 12 over the first two races of the first round but it wasn’t enough once disaster struck.

Even when doing his post-crash media availability, Logano still refused to accept it and even admitted disbelief.

“We’re not out yet.”
He virtually was.

“I’m not saying it’s over yet but …”
It was.

Ultimately, it was never about this one race and instead a season of subpar performances in which the entire Penske organization never found what it needed to win races en masse.  

“I haven’t really felt like we’ve made any big gains that we need to and unfortunately it seems like it’s at every track,” Logano said. “Typically, you may say, ‘Oh, we’re off on a mile-and-a-half, but our short tracks are OK or your road courses are OK.’ but we’re off everywhere right now.”

This is the first time a reigning champion has been eliminated in the first round.

“Obviously, it’s a real bummer,” Logano said. “You get out of the race like that and you’re behind the wall and you’re in denial for a minute.  You don’t want to believe that it happened and you want to think that it’s fixable, but the car was tore up too bad.”

Harvick eliminated

NASCAR: Cup Series Playoff Media Day

If Logano was in disbelief, Harvick was unbothered.

The 2014 champion has said repeatedly in recent years that he doesn’t get emotionally suckered into moments like he did into his formative years, instead taking a whatever happens, happens approach. What happened on Sunday was a race in which the No. 4 was absolutely awful, finishing 29th and five laps down.  

“We’ve been like that all year,” Harvick said. “Tonight, we missed it by a mile. We’ve had good days and bad days at Bristol but that’s the worst we’ve ever had with fenders on it. It is what it is and it’s probably what we deserved.”

Like Logano, Harvick drives for a Ford powered team that just wasn’t at their best this season. Harvick was the only driver from Stewart-Haas Racing to even make the playoffs.

Harvick never really entertained the notion that they were true playoff threats. From that standpoint, he never got too high when making the Round of 16 and wasn’t feeling particularly low upon his elimination either.

Now, away from the pressure cooker of the playoffs, Harvick can enjoy to some degree the final seven races of the season. “We’re about to find out, I guess.”

Truex survives

NASCAR: Bass Pro Shops Night Race

Martin Truex Jr. went from the figurative penthouse, to the outhouse and right back to the penthouse.

Purely by virtue of his regular season success, top-seeded Martin Truex Jr. was able to hold on and advance to the second round after a first round filled with every possible hurdle imaginable. At Darlington, they lost a lap with a loose right rear tire and never recovered only to suffer a flat right rear three laps into the race at Kansas that sent them into the wall and out of contention.

The 2017 champion needed to make up seven points on Saturday and Bristol and arguably survived purely on virtue of what happened to Logano. The Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 spent most of the race merely trying to hang onto the lead lap and was never a factor past the first stage where he scored two points.

He bounced off the wall on Lap 360, which brought out a caution, and trapped them a lap down. He ultimately finished 19th but advanced with Logano suffering his misfortune.

“I wish we could have been better but we didn’t beat ourselves,” Truex said. “We did all the little things that we could. We didn’t have any loose wheels or any flat tires and we just did what we had to.”

And remarkably, because he survived, Truex gets reset right back to the top of the playoff leaderboard for the start of the second round. They are battle tested and potentially stronger than ever for their trials and tribulation.

“It’s great,” Truex said. “I hate that we didn’t score any more bonus points but we’re back in a good spot to start off and just have to get after it.”

Wallace battles back

NASCAR: Bass Pro Shops Night Race

The most valiant effort absolutely went to Bubba Wallace who made up a 19 point deficit at the start of the race to inside the second round by the end. He scored eight stage points in the first segment and finished 14th by the end to make the final transfer by point points over both Harvick and Logano.

It took some luck but Wallace did everything he needed to.

“I’m mentally exhausted,” Wallace said. “I’m wore out. Gave it our all there. Battled hard and executed. That’s what you’ve got to do.”

McDowell’s effort

Michael McDowell entered the playoffs as one of the true two underdogs of the tournament alongside Ricky Stenhouse Jr. but made his presence felt at Bristol.

Needing nothing short of a victory, McDowell ran inside the top-5 for the near entirety of the race and finished sixth. He had a shot at the end against some of the titan organizations of the sport and contributed his elimination more to circumstances than performance.

He was involved in a crash at Darlington, for example, that largely proved the difference.

“You could always use more speed, right, but for us it was more execution,” McDowell said. “We got into that wreck at Darlington and lost a lot of points, finishing 34th. Got damaged at Kansas and that hurt us.

“Those are the things that kill your playoff. I knew we had to win tonight and didn’t think we had the speed to do that. I’m still proud of the effort to come out here and run as strong as we did.

“We put ourselves in position, to where if we got a caution, maybe we get to do some battling and beating and make something happen and I’m proud of our team for being in that spot to begin with. We still have seven more races to make some noise and still try to finish fifth in the standings.”

Updated playoff grid

William Byron +25
Martin Truex Jr +25
Denny Hamlin +21
Kyle Larson +12
Chris Buescher +10
Kyle Busch +8
Christopher Bell +5
Tyler Reddick +3

Ross Chastain -3
Brad Keselowski -3
Ryan Blaney -6
Bubba Wallace -14

Is everyone ready to do this again?

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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